The Bow Also Rises

PROJECT The Bow, Encana and Cenovus Headquarters, Calgary, Alberta
ARCHITECTS Foster + Partners and Zeidler Partnership Architects (architect of record)
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Nigel Young of Foster + Partners

If the devastating spring rains in Calgary had a silver lining, it was the affirmation of Calgary as a resilient, forward-looking city. Nothing bespeaks this more than its new landmark, The Bow, which stood undamaged like a beacon after the flood. At 58 storeys with roughly 2 million square feet of floor space, The Bow towers over the sprawling city like a cathedral in a medieval village. And just as with God Himself, The Bow’s magnificence is tempered only by its aloof detachment from street life. 

The project was designed by Foster + Partners with Zeidler Partnership Architects as the local collaborator. The London firm has described The Bow as the finale in a globe-spanning trilogy of landmark high-rises that includes the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters and 30 St Mary Axe–aka the Gherkin. Like the others in this iconic trio, The Bow is visually distinct. Its curving form and steel exoskeleton form a diagonal grid–or “diagrid.” The convex side of the façade faces the prevailing wind, which buffers the plaza in front and minimizes the amount of steel required for structural loading. Viewed from an airplane approaching Calgary, the massive curve of The Bow gives a visual centre to the gaggle of generic brown buildings that constitute Calgary’s blurrily defined downtown. 

Foster’s architecture can be visually aggressive. The Albion Riverside buildings on London’s South Bank suggest the alien warships in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Across the Thames, the Gherkin resembles an upright torpedo ready to launch. In each case, it is the immediate context–the river that fronts the Albion, the commercial buildings that encircle the Gherkin–that efface military connotations. The Bow is not overtly menacing, but lacks the urban context that sets off Foster’s other monumental edifices so well. At 236 metres, The Bow stands high above and apart from the other neighbourhood buildings, both metaphorically and literally. Early reports had suggested even higher proposed heights: 300 metres and 70 storeys. But rising cost pressures, a slumping economy, and concerns about shadowlines on the nearby sun-sanctioned pathway colluded to bring the height down. The resulting building’s horizontal span is satisfyingly proportionate to its vertical soar. 

And fortunately, the otherwise spartan plaza is anchored and animated by Wonderland, Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s multi-storey-high bent-wire sculpture of a young girl’s head. Procured through a competition organized by Encana, it helps lighten and humanize The Bow. It also makes a case for cities like Vancouver to immediately disband their public art committees and leave the selection process to the private sector. So inviting is Plensa’s masterpiece that the security patrol must diligently swat away the passersby who continually perceive it as a giant set of monkey bars. “People try to climb it every 15 minutes,” says Katherine Robinson, who served as Zeidler Partnership’s project manager. It compels one to think: why don’t they just pad the ground and let the urban climbers do what they will?

Which brings us to The Bow’s less-attractive attribute: the limits of its public space. To be sure, it’s a private building with no inherent requirement to be “open” to the public. Alberta’s wealth derives from oil, and Encana, a major player in North American energy production, is the main tenant of the lavish and expensive edifice. Construction costs were last pegged at $1.5 billion, though the final price tag is undisclosed. 

In theory, the front plaza serves as a park for visitors, building employees and passing pedestrians, much like Mies’s Seagram Building. In reality, the deep setback discourages connection and engagement with the street, because downtown Calgary has a much lower density than Manhattan. Also unlike the Seagram, The Bow’s articulation does not change at grade level: the diagrid glass and triangular mullions are precisely detailed to fall straight to the ground. This approach works beautifully for 30 St Mary Axe, where Foster’s other curvilinear diagrid tower also falls right to street level. But the London tower is surrounded by the proverbial jostling scrum of high-rises. To a Calgary pedestrian at ground level, by contrast, The Bow reads as a vertical glass rockface that is gorgeous but imperious. 

There is no public access to any floors beyond the mezzanine, including the building’s Sky Gardens–three indoor oases on the 24th, 42nd and 54th floors, each six storeys high and planted with trees and other foliage. Visitors can enter the foyer, but there is presently no retail at grade–a small number of retail outlets, including a Starbucks, are planned to open in the foyer within the next year. The publicly accessible mezzanine contains a few shops and cafés along with two enclosed bridges connecting The Bow to the city’s “Plus 15” weather-protected pedestrian walkway system. Nice for Calgary’s icy winters, but on a balmy day, the concentration of activity 15 feet above street level emphasizes the building’s disengagement from the realm at grade.

Early on in the design process, the project’s urban planning advisor Jeremy Sturgess broached the concept of streetfronting in at least part of the building, but that approach did not turn out to be viable or acceptable to the rest of the stakeholders in the design process. “The rationale,” recalls Sturgess, “is that Calgary just does not have a lot of existing examples of street-edge buildings.”

 Still, if not exactly up to Jane Jacobs’ ideals, The Bow revitalizes Calgary’s downtown in a different way. Much as Calgary would benefit from more street-to-building interaction, it needs Foster + Partners’ brilliant architectural form-making and materiality even more. The Bow pulls together the lacklustre streetscape in the vicinity by acting as an architectural force field. As architecture parlante, the curving arc sends a message of invitation, just like that other curvilinear masterpiece, Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall with its popular outdoor plaza. If The Bow’s proprietors could take a leadership role and enrich its outdoor space with that level of urban amenity, it will truly become the heart of Calgary. “The Bow will sing if all the other edges around it can fill in,” says Sturgess. Huge as this edifice may be, the entire project is still just half-built: the master plan includes a second block to the south, currently behind construction hoarding.

Far-fetched though it may seem to foresee Calgary on an architectural par with Toronto, Hong Kong and London, The Bow may be the harbinger. In establishing a new benchmark for design bravado, Encana and Foster have already inspired the local culture to accept and embrace architectural ambition. Vancouver’s Westbank Corp. recently enlisted the Copenhagen-based star firm Bjarke Ingels Group to design Calgary’s new Telus building. It’s a commission that would not have transpired without The Bow setting the precedent, says Sturgess: “The Bow raised the bar, and the bar is still rising.” CA

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.

Client H+R Real Estate Investment Trust
Architect Team Foster + Partners–Norman Foster, David Nelson, Spencer de Grey, Nigel Dancey, James Barnes Julia Vidal Alvarez, Laura Alvey, Tim Bauerfeind, Jakob Beer, Karin
Bergmann, Mattias Bertelmann, Stephen Best, Federico Bixio, Marie Christoffersen, Vasco Correia, Kirsten Davis, Ulrich Hamman, Michelle Johnson, Arjun Kaicker, Sabine Kellerhoff, Chiu-Ming Benny Lee, Mathieu Le Sueur, Shirley Shee Ying Leung, Alissa MacInnes, Carsten Mundle, Florian Oelschlager, Cristina Perez, Susanne Reiher, Diana Schaffrannek, Anja Schuppan, Carolin Senfleben, Robert Smith, Eva Tzivanki. Zeidler Partnership Toronto–Alan Munn, Rob Eley, David Jefferies, Linda Lokk, Mike Smith, Lena Chow, Richard Johnson. Zeidler Partnership Calgary–Michael Cojocar, Stephen Carruthers, Katherine Robinson, Raphael Neurohr, Leonoever Racela, Michael Trottier, Vladimir Andreev, Bill Dickson, Gerry Michaels, Vanessa Shed, Patricia Mohrmann, Alvin Villar, David Bishop, Julia Rigaux.
Structural Yolles
Civil Kellam Berg
Mechanical Cosentini
Contractor Ledcor Construction
Fire Consultant/Code Leber/Rubes
Vertical Transport Consultant KJA
Acoustics Cerami
Costing Altus Helier
Lighting Claude Engle Lighting Design
Landscape Carson McCulloch
Planning Sturgess Architecture
Environmental Transsolar
ransportation Engineer DA Watt
Signage Cygnus
Art Consultant Via Partnership
Artist Jaume Plensa
Cladding Brook Van Dalen
rea 199,781 m2
Budget Withheld
Completion June 2013