The Office

There is a small new jewel on the landscape of Calgary architecture, one that is eliciting enthusiastic reviews from visitors to the city’s Stampede this year. On a recent tour of the building with M-Tech Identity Management Headquarters designers Walker McKinley and Ben Klumper, we encountered parking lot attendant Michael Krassman, who could not contain himself upon discovering that he was actually speaking with the building’s designers. Mr. Krassman claims that after parking their cars behind M-Tech, visitors from Vancouver to Toronto are incredulously asking him, “Who built this?”

Who, indeed. The Who in this case is the firm of Dale M. Taylor Architect Ltd., with McKinley Dang Burkart Design Group (MDB) of Calgary, a relatively young firm that has made its reputation locally largely through exquisitely designed and detailed restaurant and lounge interiors. Now amalgamated as Eleven Eleven Architecture, their designs are award-winning and internationally published. The firm has been featured in Wallpaper, Interior Design, Architectural Record, Lucky, Travel and Leisure, Nylon, and Elle amongst many other publications. Their work has been the focus of cover stories for Azure and The National Post’s Saturday Night.

The Design

M-Tech sits within the inner city area of the Beltline, and until the planned high-rise condo towers are built across the street, directly faces the Stampede grounds. The neighbourhood borders the city’s historic warehouse district, but is also home to many vacant lots, a sign of the long dormant nature of this part of the city. M-Tech’s arrival was greeted enthusiastically by community representatives, as new commercial development optimistically signals revitalization. Once it was completed earlier this year, the enthusiasm only grew. David Down, past president of the Alberta Association of Architects and Principal of Down Livesey Architects, describes M-Tech’s influence on the community: “The bar for design of commercial office buildings in Calgary has been in dire need of raising for some time. Dale Taylor and MDB have done this with M-Tech. Its slick, expensive wrapper stands in striking contrast to the conventional curtain wall or vaguely historical brick and stucco treatments that are ubiquitous here. Beyond just reflecting current architectural style, however, the completed building exhibits a level of detail and quality of construction for which the team must be heartily congratulated. It remains to be seen whether the building signals the beginning of a larger trend toward more object-building architecture in the commercial sector, but even a single jewel amid the background fabric is welcome for the diversity and interest it brings.”

The M-Tech office building is a contemporary design that evokes the sense of optimism mirrored in its owner and primary tenant, M-Tech Identity Management. In this project the designers set out to redefine the normative notion of the speculative office building by shunning the typical hermetically sealed faade that pervades the downtown cityscape in favour of a dynamic, balanced composition of solid and void in an effort to embrace the site and its surrounding views of downtown and the Stampede grounds.

The exterior consists of a careful composition of precast architectural concrete, pure white composite metal panels, ultra clear low-e argon-filled glazing, and a series of stacked meeting rooms clad in a ceramic fritted glass hovering within the four-storey atrium. The building sits prominently on a raised plinth of precast concrete and natural landscaping which serves as a buffer to 1st Street S.E. These landscape forms also cradle the integrated public bus shelter on the northeast corner of the site. While the concrete plinth shields the traffic at street level, the suspended atrium glass box virtually projects out over MacLeod Trail, mediating the experience through the translucency of the diffuse, fritted structural glass.

The exterior of the building also features integrated passive shading devices and numerous covered and uncovered outdoor terrace spaces on virtually every floor. The main entry off MacLeod Trail opens into the public atrium and reveals the shallow reflecting pond and water feature on its main floor. Above the pond are the suspended meeting rooms and lounge with catwalk bridges criss-crossing the atrium space. The atrium is finished in a combination of limestone porcelain flooring, composite metal and a rich 60-foot high walnut veneer wall that slices through each floor and acts as the threshold into each tenant space.

The interior can be thought of as a series of spaces interconnected both vertically and horizontally, allowing for numerous simultaneous visual and spatial experiences of the building’s layered complexity. Each floor is accessed by the elevator or by either of the glazed stairwells on the north and west sides of the building. The elevator opens onto highly finished public lobbies on every floor that overlook the atrium and offer large informal meeting or sitting areas. Washrooms and a server room are located on each floor in a centralized location. Each tenant space is flooded with natural light from the floor-to-ceiling curtain wall glazing and the large skylights above.

Marc Boutin, the 2002 Prix de Rome winner and Principal of Marc Boutin Architect, says of the building: “What is particularly exceptional in this project is MDB and Dale Taylor’s ability to raise the bar in terms of the public value and contribution of the speculative office tower. In the interior, the design squeezes out a generosity of space and scale in the foyer to be shared by all tenants and visitors alike, while the exterior public and private spaces begin to define the fledgling public realm on a site dominated by high traffic volume while performing the important task of stretching this sequence of spaces to structure the connection to the interior public space. Clearly, this project underlines that this specific building type need not be as benign and private as we have been led to believe.”

Branding the City

M-Tech is a bold and interesting architectural move, particularly within the direct context of the nearby Stampede grounds, which is rapidly expanding into the neighbourhood. One of the first examples of this expansion is the new Round Up Centre, a simulation of turn of the 20th-century Calgary architecture. Factions within the city appear to be in the process of moving in the direction of creating a “brand” for this part of Calgary as an Old West town of the late 18th to early 19th century, under the guise of preserving “heritage.” Another example of this is the new complex of condominium towers planned for the site between M-Tech and the Stampede grounds, a development that places modern towers atop a themed podium that directly utilizes Old West formal references as the street frontage.

As the Stampede Board plans and builds its expansion as an Old West-themed version of the city, and other new developments pay the architectural equivalent of lip service to a themed notion of heritage architecture, the M-Tech building quietly forges its own brand: simply good design. This building serves as an exemplary precedent for “branding” Calgary as a contemporary city, while simultaneously developing a new, rich heritage for the future. When we build, we are creating and placing new pieces along the continuum of our cities’ heritage. Let us not leave a heritage of Disney. Buildings such as M-Tech should be allowed to lead the way to a more meaningful built repository for the future.

Loraine Fowlow is an Associate Professor of Architecture, and Acting Associate Dean (Academic) of the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. Her area of research is the (in)authentic environment.

Client: M-Tech Identity Management

Architect Team: Dale M. Taylor, Walker McKinley, Mark Burkart, Ben Klumper, Kevin S. Wilkins, Kevin Offin, David Fortin

Structural: Grant Structural Engineering Ltd.

Mechanical: Reinbold Engineering Group

Reinbold Engineering Group

Landscape: Carlyle + Associates

Interiors: McKinley Dang Burkart Design Group

Contractor: EllisDon

Building Envelope Consultant: Building Science + Architecture

Area: 4,475 m2

Budget: $6.2 million

Completion: May 2004

Photography: Robert Lemermeyer