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The Calgary Event Centre, which the city and Calgary Flames ownership plan to build on the edge of downtown, is expected to begin construction in January and open in 2024.Handout

Big buildings and big cities don’t get along. Any good urban place depends on a range of human activity at street level: lounging, chatting, munching, buying and selling. All this vanishes when you line a street with a big box or an office building. Or an arena.

This is the conundrum Calgary faces with its new Event Centre, which the city and Calgary Flames ownership plan to build on the edge of downtown. The centre – everyone involved takes pains not to refer to it as an arena – is designed by architects Dialog and HOK. It is expected to begin construction in January and open in 2024.

Like other venues of its kind, it will play host to a variety of events. Calgary Sports & Entertainment Corp. (CSEC) promises home games for the Flames and two minor-league teams, plus other events such as concerts.

But, still, it’s a behemoth. How will it help a downtown that, with office vacancy of about 30 per cent, needs all the street life it can get?

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Calgary’s government has taken the right approach to the arena’s urban design. It will face public streets, be easily accessible by transit and serve steaks at a restaurant with sidewalk patios. Compared with the fortress-like Scotiabank Saddledome, this is progress.

The project’s lead architect, Rob Adamson of Dialog in Calgary, told me that the designers have focused on making the place a good neighbour. “We’ve been committed to enhancing and improving the public realm, and really focusing on the interfaces between the building and what’s around it,” he said.

The site will help. The Saddledome is stranded in a sea of parking within the Stampede grounds; the new building will sit a block to the north, fronting the street and a short walk from the core.

Right now that spot is a wasteland of parking. Across Olympic Way is a lot that serves a casino and the convention centre, itself under expansion. In time, according to the city’s Rivers District Master Plan, this parking lot will be filled by a hotel with shops and restaurants facing the street. “We all know a street works better when it has activity on both sides,” said Kate Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Calgary Municipal Land Corp. (CMLC).

The centre will face public streets, be easily accessible by transit and serve guests food on restaurant patios.Handout

That city agency has also done a fine job building up the nearby East Village, including the showpiece Snohetta-designed central library, which opened in 2018. The building is a sunlit wooden cocoon that welcomes the public in.

Inevitably, the arena is a different animal. “Something of this scale is not an easy fit within a neighbourhood,” Ms. Thompson acknowledged. “But we saw it as creating activity on the street, as part of a set of other activities and places.”

In addition to the planning, CMLC was managing the arena project until earlier this year; after the project ran over budget, CSEC and the city renegotiated their deal and CMLC is no longer involved with construction. Ms. Thompson was not able to comment on the details of its architecture.

And the architecture is where things start to go wrong. This will be among Calgary’s biggest and most visible buildings, and the proposed design has both too much and too little going on.

Too much, because there is a surfeit of materials and ideas at play, even after a recent late-October redesign. The building – proportioned like a shoebox – will have three sides dressed up in a “veil” of metal that is solid up top, then perforated at the bottom. Tall-and-skinny windows cut through this veil in an awkward composition. Giant video screens slide in below. At the ground level is either glass curtain wall, precast concrete or stone panels.

This stone will be Indiana limestone. Mr. Adamson said it is a nod to the pink sandstone that defined Calgary’s early colonial buildings. Unfortunately, that argument makes no sense. It’s like putting an antelope on the building because Calgary was known for cattle ranching.

Images inspired by prehistoric pictographs will be carved into the stone, Mr. Adamson said, and the design team will consult with local Aboriginal leaders on what these should be. I’m very curious how that proposal will be received.

In short, this will be a big slab of a building, on which a few flashy bits try to hide a lack of compositional or narrative logic.

The best strategy in this situation is to make the building as simple as possible, then conceal its bulk behind other uses that provide life at street level. North American vaudeville houses and neighbourhood movie theatres routinely used this trick: Put a chunky theatre in the middle of the block, and wrap it in small storefronts. To their credit, Dialog and HOK plan to do some of this on the Event Centre, with a total of three restaurants and several retail stores facing north and west.

But those are glass, from floor-to-ceiling; nice in drawings, boring in real life. The solid walls, meanwhile, seem to lack visual interest or texture to catch the attention of passersby. This is still a city block of 150 metres by 180 metres. That’s a lot of blank wall, or blank window, to walk past. (Just look at Edmonton’s Rogers Place arena for evidence of this problem.)

No doubt, making an arena friendly on the street is challenging. But one Calgary official suggested the old Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto as a point of comparison. The 1931 building had shops out front, and a rear end clad in brick rich with quoining, banding and arrows. When you are walking past, there is much to catch your eye. And this matters. To make a downtown come to life, broad ideas aren’t enough; so much comes down to shops and sidewalks and the small stuff.

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