Modern Calgary

By Claire Cummings

Step out of the everyday world and into the mini-metropolis of the Calgary Modern exhibit. Now showing at the Nickle Art Museum, the exhibit chronicles the design and architecture of the International Modern movement, and how it impacted Calgary from 1947-67.

The exhibit is a constructed environment within the museum. Planes and surfaces are transposed by images and text to create a strange space with a feeling of surreality. Like an early James Bond movie, bulbous TVs and streamlined furniture sit by photographs of slick architecture and even slicker "dream home" interiors.

The aerial photographs of 1940s Calgary present a city very different from the one we know today. Before the oil boom in the ’50s, Calgary was a true cowboy city. There were few high-rises, no covered malls, and less than a dozen ethnic food restaurants. Due to the sudden influx of oil money, the city’s growth between ’47 and ’67 was exponential. Buildings we walk through everyday, now considered stale and old-fashioned, were revolutionary and daring at the time.

This new approach to architecture reflected the world-wide optimism of the ’40s and ’50s. Technology and industry were seen as the new saviors of civilization. International architects like Le Courvoisier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius promoted a new approach to design that envisioned "democratic order through the use of the grid, elements of standardization and equal access to light and nature." The hallmarks of the style include cast concrete, prefabricated building components, and a grid system to organize space.

"In its most potent form, modern architecture developed a new spatial and aesthetic sensitivity that spoke of technical ingenuity, social mobility, and economic prosperity," says exhibition curator Gerald Forseth.

Modern architecture has made a permanent mark on Calgary’s landscape. The Jubilee Auditorium, the Calgary Tower, and many of the oldest buildings on campus like old MacEwan Hall and the old Phys. Ed. building were constructed during this time. Some houses built in the Modern style have survived, like the Dimitri Skaken Residence. Constructed in 1947, it is considered by Forseth to be the best remaining example of Early Modernism. The house is a monumental composition of simple lines and curves, and reflects the simplicity of form pursued by architects of the time.

Despite the Calgarian tradition of tearing down anything with more than 50 years history, these monuments have survived and speak to the ideas that were at the centre of the city’s early years. The architectural history of this young city is an interesting point of reflection because it is still so recent. At a time when Calgary’s growth again pushes outward and upward, this consideration of the past couldn’t be more timely. Calgary Modern will be showing at the Nickle Gallery until April 15.

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