U of C campus: a work in progress for 41 years and counting

By Mike Leung

In the early 1960s, the University of Calgary was no more than a barren snowfield where two lonely buildings stood, isolated from the surrounding blanket of white dust. Today, with over 650,000 square metres of floor space and over 20,000 full-time students, the campus has a stronger sense of direction and purpose under the Campus Community Plan. We can rest assured that some kind of planning is guiding the university into its maturing years–but this wasn’t always the case.

Today’s planners criticize U of C’s campus because even they admit that "there is no current and coherent vision for the physical development of campus." It’s easy to understand such an assertion by simply walking around. One can feel there is no central gathering place and no area that is a specific heart of campus. However, to understand why this happened, it’s best to start at the beginning.

The first buildings were completed in 1960, and aligned towards what was then Banff Trail, instead of the north-south axis used in the surrounding areas. As a result, the orientation of several of the first buildings on campus is 30 degrees counterclockwise from the axis.

The rest of campus development can be characterized by fits and starts that, according to our research, seemed to be tied to the whims of the provincial government–as the government foots the bill the majority of the time. Core buildings such as MacEwan Hall, the Library Block and the Sciences buildings went up during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Periphery buildings like Biological and Social Sciences also went up during this time.

With each new building, the center of student activity shifted as the buildings put people in different places. At one point in time, the Science Theatres served as a hub, where at other times, attention shifted to MacEwan Hall.

A second major phase of construction resulted from the direct and indirect effects of the Olympic games. Besides the Olympic Oval, several student residences, MacEwan Student Centre and Scurfield Hall popped up during the mid-’80s.

With each new crop of buildings, planners of the day maintained that the U of C should remain a pedestrian-focused campus. Like many others in Canada, the U of C is structured in the hopes that from its center, no individual need walk greater than 10 minutes to reach anything. An elaborate pathway system follows from this principle, and therefore roads do not cut directly through the heart of campus.

Today, construction has slowed down once again, and despite a few new buildings, major developments on the horizon include the development of West campus, given the new Children’s Hospital will be established there. Also look for a new heart of campus to be installed in years to come, which focuses on the current Swann Mall Walk. The campus is currently in a space crunch, most visibly indicated by the "Atco Centres of Excellence"–portables installed near Earth Sciences and Math Sciences. A plan is in place for the future, but the plans of 20 years ago don’t resemble today at all. This means we should expect certain things, but as the next section will illustrate, you can’t count on anything.

Ideas that just didn’t happen

Many building ideas never got off the ground throughout the U of C’s history, and it is perhaps just as educational to ask the "what if" questions of campus development.

The most interesting example includes the construction of a roof over McMahon Stadium during the 1970s. The idea was immediately kiboshed for two reasons. The current structure could not support any additional load, which meant that if a roof were to be built, a new structure would have to span from outside the present stand area. Cost then sent the idea to its death.

Several locations on campus were considered for the construction of parkades during the late 1970s. Two sites, one north of Math Sciences that could have housed 400 cars, and another, 1,200-car project in the same area were in the running. Finally, another parkade was considered when locations for the C-train station underwent debate. While design began on these parkade locations, it appears the university community was not willing to pay the extreme costs during that time. $2,300 per stall in a 600-car parkade, making capital cost commitments not an option for the university.

Apparently, two developers even approached the university with golf course schemes, which included open and enclosed driving ranges. Once the numbers were considered, both were turned away. Space limitations meant that only nine holes could fit onto university lands.

Time capsules and Chickens

The current University Entrance Arch used to run over Crowchild Trail, before the LRT line was put in. It supported a pedestrian crossing between the Banff Trail community and the university. The arches were the product of a design contest in which Engineering professor Bob Loov’s arch design earned runner up status at the Montreal Expo.

Instead, the design was turned into the pedestrian bridge, and then later the arches were moved as a result of the LRT construction. Currently, a time capsule lies buried at the East end of the arch, and was slated to be dug up 100 years later. Drop by in 2086 for a peek.

Robert Boyce’s "Spire," constructed in 1987 outside the Olympic Oval, stands exactly 1,988 cm high.

Artist George Norris never named his metal sculpture that now stands in Swann Mall Walk. Although today’s structure is colloquially known as the "Prairie Chicken," Norris’ untitled 1975 sculpture won out over 52 other submissions and cost approximately $35,000. For some reason, there are power outlets on the sculpture near its base. Perhaps we should hang some Christmas lights this year.

Like wine, some years are crap


MacEwan Hall, the first Students’ Union building on campus, opens to the university community on the tails of hippy music and marijuana.

Because of his many contributions to the province and the city, the building was named for John Walter Grant MacEwan, who besides possessing a plethora of academic qualifications–11 letters after his name form four degrees–was the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.

The building’s purpose was equally of its era and completely lodged in the finer aspects of social life pervading the late ’60s. Billed as a "laboratory of citizenship," Mac Hall provided a place for people to gather, talk and exchange ideas on the premise of the non-academic learning experience.

"Here," says a small brochure outlining the history of the asbestos-laden building, "our basic needs can be translated into a concrete structure for the illumination of enhancement of personal and social living."

Apparently, the first debate under the Speakers’ Corner sign revolved around Mary Jane. Those who got bored with the debates could simply trot around the corner to the Snack Bar–the cave of iniquity that would later come to be known as Dinnie’s Den.

At one point the Den used to be larger than its latest incarnation–it incorporated the space that the Campus Cove now occupies, including the pool table area the Cove had until this year. Originally billed as a coffee house, it later evolved into the hole of a bar more recent students remember it by.

The Black Lounge, in its former incarnation, was renown for its seductive atmosphere in the late ’60s. The lounge incorporated a multi-level floor plan, a fireplace and a patio. It would later be known as the Black Lung given its designation as a smoking area. Students from the early 1990s will remember the Lung for its less pleasant qualities, as the original furniture didn’t make the 25-year transition very well. The smoke-stained walls, ceiling, and tables didn’t fare too well either. Though remembered fondly, the room truly reflected the more pleasant qualities of lung cancer in the form of a choked, stinky room.


Preceeding the construction of the current LRT line, several proposals were considered. One had the LRT line going over Crowchild Trail at 16th avenue, and towards McMahon stadium. It would then pass directly east of McMahon and cross over the West side of the current site of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Church and enter university land. The Magyar Centennial Gateway–that wall-shaped abomination of metal greeting you along the way to the C-train–would not be in its current location as the C-train would run on the West side of Crowchild Trail. It would have cost the university the land that Lot 32 currently occupies. Needless to say, the university objected on the grounds that it was required to protect its lands as part of the public interest.

April 29, 1985

The sod-turning ceremony for the future MacEwan Student Centre takes place. In case you thought the new MacEwan Hall Ballroom took a long time to build–it has a seven-year time frame–here is something you must know.

MSC was completed in 1988. The expansion was originally conceived in 1971. That’s right, MSC was a whole 17 years in the making. To celebrate a building nearly 20 years in the making, past Students’ Union presidents who worked on the original proposal were called to participate in the ceremony. The $22.5-million building was mostly paid for by the provincial government, and the SU contributed roughly $5 million after collecting many year’s worth of $5 levies.

In a fashion similar to criticisms of the current MacEwan Hall expansion, leaflets distributed during the referendum vote scathingly questioned the validity of the project and encouraged voters to turn the proposal down. In the end, the vote drew 13 per cent turnout with 1,009 in favour and 452 opposed. The Jan. 25, 1980 issue of the Gauntlet claims the 13 per cent turnout was one of the highest in recent years.

Incidentally, the Gauntlet simultaneously reported on the U of C Board of Governors’ decision to increase tuition 10 per cent that year. Based on scraps of information gained from reading the surrounding articles, tuition for a full-time student cost around $550 that year.

Different times, my friends, different times.


Calgary’s Winter Olympics left a legacy that still lives today. Following a period of construction slowdown in the late ’70s, buildings sprouted up in the years preceding the games. Over $200 million in buildings went up between 1981 and 1988, including the award-winning Olympic Oval, Glacier and Olympus Halls, the Arts Parkade, and the Jack Simpson Gymnasium. Kananskis Hall, Rundle Hall, the Dining Centre and Physical Education (now Kinesiology) were all renovated.

Most of this money came from around the country–undoubtedly the prestige of the university increased tenfold by the time the Olympic athletes left Calgary. MSC, though not central to the Olympic games, also went up through the assistance of a government grant that was no doubt affected by the presence of the games.

The Olympic Oval is probably the most visible legacy of the games. Besides the awards for innovative design and construction, the roof actually adapts to weather stresses by moving up and down in extreme weather.

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