How to make a building 101

U of C architecture graduates exhibit ideas for the future of architecture

With major urban development revising our cityscapes and entire neighbourhoods it’s hard not to be preoccupied by city planning and architecture these days. Upon navigating the CMYK: Hues Tones and Tints of Architecture exhibition with artist and graduate student Noel Heard I see that his thesis project and those of his colleagues address the same things that are on my mind practically every time I leave my little historic Beltline apartment.

Heard has offered me a tour through this collection of thesis projects by University of Calgary Architecture Program graduates and it becomes a great opportunity to think and discuss the very fabric of our city and environment. Despite their reserved appearance these discrete displays of scale models idea sketches and detailed renderings hit hot-button concerns and spur new ideas for the future. This group of students has thought very compellingly about our city and spaces like Prince’s Island Park Olympic Plaza student housing lands adjacent to watersheds and roadways even the spaces between existing buildings.

The imaginative possibilities range from David Silburn’s project of perching a few modular little cabanas on the side of a mountain to Natasha Zoldak’s deep look at the daily questions of how mixed-use city blocks can be functional and beautiful all at once.

Erin Broda’s proposal for new student housing mixes gorgeous planning sketches with smart design in an apartment block that any student would agree is a major step up from your average university residence. Indeed the charm of this show is sizing up the architectural renderings in relation to familiar spaces discussing what works and what we can do better. We wonder how long it will take for the most innovative elements of these projects — green development interdisciplinarity and sustainability — to become standard practice?

Iboro Akpan’s Revivify is a response to a whole different geography and set of social circumstances. Her design of a market space in Nigeria that was completely devastated by fire looks at the revitalization of the market and the lively food-based commerce that occupies it. The result is almost space-age. Canopies intended to catch rainwater look like they would be equally at home as a spaceport in Star Wars .

Motion City Suture by Mike Holt looks further afield too in his fusion of old and new in the small town of St. Thomas Ontario. His beautiful model shows an old train station with a new building and an expansive city square designed for ease of transportation gathering and community events. The design seems like a dead ringer for the kinds of playful architectural fusion between old and new in Berlin and other major European centres.

Heard directs me to a projection in the basement in which the methodical development of his film studies reveals a lot about the conceptual process of architecture. His short films reveal a poetic exploration of light in the French Maison De Verre that he calls one of the most architecturally imaginative residences of the 20th century. This is one of many jumping points for his project and an open-use “pavilion” where the play of light and shadow within the structure creates a gorgeous contemplative space. He muses “If we do this is it still architecture or is it something else completely?” His project shows the greatest promise for architecture to be experienced as public sculpture.

Heard’s enthusiasm for big ideas in architecture also stretches into Calgary’s past and his research on The Mawson Plan of 1913. Drawing on the ideals of the City Beautiful movement the formal plan for Calgary’s city centre incorporated forward-thinking ideas for green spaces limiting urban sprawl and dealing with transportation infrastructures. We can see a contemporary parallel in Calgary’s Centre City Plan though Heard worries that just like in 1913 many of the best ideas for architectural spaces won’t be implemented because of cost lack of civic imagination or other planning factors.

So are today’s city planners and developers working to integrate the kinds of ideas put forward in CMYK into the design of Calgary’s built environment? A quick look around downtown wouldn’t necessarily suggest so but the projects by these architects-in-training reveal a growing movement of practitioners who are turning hopeful ideas into practical solutions for the city and beyond.