Some thoughts on the Calgary skyline

It’s been a month and I’ve kept postponing writing this post. Partly because I still have hundreds of pictures to upload, until I realised I could attach only the required photos to this post, and worry about uploading the rest later.

So, Calgary. I’d flown over it a number of times, connected through its airport a couple times, but I’d never really visited until this Easter weekend. The occasion was Western Cup, an annual volleyball/curling/dodgeball tournament that I heard was tons of fun but never got around to. But a couple months before, I’d been hunting for a team for Queen Vicki, Vancouver’s own queer volleyball tournament, and a friend invited me on his QV team, his Western Cup team, and his Ottawa team (there’s a gay volleyball tourney in Ottawa two weeks before, which I also went to, but that’s another story.)

I had a great time, and met tons of amazing people. But my view of the actual city wasn’t so positive. Downtown Calgary looks pretty ordinary from the air: a cluster of high-rises surrounded by urban sprawl, not too different from Vancouver.

Downtown Calgary

From the ground, though, actually walking through it, it’s a different matter. Downtown Calgary is full of massive, shiny buildings, monuments to the giants of industry, oil and finance. Catch them from the right angle, and they’re attractive enough. But they also easily become dark and oppressive, since they’re far more crowded together than Vancouver and block out much more of the sunlight.

But in the midst of these ultra-shiny highrises there are older buildings, smaller and more modest, showing that Calgary does indeed have a history. Some that were previously commercial space have been converted into condos. I found them comforting, architecture on a much more human scale.

Down side: some of them, like the old City Hall, are utterly dwarfed by the surrounding highrises. Which is not unfamiliar. Christ Church Cathedral, anyone?

And some of these old buildings are just… old and sad. The eastern edge of downtown feels empty and run-down, maybe in the middle of pre-redevelopment, I don’t know. Just empty lots, gravel, and faded commercial façades. In fact, a lot of the eastern and southern edges of downtown feel very haphazard, with apartment buildings, heritage homes and commercial lots arranged seemingly at random. It had the feel of a city that had grown very fast with little actual planning—which, well, I guess is exactly what happened.

In fact, it was while walking back from Fort Calgary towards downtown that I formed my strongest impression of downtown: it felt like a herd of sleeping behemoths, shiny and faceless, as forbidding as the not so far-off the mountain ranges. It was not a pleasant impression.

What would Colonel MacLeod say if he was still alive? I’m sure he’d be happy to see the city prosper, but wouldn’t it look weird and alien to him?

Gut impressions aside, there was a very real downside to Calgary’s highrises: they blocked part of the view from the Calgary Tower. To the north I could see only straight up Centre Street; to the south and east I could see forever; to the west my view was half blocked by downtown. This being so close to the equinox the sunset was pretty much exactly due east, and it was just barely visible by one of the big shiny highrises. Any later in the year, and visitors to the Tower would be minus a sunset.

Shame, isn’t it? Just a few short decades after its construction, the Tower has been passed by the rest of the city. What good will it be as a tourist attraction, if Calgary keeps growing around it?