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Marc Boutin says Calgary faces unique challenges in its design, especially the city's spaciousness.
courtesy Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative

Better urban design will help Calgarians

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Cities are complicated, exciting, living, breathing and evolving places. Each city in its development must face and react to a distinct set of pressures and challenges, and it is through these relations that the histories of cities are written. Marc Boutin, a Calgary architect and Environmental Design associate professor of at the University of Calgary, has considerable interest in the history of cities -- enough to complete a Masters of Arts in Architectural History and to convince a committee of his peers to award him the Prix de Rome in 2002.

While working in Rome after receiving the award, Boutin focused on water infrastructure -- "aqueducts, fountains and related public space" -- through which he explored the transformation of Rome's architecture and social history. Boutin also spent considerable time studying public spaces in Barcelona.

By studying and comparing the differences between space utilization in various cities, Boutin can now better understand and help contribute positively to the challenges facing Calgary.

"Calgary's characteristics mostly struck me . . . when I came back from Barcelona and Rome, particularly in Barcelona where everything is so dense and so tight and space is so precious. It is so well designed to maximize efficiency. Here in Calgary you will drive out Deerfoot, and there's just so much space: it's kind of like a crime," said Boutin.

Boutin noted Calgarians have a desire to drive the most efficient route possible when travelling the city and discussed the implications of removing communities from the view of everyday commuters with large concrete walls.

"People will look back at Calgary and they will say, 'What is the value set of these people?' Clearly it's about movement and the individual and separation as opposed to city, society and culture. That's interesting," said Boutin. "I think we are slightly more into individualism than other cities in Canada and the U.S. Certainly more so than Toronto and Montreal . . . In Toronto there has been a lot of talk, top down and bottom up, about communities, and it's an older city, so it has had more time to understand itself a little bit, to come to terms with itself. Whereas Calgary, people come here to make money, they'll leave here after they make money and there is not a lot of community building that is left in that kind of paradigm."

Boutin presented some of his work as part of the Big Rock University lecture series, an ongoing event which brings people from the U of C to the brewery to speak on a variety of topics.

Boutin showed the audience images of Calgary developments at Eau Claire Market and Olympic Plaza -- which are approved but will not break ground in the immediate future­­­ -- and the already-under-construction rededication of Memorial drive, which includes Memorial Poppy Plaza near the 10th street bridge and two other memorial nodes along the pathway.

The Memorial Poppy Plaza aims to commemorate the sacrifices made by all Canadians during the war effort. Sections of wall will be etched with quotes from affected mothers, children, grandfathers and notable Canadian soldiers like Sir Arthur Currie. Across the river from the site two large illuminated sentinels "representing a conceptual 'space apart' and 'space of desire' often associated with the separation of loved ones during wartime, will be constructed," according to the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative.

"We hope by doing that the commemoration and the memorial will be more timeless and more inclusive for the citizens of Calgary," said Boutin.

Through creating exciting and engaging public spaces like Memorial Plaza, Boutin hopes to get momentum moving towards making Calgary a more integrated and vibrant city, a place ready to collaborate on its own unique set of challenges as it matures.

Boutin said the problem with Calgary is that for an average suburb dweller working downtown, they will leave their garage, drive to work, park underground and take the elevator to the office without interacting once with another human being.

"My feeling is that over time we're going to continue to develop a culture appreciating what surrounds us as opposed to avoiding what surrounds us," said Boutin. "Hopefully these kinds of public spaces will start to change that."

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