Photos and architecture at Esker

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Last night I attended the well-attended opening at the Esker Foundation.  There were three interesting shows in the main space featuring (as one encounters them) – Peter Von Tiesenhausen, Tobias Zielony, Cedric Bomford.  As a group with different approaches they all are well-selected and work well together in the same physical space.  Also featured in the Project Room (a display window space on the main floor) – Tyler Los-Jones.

As expected, given that this is the EXPOSURE: Calgary, Banff, Canmore Photography Festival will occur during the month of February, two of the featured artists deal with traditional photography – Tobias Zielony and Cedric Bomford.  However, I would argue that Tyler Los-Jones’ installation-based work entitled The way air hides the sky should also be considered as dealing with photography in an abstract way, even though this may not be the artist’s original intent.  If time allows, and I still have the inclination, I would like to explain why at a later date.

My intent today is to write about Cedric Bomford and architecture.

I am not an architect.  However, I do enjoy looking at built-spaces, as stated before in this blog, I am however a big fan of Brutalism.  That is about the end of it.

The work of Cedric Bomford on display at the Esker, is a series of 15 large black and white photos of air vents connected to the Prague underground metro system.  I must assume based on the date of the one photograph illustrated in the catalogue (seen above), that this work must have been completed shortly after his graduation at Emily Carr University.  This in itself is interesting given the strong long-standing and well-conceived photographic tradition that is found in the lower BC mainland and Vancouver in particular.

The structures found in the photos certainly are reminiscent of the Brutalist style of architecture, which for our purposes, thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can be defined as this:

  • A stark style of functionalist architecture, especially of the 1950s and 1960s, characterized by the use of steel and concrete in massive blocks

There is also a very interesting article from the Architectural Review on the origins of the New Brutalism dating from December 1955 which can be accessed here.  The article is rather interesting as it makes reference to art historical periods such as Cubism, Futurism and others.  I would propose that the Brutalist tradition continued into works such as Clement Greenberg’s Abstract Expressionist influenced steel sculpture (such as David Smith and Sir Anthony Caro).  Ironically one of Anthony Caro’s sculptures stands outside of the Esker main doors.  We see those type of forms in these photographs of Cedric Bomford.  This is relevant given curator Naomi Potter’s comment which states, “As an architectural philosophy, rather than a style, Brutalism was often associated with socialist utopian ideology . . .”

With that in mind it is interesting looking at these works with an historical perspective.  Naomi Potter indicates in the catalogue essay that these structures were built during the 15-year period of 1975-1989.

We, in Calgary, are fortunate to have some good examples of Brutalism that are often under continual threat of destruction.  A few of these are:

  • The old Nickle Arts Museum building located in the heart of the University of Calgary campus (which was quietly demolished last year to allow the new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning to be built on its former site);
  • The former Calgary Board of Education building (which is vacant and is now under threat);
  • The old Calgary Separate School Board building (which might be radically changed depending on what the new owner’s currently unknown intent is);
  • The Centennial Planetarium (which may have an announcement regarding change of use before the end of this month);
  • Century Gardens (which a parkour  group helped draw awareness to its importance recently);
  • Glenbow Museum (which will probably have a new entrance soon);
  • Fort Calgary (which has announced a major expansion);
  • Mayland Heights Elementary School (which was on the list of schools to be closed at one time);
  • Stampede Corral (this might be a bit of a “sleeper” as it was built in 1949-1950 which would date to, or even pre-date the very early stages of when Brutalism as an architectural concept was forming.  As a result I would be very interested in who the architect was and investigating how important historically this building might be as it shares some physical and stylistic attributes associated with Brutalist architecture); and
  • A bridge connected to the Langevin Science School (that will soon be remediated) amongst others.

Recently I have spent time in the downtown core.  When there, I often look at the interiors of office building lobbies as I pass through.  Attached is a photograph I took this week of the lobby of the TD Canada Trust Tower located at 421 – 7 Avenue SW.  It is located on the site of the former Eaton’s flagship store in Calgary built in 1929 and some of the original Eaton’s façade has been incorporated into the exterior of the building, especially along the 8th Avenue side.  When looking at this photo I also wonder if maybe some of the original marble floor was retained as well.

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Regardless, this is an example of office tower lobbies in Calgary during recent history.  This is not a particularly good photo and there is no reason why this lobby was selected over another, except that it illustrates my point and I happened to have a photo of it.

As seen in this photo it can be described as minimal, cavernous and functional, with limited individual personality (outside of its unique architectural detailing) and a certain level of conformity (as in similarity to other office lobbies).  I understand that architecture deals with the whole concept of form and function, just like it does with fashion and industrial design as well.  Because of this, I should probably clarify my statement.

I find it strikingly beautiful in its austerity of form and high finish.  The functionality of its use is as a conduit to get those who use this building from the exterior building entrance to the elevator lobby which leads to their offices.  Unfortunately the downside to this is that it does not encourage street-level vibrancy.  It is not particularly welcoming or encouraging of people to stay in the environment for any length of time, with the exception of maybe the security guard whose desk is located there or the cleaner doing their job.  There is only so much variation one can do in a defined physical space and often architects are not always the final decision makers in the grand scheme of things.  Clients have a certain role to play as well and they also have to be aware of their own clients and the needs and requirements of the users of the space.  As an example, this photo shows that there is no artwork, no public sculpture, very little seating and few signs of human presence (although we know it is there), only punctuated with few forms of greenery used to break the austerity.

Similar statements can be said for Brutalism.   Both are austere and pare down extraneous detail.

Given that, I would be interested to fast-forward 20-30 years from now to see if this austere period in our current obsession (for lack of a better word) in our office lobby environments will be seen as dated.  Also I would be curious to see if it meets with a similar distain for this style of minimal architectural interiors, as is the case for many with Brutalism now.  Of course I cannot really speculate on that, as only time will tell.

Back to the 80s


Tonight the third iteration in a five-part series focusing on individual decades in Calgary opens at the Glenbow Museum.  The first in the series was the 1960s.  Tonight’s decade of focus is the 1980s.

This was an interesting decade in Calgary with the boom which began in the mid-1970s through the beginning of the decade which helped define the modern architecture of the city, along with the subsequent bust also at the beginning of the decade.  The decade closed out with the 1988 Winter Olympics being hosted here and the subsequent awareness that the city was now a player on the world stage, regardless of a few arts related SNAFUs that happened around that time.

I had the opportunity to have a sneak peak yesterday to the part of the main part of show which opens tonight, but only viewed the second floor of the exhibition which is split between the second and fourth floors.  There also will be a continuation of the 1980s exhibition to be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) which will open on the 21st.

In the works that I saw yesterday there are some excellent examples of works from artists who made a huge impact during this decade.  Compared to the 1970s show which ended last month the big difference is how large the work shown was scaled up from previous decades represented.  No doubt this had some connection to the large corporate edifices that were built during the boom, but also reflected the larger scale works which were a continuation of the color-field and formalist theories from the 1970s and the influence of Clement Greenberg, even though his impact in Calgary was negligible at best – as compared to Edmonton only a short distance away, where there was a definite Greenberg influence during this same period.

Some highlights:

One of the works that did show some Greenbergian influence was a work by Harold Feist who was on faculty at the Alberta College of Art and Design when his now famous musician daughter, Leslie Feist was born.  A very strong Ron Moppett multi-panel piece that probably stretches 10 metres or more with a red line that ties the panels together on a quiet and restrained background from the early ‘80s.  This was a very nice contrast to another work of similar scale from late in the decade from the Glenbow collection.  The small painted Mark Dicey construction from the Nickle Museum was very strong, surprising given the quietness of almost monochromatic work.  It was nice to revisit a couple of Iain Baxter& paintings of apple trees with polaroid apples affixed to the canvas.  They were included in a solo show of his works from about two years ago also at the Glenbow.  The conceptual roots in these important works (even though there were also a few pieces also selected as produced by Baxter&’s N.E. Thing Co. in Ron Moppett’s curated 1970s show), will be no doubt referenced (but not directly) in Nancy Tousley’s curated iteration of works from the 1990s that will open in the winter 2014.  The quietness of Takeo Tanabe’s large “The Land” paintings was evident in the two selected works.  They, like the Feist work show some awareness of Greenberg and his theories.  This made me wonder whatever happened to the magnificent Tanabe probably three metre square painting from the same series, that used to reside in the lobby of the Dome Tower for a long time.  It was removed in the renovations a few years back and has been replaced by a stone wall that matches the rest of the lobby and the lobby now is so much more clinical as a result (but I digress).  It was also nice to see one of Marianne Gerlinger’s still life paintings that referenced the influential American 19th century painter William Merritt Chase.  This painting was a large two metre square painting of a watermelon and knife, but yet had staining to the side that referenced Chase’s paintings of dead fish (a subject that Gerlinger also referenced in the 1980s although none were selected for this show).  Of course the two works of double self-portraits by Chris Cran must be mentioned.  These are some of the most important works Cran has done and the fact that they are almost all located in public art collections speaks to this statement.  The fact that the Glenbow chose to use one of these paintings Self-Portrait Watching a Man about to Shoot Himself in the Foot, 1985 (illustrated above) shows the sense of irony and humour that make this series of works so important.  Of course I would be remiss not to mention John Will.  It was nice to see the long narrow text based painting along with one of his lithographs from the Great Moments in Sport series.  As a professor emeritus of printmaking at the University of Calgary this work is probably very important as it would be one his first attempts to transition from a purely printmaking practice to one that almost exclusively painting now..

This show is well-worth visiting as will be the upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) on the 21st.  In talking to the sculptor Katie Ohe yesterday she indicated that the third of three works from a series she worked on during the 1970s and 1980s will be located at MOCA.  Most people will know this series from her sculpture entitled the Zipper located in the Sciences Building lobby at the University of Calgary.  They will recognize it, as quoted in the U of C Gauntlet, through the “mesmerizing turning of the “Zipper” (it) is said to bring peace to the students, allowing them to concentrate on the ever-important studies or test writing that takes place in the classrooms adjacent.”

As expected from a curated show by Jeffrey Spalding, this show was well conceived, thoughtfully selected and well-placed.

The show will continue until January 5th and while there one might as well see the very rare chance to see a large group of landscapes by the great German expressionist Otto Dix who is shown alongside Canadian Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson which is located in the next gallery to the 1980s show which is also on until January 5th.