The Events Leading Up to Sir Norman Foster

A famous British architect, oil barons, an urban vision, and creeping liberalism all meet in Calgary’s downtown. What is the future for Cowtown?
Photograph by Donald WeberCalgary, Financial District

In 1970, the year I moved to Calgary, the oil boom was just beginning to flower. Our house was in a new development at the northwestern edge of the city, and I walked past horses on my way to school, and past an isolated shack that stood on a few bare acres, waiting for a developer to raze it. The small house contained a large family of porridge-eating hillbillies, to use the phrase of a friend who was one of them. Their father was one of those handsome, hard-drinking, capable, wild-haired western archetypes who wore one pant leg inside his cowboy boot and the other outside. On good days, my friend and his father rode horses in the foothills adjoining the rented property, among the evergreens and stands of poplar that have long since become suburbs and malls. On bad days, of which there was no shortage, there was alcohol and violence.

During a particularly savage winter, a jerry-rigged addition to their house fell off when the cinder blocks it was propped up on split and collapsed in the cold of a 56°C night. The bedroom containing several children separated from the main house, leaving the father standing at the opening, wondering what forces had brought him to this. He eventually went blind, and on those occasions when he was in an alcoholic rage, intent on strangling their mother, the children piled on him like bluetick hounds on a grizzly as he flailed in his darkness. During the 1970s, the house was razed and the clan dispersed.

I think of them when I think of the oil boom of those years, a boom that brought an undeniable energy to the city, and a consuming blindness to certain notions of civic responsibility. What buoyed and defeated us was the same curse every lottery winner carries: sudden possibility. Newly rich, the city thrashed around, defining itself in a drunken spree as the Jed Clampett of urbanism.

In 1973, the Calgary Tower (formerly the Husky Tower), a Jetsonian spike that sits in the centre of the city, was still the tallest building in town. Its revolving restaurant was frequented by tourists, and by university students on lsd who watched their untouched steak sandwiches turn to carrion and observed the city passing below in a sluggish panorama. It would be an exaggeration to say that the landscape changed from one revolution to the next, but not much of one. The price of oil jumped from $3 a barrel to $17 that year due to the opec embargo, and during the height of the ensuing boom 600 old buildings were torn down annually in Calgary, and roughly $1 billion in building permits were issued each year. What we saw from the vantage point of the Calgary Tower was the residue of the 1947 boom, when oil was discovered at Leduc. There were office buildings that were ten or so storeys, a few skyscrapers (Calgary’s first skyscraper, the Elveden Centre, was built in 1960), and some graceful older structures, such as the Burns Building, the Lougheed Building, and the Palliser. Most of the original sandstone buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had already been torn down. The residential streets that bordered downtown featured modest postwar homes, and the odd Eaton’s bungalow, sold through catalogue by the department store in the 1920s, delivered by train in pieces, and assembled by the owner. Most prominent, though, were wrecking crews and construction cranes, poised in clusters: the beginning of another swift transformation.

It was a compact downtown that had two natural borders — to the north the Bow River, and to the south the railway tracks below Ninth Avenue. To the east, there was Macleod Trail, and to the west downtown quietly petered out after Eighth Street. It was an efficient, largely uninhabited core whose most humane element was the Eighth Avenue Mall (now the Stephen Avenue Mall), a lively pedestrian street that had some handsome original facades, a few encouraging restaurants, and some wonderfully cheesy western wear stores.

When the Scotia Centre went up in 1976, its three floors of retail pulled customers off the adjoining pedestrian mall, which then went into a lonely decline. The increasingly hermetic nature of downtown was aided by the +15 system, which provided elevated walkways that connected dozens of buildings (a hermeticism explored in the film Waydowntown, in which a group of young Calgarians have a bet about who can stay inside the longest). It was a bright alternative to the depressing burrows of underground walkways, and during the day the city core had the muscular energy oil money brings. In the evenings, it resembled many American downtowns: sullen and bereft.

I was one of the few people who lived downtown, on Second Avenue, in a four-storey cinder block apartment building that had a large graphic of a car on the east wall. On Sundays, the streets were so empty that when a film crew was shooting a low-budget movie about an apocalyptic future, they didn’t need to make any special arrangements to stop traffic. I watched them shooting one Sunday and asked a technician if they needed any extras. “It’s the future,” he said. “Everybody’s dead.”

Thirty thousand people were moving to Calgary each year during the 1970s; it was the fastest-growing city in the country. Housing had to be built quickly, and it was built, for the most part, cheaply and generically. Suburbs spread south and marched west toward the mountains, and were named for some touchstone of the good life (Tuscany, for example). Office space was desperately needed, and routine, mirror-clad towers began to fill the downtown. Calgary had the highest allowable commercial density of any Canadian city, higher than that of all but a few American cities. Height restrictions were waived, setbacks ignored, permittable land uses altered, and half of the city planning department laid off. As Phil Elder, a member of the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, put it at the time: anyone could build anything anywhere.

As the 1970s came to a close, the already potent boom took an upswing. In 1979, the city built more office space than New York and Chicago combined. Calgary was the new Rome, and by 1980 there was a sense of Roman destiny in the air, paired, inevitably, with a mood of impending collapse. I went to a Halloween party that year at a house just south of town with my statuesque girlfriend. We went as Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk. I was Doris; she was Rock. The underlying fin de siècle feeling was heightened by a blizzard that arrived near midnight. We left at 2 a.m. and drove north and skidded off the road. Eventually, we were pulled out of the snowbank by some kind locals. Standing in that blizzard at 2:30 in the morning wearing a baby-doll nightgown, holding a pink Princess telephone while my Volvo was pulled out of the snow, it occurred to me that this was the logical end of something.

In 1982, the boom began to falter. The year before, there had been 2,262 calls to the Salvation Army suicide prevention bureau; in 1982, there were 5,444. By 1984, Calgary had the highest vacancy rate in the country and 250 housing foreclosures a month. Crime flourished, people moved back to Ontario and Newfoundland, construction stalled, and new homes sat empty. Without that big-shouldered oil money to animate the newly uncrated downtown, it began to feel like the urban incarnation of Eliot’s The Waste Land.
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1 comment(s)

MurrayDecember 10, 2009 09:11 EST

I have lived in Calgary all my life, and remember the early 80's. The recession was brutal, much worse than what is happening now. I remember houses dropping 30% in 6 months, and there was just no work anywhere. A lot of the houses built then were crap, in design and quality. I remember thinking that only during a boom could these houses sell.
I had an friend with a house that he paid $100,000 for, move out of it, and buy the identical model down the street for $70.000. ouch!

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