Photos and architecture at Esker

Cedric-Bomford-Esker-Foundation-Catalogue-Image (1024x690)

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.

A legacy at the Esker

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I have enjoyed a guilty pleasure of late when visiting the Esker Foundation.

About six months ago the Esker staff placed a powerful and handsome sculpture by Anthony Caro entitled Catalope, 1981 outside their main doors.  It brought me much pleasure immediately upon first seeing it.  I knew exactly whose work it was and was so excited on seeing it, that I had to thank the staff for putting it out and I have done so every other time that I have been there since.

It is something that is so remote – we rarely see anything like it in Calgary.

Well. . . sorta.  There are a few others around that have a linear progression from Anthony Caro, but not sure if they are all still on public view.

  • There was a small sculpture garden that used to be discretely placed at the University of Calgary.  It was off to the side, behind the old Library Tower.  It held works by Catherine Burgess, Isla Burns, Alan Reynolds, Ben McLeod and others.  I am guessing, but it is probably about where the Taylor Digital Library is now standing;
  • There is a stately Douglas Bentham outside the main entrance of the Harry Hays Building that is really easy to miss;
  • Then there is the quiet Henry Saxe sculpture discretely located in the lawn between the Harry Hays Building and the river – all presumably from around the same general period as the Caro;
  • More recently there is a squat, compact and sensual Isla Burns from the 1990s that occupies a small alcove on a +15 bridge;
  • Finally there is a recent Ken Macklin in the courtyard of an office tower downtown.

Sir Anthony Caro is a legendary British sculptor and is considered by many to be the greatest British sculptor of his generation.  He had a good mentor as he was Henry Moore’s studio assistant during the 1950s.  He then came to critical notice in the early 1960s at Whitechapel Gallery and his ground-breaking work from that period broke open how sculpture was seen for the remainder of the 20th century.  His influence is still felt today, although rarely recognized – at least in Calgary.

Caro reputation as a pioneer was ground-breaking.  As Will Gompertz, Arts editor at BBC has stated, he ”remov(ed) the plinth in sculpture and instead plac(ed) his work directly on the ground (which) not only changed our relationship with the artwork but the future direction of sculpture itself.” [1.]

Sir Anthony Caro had a significant impact on our neighbours to the north.  He would periodically visit the University of Alberta and provide workshops there and was once a workshop leader at Emma Lake in 1977.  One of the professors at the University of Alberta, Peter Hide was a studio assistant to Sir Anthony Caro prior to accepting a professorship in Edmonton.  Caro’s impact continued to influence Edmonton to the point where it was often referred to in sculptural circles as steel city.

A number of years ago I curated a large non-representational (or pure-abstraction) show of two- and three-dimensional work in prime downtown Calgary real estate.  I leased numerous spaces occupying nearly half the building footprint of Art Central on the +15 level, at market rates.  In the months leading up to the show I travelled widely collecting works and doing studio visits in anticipation of the show.  As a result of this and my personal passion and dedication to show the work I was extremely successful in getting some amazing pieces.  It was the quality of work that a regional art museum of any size would be happy to have for their collection as the works were predominately of those from Western Canada.  It contained a virtual who’s who of abstraction in the region, unless there was compelling reason not to include certain artists, such as geographical exclusivity in representation.

It was a labour of love.

I knew this going in.  I had worked in the Calgary arts scene long enough to know this.  It was definitely not going to be a financial success.

Unfortunately there was no catalogue produced, although I have in my files a listing of all the work that was included.  Regardless of the financial outcome, it was a show that I am extremely proud of doing.  At one of the stops I visited an artist who had a table top work of Sir Anthony Caro’s in his dining room.  It was a stunning work probably a little bit more recent than the work illustrating this post, which is in the lobby just outside of the Esker Foundation doors.

This all is my long-winded way of saying that last week, Sir Anthony Caro passed away.  He was 89.

His influence will definitely be missed. [2.]



[1.] Will Gompertz’ quote is found here

[2.] Sir Anthony Caro’s obituary.