When Jaume Plensa, a renowned sculptor probably best known for his Crown Fountain in Chicago, recently unveiled his designs for two installations at the Bow tower, Mayor Nenshi exclaimed: “Dude, we’re getting a Plensa!”
His reaction, and the giddy write-ups in local publications reminded me of a less-than-giddy observation by a world-famous architect. In 2009, prior to his appearance in front of a room of architecture and design nerds, I interviewed Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne. It was around the time when the Peace Bridge debate was at a fever pitch and the Bow was still mostly a skeleton. I mentioned both of these developments as a sign that maybe Calgary’s architecture was improving — dude, we’re getting a Calatrava and a Foster! Mayne was unimpressed. “It’s funny the argument, I would have thought it would be the opposite,” he said. “It’s like, kind of a yawner. By the way, it’s just the 50th city for him [Calatrava] to build a bridge in. Maybe you want to find someone else. If you want to define a city, Calatrava ain’t going to do it, he’s got one in every... you’re way down the line on that one.”
It was a typical Mayne response. He’s not known for pulling any punches and he courts controversy both in his statements and in his architecture. But his words rang true then, and they ring true now.
I should say that I like the Peace Bridge. From the moment I saw the design, I was excited for it to open and I’m not disappointed now. I should also say that I like the Bow. It’s my favourite skyscraper in the city (although I’m excited to see Eight Avenue Place once the second tower is up). I should even add that I like Plensa — his work in myriad other public places and the installations he unveiled on July 9. There’s also good work happening in the East Village and on St. Patrick’s Island. But Mayne has a point. Why are we so busy emulating others, bringing in big names to design “world-class” buildings, bridges and sculptures instead of looking for that rare new talent that could really have an impact?
In last week’s issue, we featured three bureaucrats that are helping to shape a new Calgary. We have a new cycling coordinator working on implementing the new bike plan. We have an aggressive new general manager of the planning department who’s going to be pushing a dense, urban vision. We have a new office in city hall pushing the mayor’s agenda for the city to operate in a new way. In other words, we have a lot of positive change that is happening here and we have a lot of energy to push it forward, but we seem to be aiming just shy of the mark.
Calgary’s brash attitude isn’t the result of a superiority complex. Like most individuals who come across as cocky narcissists, it’s the result of an inferiority complex. We want people to take us seriously, to realize that we’ve grown up, that we’re no longer a hick town. The old attitude of “letting the eastern bums freeze” is gone and despite claims to the contrary, we desperately want those eastern bums to look at us. Over here! Over here! Look, we’ve got a Foster, a Calatrava, a freakin’ Plensa for God’s sake!
It’s the same kind of attitude that results in Ferrari’s driving down the street, the same reason huge, ugly McMansions spring up endlessly, and the same reason you see designer-clothed orange-skinned women with pouty lips strolling by with a sneer — we’re nouveau riche and we don’t know how to spend our money. We buy the brands that everyone else has already bought so that we can belong too.
I’m fully aware of some of the pitfalls in this argument. The whole reason that consumer culture is out of control is because of the push for ever newer things — to push the envelope faster and faster so that we can buy more and more. Consumer culture is driven by the old punk ethos of doing something different and standing out from the crowd. The drive for the new is killing us. But that isn’t the point here. We’re going to be buying stuff for the city regardless (and we should when it’s meant to improve our spaces) and if we keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to get some pretty nice things, but we could get even more innovative things if we look a little harder and use our own judgement rather than the judgements of others.
Once again, Mayne briskly puts it into words. “By the way, what the hell is ‘Calgary’?” he asked in 2009. “[It’s] news to me that there’s some sort of primary idea of what architecture is that’s Calgarian. When I go up there maybe someone will show me what is indigenous, but whatever it is there won’t be much of it, I know that.”
Three years later, he’s more right than ever, but dude, we are getting a Plensa.