Calgary flame wars

In an otherwise lucid column, the normally lucid Globe architecture writer Lisa Rochon shows the danger that attends anyone who reflexively underestimates her subjects. In this case, Rochon has decided that if Calgarians don’t like a planned new footbridge by the extraordinary Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it’s because Calgarians are heathen. Or, as she puts it, “petty, chauvinistic… whinging… childish.”

First of all, here’s the bridge. Remember, if you don’t like it, Lisa Rochon will call you bad names:

Looks like a Chinese finger puzzle, doesn’t it? Figured you’d think so. Whinging chauvinist.

But as Rochon surely knows, the reason for the controversy in Calgary is that City Hall has gone about the entire project in a manner that might best be described as… childish. No element of the project — not the need for a footbridge (the sixth), the choice of the architect (without competition), the budget (north of $25 million) nor the design — has been the object of public consultation. It was all decided in private by fiat. And it’s bush league. By now, Calatrava has built dozens of bridges around the world. So by now, a city administration that goes shopping for a Calatrava bridge is doing the opposite of breaking new ground. It is engaging in me-too-ism.

My hunch, in fact, is that the councillors who’ve pushed for Calatrava to do his thing in Calgary must be quietly devastated that he’s built a bridge so different from the soaring white suspension contraptions that made his name. I kind of like this bridge, not because it looks different from his others but because it’s clearly designed with some regard to surroundings (it’s covered because, well, have you been to Calgary in winter?). Calatrava would probably have had a good shot at winning a public competition. But we’ll never know, because Calgary’s solons couldn’t be arsed. Calgarians aren’t upset because they are incapable of adult esthetic decisions but because they haven’t been asked to make one, and if Rochon doesn’t want to be subjected to tiresome stereotypes about Torontonians as snobs with their heads up their butts she should not work so hard to invite them. All the more so because the rest of her column does such a good job of describing the genuine excitement in Calgary over the Cantos Music Foundation design competition, which is open and public and which Calgarians, by all the evidence, adore.

On that score, incidentally, I’m struck by something Brad Cloepfil of Portland’s Allied Works Architecture mentioned in his submission about the proposed atrium, which visitors would be able to “play” like a musical instrument. That’s drawn a lot of commentary to the effect that, well, that won’t work. But Cloepfil mentions that he’ll be “working with Second Story” on the concept. A quick search of the interwebs reveals that Second Story is a Portland new-media firm whose impressive portfolio, for clients including the Grammy museum, the Library of Congress and the U.S. National Archives, suggests they’re good at developling interactive displays to get complex and subtle ideas across. So there may be method to Cloepfil’s vagueness.

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