A skyscraper is a building, but it is always something else: a bird, a cathedral, a sail, a signal to the heavens. As long as people have been building tall – over a century now – they have been filling the tower with poetic meaning. “It must be tall, every inch of it tall,” the pioneering architect Louis Sullivan wrote in 1896. “It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation.”
And Calgary, a city that is having a really rough summer, could use some exultation. Just before the Stampede, it got some with the announcement of a new highrise called Telus Sky. It will be a 700-foot-tall signpost to a new city – with a more vibrant downtown, a concern for sustainability and soaring design.
Planned to be 60 storeys and 750,000 square feet, Telus Sky is a forceful and sophisticated argument for 21st-century urbanism. Its design, led by the well-travelled Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, is a tower with a twist. It begins at the ground with retail space, sheltered by a glass skirt, and rises as hefty floors of offices, wrapped in a flat façade; about halfway up, it rotates 45 degrees and thins out into a skinny baguette of apartments studded with balconies.
As Ingels explains it, the tower’s unusual form is sculpted by practical considerations. “I like this idea of trying not to come up with a design just for fun – but to explore what the opportunities of this mixture of programs are on this site,” the 38-year-old says from his office in a Copenhagen loft. “We try to make sure that every design decision is defined by information, by the characteristics that give birth to it.”
This is the sort of argument about “context” that architects often use to excuse bland boxes.
And yet this tower will look like nothing else in Calgary – not even the curving Bow Building a block away, designed by Foster + Partners, which just won an award as the best tall building in the Americas last year. What sets the Sky apart? Its unusual mix of residential and first-class office space, a strong environmental agenda, and the high aspirations of its developers for Calgary and for Canadian cities.
All this comes together in the hands of Ingels and his office, which is known by its initials: BIG.
That name is no accident. Ingels, still absurdly young by the standards of his profession, is the first great architect of the YouTube era: a brilliant designer and equally great content producer. He is a source of sound bites and TED talks, a relentless optimist with charisma to burn. (A journalist last year said he “looks like a former boy-band star who is not getting quite enough sleep in the next stage of his career.”) And he is seemingly unstoppable. BIG has built an apartment building in the shape of a mountain, and one in a figure-eight; they are now designing a million-square-foot tower in Shenzhen, curved condo towers in Miami, and the National Library of Kazakhstan. Ingels wrote and drew a graphic novel about his work called Yes Is More.
And yet Ingels couches his desire to build big, sustainably and boldly in a language of collaboration. “I don’t see architects as people that create the city,” he says. “We are the midwives of helping the city birth itself.”
In Calgary, there is birthing to be done. As the Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie, who is the force behind the project, says, this is a young city, mostly built with a frontier mentality, and “architecturally, there’s very little outstanding about it.” BIG’s work means building a new vision for this place. Ingels says his first impression of Calgary came years ago from Gary Burns’ film Waydowntown, in which a group of Gen X office workers compete to see who can stay indoors the longest within the Plus 15 system, a 16-kilometre enclosed pedestrian walkway. “There is a reason this film was set in Calgary,” he says dryly.
Beyond its cultural ambitions, the tower (says Ingels) is shaped by ideas about its occupants. The building’s façade, as it has been imagined so far, curves on two different arcs at the point where the building changes from offices to homes. “The design works this way so that, for two kinds of people – workers and tenants – the conditions are optimized.”
This twist, which occupies about 15 floors, uses complex geometry to resolve the gap between the offices and the thinner residential tower, which is turned slightly to capture western and eastern sun. A team of local architects from the firm DIALOG is working on the details with BIG.
Unity is important for reasons of branding. Telus – like most corporate clients – prefers to have the tower express one unified identity, an ideal that Ingels aligns with his own design preferences. (Yes is more!) “You don’t want a Frankenstein, one building on top of another; you have a single building with a seamless transformation from the ground toward living in the sky.”
What Ingels is reluctant to say is that the building will look great. Like generations of architectural avant-gardists before him, he’s determined to cast his visual and spatial innovations as the fruit of immutable logic; and yet Telus Sky’s distorted geometry evokes the mountain ranges, with dollops and squeezes of other BIG buildings. In New York, where Ingels lives part-time, the firm is building a 32-storey apartment tower in the form of a twisted pyramid with a garden in the middle.
Such fanciful forms have, with the last two decades of technological innovation, become buildable. That’s true even in Calgary, where DIALOG staff and local builders use the same software, Revit (and Skype, too). But the building’s visual showiness masks a bold environmental agenda. It is designed to reach Platinum certification, the highest level, in the LEED environmental-design ratings system. This represents a serious commitment to sustainability; the tower, its builders say, will use 35 per cent less energy than a comparable new building, and that will drop much lower over time. Telus owns two other buildings on the block; the plan is to renovate them, with a shared energy and heat-exchange system.
Toronto-based Allied Properties owns a three-storey studio and retail building, Art Central, which will be levelled to make room for the tower. (The new building will include a public gallery by way of penance.) It was Gillespie who approached Allied and Telus with a proposal to do something bold with the sites. His company, Westbank, is working on Telus’s new headquarters in Vancouver, which includes a condo project; he is also working with Ingels on a bold tower for Vancouver, squished on to a lot beside the Granville Street Bridge.
Gillespie believes that good architecture is good business – “the market is screaming for it,” he says, and he hints that a Toronto project with BIG “would be a natural place to go from here.” But he also thinks the Telus tower will, and should, set an example to “raise the bar” for other developers. “Calgary’s economy is built upon the oil and gas extraction industries,” Gillespie says. “So what can we do to add to a more well-rounded conversation about energy, and about what Calgary can and should be in the future?” One answer: greener, more urbane, proud and soaring.