Where architecture meets artwork

Calgary born architect L. Frederick Valentine spent his life defining the cityscape of modern Calgary, and now the city will seek to define him through his body of work currently on display at the Triangle Gallery of Visual Arts. The downtown gallery is showcasing 40 years of the University of Toronto/Harvard graduate’s designs, ranging from the grandiose Nova (now Nexen) building which comfortably adorns the downtown skyline, to the modest summer home of Walter Bean nestled in Ontario’s cottage country. Throughout this vast array of sketches, photos and models, it is clear Valentine excels in designing buildings that suit their physical and historical setting.

“Fred looks at each building in its own context,” says Marcella Guerrero, Triangle Gallery administrator. “You see a lot of houses around here that are designed to be in Southern California, which is not always functional. Fred thinks of functionality as well as aesthetic.”

While Valentine’s works always straddle a delicate balance between functionality and visual appeal, they never look overly-contrived. He credits his ability to fuse form and function to his education.

“I was schooled at the University of Toronto in what they call an ‘international modern education,'” says Valentine. “It was fine for working in the Toronto atmosphere, but when I began to work in places like Afghanistan, I began to realize how important it was to build with local technologies, materials and skills. When I got to Calgary, I began to try to capture the visual language of the place like I was able to in Kabul.”

He points out that many of the projects he was lucky enough to be assigned lent themselves to his interest in studying and capturing a regional vocabulary. Valentine attempted to create what he describes as a cohesive aesthetic language drawn from the tight organization of farmsteads and ranchsteads. Projects like the Canada Olympic Park Visitors Centre and Winter Olympic Hall of Fame, the Composer’s Studio at the Banff Centre and the U of C’s own Rozsa Centre, seemed to scream for what Valentine calls a “fresh approach to a vocabulary which is already in place.” In these projects, Valentine was able to preserve the delicate balance between the demands of the context and the necessity of innovation that every new building must address.

His contributions to Calgary’s urban landscape will remain as symbols of a young city asserting its cultural identity on the international scene. U of C scholar Dr. Michael J. McMordie describes Valentine in one of his essays as, “something of a pioneer by bringing international experience and standards to a native’s understanding of the locality and its history,” which has resulted in “an exceptional body of work.” In this sense, viewing his growth as an architect over the last 40 years is analogous to watching Calgary grow out of its humbling ‘Cowtown’ image into its current state as a bustling, cosmopolitan urban centre.

Valentine’s pioneering has earned him plenty of critical acclaim and awards. He has won a Governor General’s Medal for the Nexen building, an Alberta Achievement Award for his contributions during Calgary’s 1988 Olympic winter games, and the Alberta Association of Architects Prairie Design Honour Award six times.

The Triangle Gallery is an ideal host for an architect as decorated as Valentine. Flanked by the Victorian-era City Hall and modern Olympic Plaza, it may be one of the best parts of the city to admire Albertan architecture. As well, the sunlight flooding in from its massive exterior windows bathe Valentine’s sketches and models in natural light, which seems to be suggestive of the way he uses bright lights and open spaces in his own buildings.

The exhibit is not only for architects and artists; the pieces on display are beautiful, and communicate an intimacy with the architect that is rare in an art gallery. The sketches in particular reveal a human touch that may not be easy to see when looking at a giant concrete building.

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