Viewpoint (June 01, 2003)

Like the short story genre in literature, Plus 15 structures, while not exclusively Canadian, are certainly well-known idiosyncracies of the landscape of our collective imaginations and urban milieux–most notably in Calgary. In short stories, writers often use the device of a rite of passage, a moment that changes a character temporarily or permanently. Sometimes, like when crossing a bridge, there is a crucial sideways glance–in a story, there is a revelation of character or destiny; on a bridge, we look out over the water, or down to the street below. In either case, we are between contexts, moving from one into another; even aware, perhaps, of a third–a final destination.

Last month, I sat on a jury with Rob Third, Sean Stanwick and Alfred Wong for the 2003 Steel Structures Education Foundation’s Architectural Student Design Competition for the design a Plus 15 walkway (the winning entry, by Suzy Harris-Brandts and Jonathan Enns of the University of Waterloo, is pictured above). I ruminated on the design elegance of the one, the feasibility of building the other, and the inspiration or fear elicited from the idea of actually trekking across one of those things. In busy urban environs such as those in downtown Montreal or Toronto, where pedestrians and public transit riders are constantly bombarded with sound, light, images, fellow urbanites, traffic, and indoor and outdoor concourses, the Plus 15 can offer relief, a bird’s eye view, and a more expedient thoroughfare above ground. Although walkways are primarily used to move from building A to building B, the provision of distracting consumer opportunities (caf and retail) along the way.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of the walkway itself, the idea of expedience versus leisure came to mind. I wondered what constituted our leisure, and what our expedience, these days? Was it a question of expedience to be able to purchase your coffee or sit and chat with a co-worker in the caf on the Plus 15 on your way to your office, or was it a way to enjoy the Plus 15’s space as not only a conduit from A to B but as a hub for leisure and socializing? Was it an expression of the expedience of our intensely consumerist culture to use the structure as a way to sell more stuff? And were those participants who put their design energies into architectural expression rather than programmatic possibility engaging users in the leisure of enjoying elegant (or quirky, or in any case architecturally considered) design? Are these considerations, projected onto the humble Plus 15, not a microcosm of the way we design buildings and urban spaces?

The competition brief stated that the Plus 15 should be designed to “offer both link and shelter, but within the context of two other architectural designs.” So it was incumbent on the designers to think about what the walkway they design has to offer in the context of the other environments which the Plus 15 must link–more retail in an already busy retail hub or just a place to walk through? No opportunity for respite when in between two long-concourse government buildings? Or a chance to catch up with Marge from Accounting? Issues of leisure and expediency both arise, depending on the area requiring the walkway, and so the challenge for the student is never the same. Likewise for architects. The context is always changing.