Where Art Meets Architecture – Part 1: Purpose

A 3-part series exploring the intersection of craft, material, and innovation

Light pours in through the pyramid-shaped skylight, the wood beams casting sharp shadow lines across the concrete walls and floor. The striped pattern transforms the triangular space into an abstract image, resembling a Frank Stella painting. Descending the entry stairs, memories of the space flood back and I am transported six years earlier when my then fiancé and I had our engagement photos taken at this very spot. I still chuckle when I think that we chose a parking garage as the backdrop setting for that special day.

However, the SAIT Parkade is not your typical underground parking facility. Located centrally on campus, the parkade carries many functions besides vehicle storage. Bridging the campus through a series of pedestrian corridors, the box-like structure is nestled into the topography and crowned with a soccer pitch. The exposed southeast corner is wrapped with a perforated metal screen, a pixilation created by the artist Roderick Quin. The bent metal tabs shimmer in the sunlight, portraying a soft image of clouds crossing the prairie sky.

SAIT Parkade Garage glass pyramids
SAIT Parkade Garage glass pyramids articulate the stairways creating atria that allow natural light down into the structure
SAIT Parkade Garage cladding
SAIT Parkade Garage cladding developed by Ombrae Studios
Building an artistic narrative is always a team effort; a beautiful act of intention - and a reflection of who we are and what we are as a collective. From the creation stage to the end user experience, we will explore the benefits that this beautiful act of intention can have – from a street corner to a city-wide positive shift. In the next three examples we will explore ways to bring value through art-integrated architecture.

Building narratives

One of the most notable mythologies in history is the legendary Tower of Babel. An allegory of the consequence (i.e., confusion of language and culture) when a collective ego reaches too far into the heavens. The compelling image of an ever-rising tower sparks the imagination and continues to inspire artists, architects, and popular culture. This pursuit of transcendency is continuing; with futuristic cities being carved across the Saudi Arabian desert (NEOM) to serious resources being used for the colonization of mars.

Conceptual narratives have immense power to delight, inspire, teach, and feed our emotions. Within the uniqueness of cultures, we find a shared tradition of using the built environment as a canvas, weaving together moments of triumph, struggle, and spirituality. The buffalo hide teepees of the Tsuut-Ina Nation are adorned with pictographs of battles, hunting expeditions and significant journeys that become passed down as daily cultural reminders. Like many other First Nation cultures, they lean heavily on storytelling to shape their cultural identity.

Mixed media image of ‘Cultivating Humanity’
Mixed media image of ‘Cultivating Humanity’ by Mark Vazquez-Mackay
Another example can be found if you pay attention while walking down Calgary’s Stephen Avenue. There is a heritage of oil, grain, and settler history revealed through the intricately sculpted masonry. One of my favourite moments are the comically playful gargoyles perched on the facade of the Alberta Hotel building. After some digging, I discovered these caricatures originally adorned the Herald Building, and commissioned to celebrate the workers of the iconic newspaper. The surrounding glass towers provide only reflections of these lost traditions. Although the memory of this traditional form may be fading, there is a new type of craftsmanship rising that embraces progress in digital technology, fabrication, and material science. Within this emerging craft, there is a renewed interest in sharing stories that embrace cultural diversity and enhance the environmental experience.
Gargoyles on Calgary Herald building, Calgary, Alberta
"Gargoyles on Calgary Herald building, Calgary, Alberta.", 1912, (CU184334) by Unknown. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Finding distinction through craft

In 1983, an icon was born. The Saddledome became a symbol of Calgary from its inception, successfully captivating the world's attention during the 1988 Olympics, and providing a new home for the rising NHL team, the Calgary Flames. Representing Calgary's deep-rooted cowboy and rodeo culture, the curved roof form was a massive engineering and logistical undertaking for its time. The costs associated with this artistic endeavour paid off, and it proudly stands as one of the most recognizable silhouettes on the Calgary skyline. Due to the functional limitations of its concrete structure, its legacy will be cut short.

Photograph of the Calgary Saddledome, public domain

When recognize-ability is the objective, architects traditionally leaned on sculpture and pictorial iconography to reduce a building to a concise, and memorable image. However, municipalities, developers and architects are shifting towards a more holistic outlook, one that addresses the wider social and sustainability concerns. In response to these necessary efficiencies, building envelopes are ridding themselves of articulation, stepped facades, curves, and impracticalities. Therefore, artists and architects are finding other avenues to bring cultural expression back into buildings.

The University of Calgary Downtown Campus building is instantly recognizable through this simple, yet sophisticated approach. Diamond-shaped tiles clad the box-like structure, producing a unique scale-like texture across its gently curved building faces. At the parkade, this cladding gives way to a kinetic installation, an artistic collaboration between Heavy Industries and Ned Kahn. The pin attached stainless-steel flappers react to wind patterns, breathing life into the urban experience. This cost-effective technique avoids complex geometries and structural gymnastics, while still conveying originality and purpose. Through the revival of partnerships with local artists and craftspeople, architecture can find distinction in cultural expression, diversity, and storytelling.

University of Calgary Downtown Campus façade

The traditional assumptions are rapidly changing with hyper-realistic rendering engines, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence becoming dominant in the design process. Manufacturing is keeping pace; innovation in material and production gives the precision of a traditional craftsperson. In the following series, we will examine the tools pushing this new design language and question both the economic and social impacts.

Community building through the art-process

Bringing a concept to life is a collaborative process, involving a diversity of ideas, skills, and cultural representation. Summarizing this participatory action, the poet Octavio Paz writes, “This imagination is social: in its perpetual movement, a back and forth between beauty and utility, pleasure and service, the work of craftsmanship teaches us lessons in sociability.” A plurality of artistic expression, this journey is like a house of mirrors, the output reflecting our societal strengths, weaknesses, and strangeness.

Today, artistic self-expression has found a platform with social media; Instagram, TikTok and YouTube providing individuals with an unprecedented opportunity to share their creative work to a global audience. Setting aside the creative drawbacks, we can find benefits in the open exchange of ideas between like-minded individuals, and space for self-promotion. However, globalization of expertise has given rise to international competition, with local studios being overlooked in place of ‘world-renowned’ specialists. Decisions are often made by people illiterate to the cultural language; disconnected from the local history, environmental concerns, and people. In response, we are seeing a growth of grassroot artistic groups focused on celebrating their community's stories and values.

One example is Calgary's BUMP Festival, a community-led street art festival that transforms the city’s blank walls into rich tapestries. Bringing warmth and engagement throughout the city, these murals are typically located within otherwise sterile and soulless spaces. With more engagement from within, we are seeing that citizens want authorship in their community's cultural identity and future.

Mural painted by local artists Lacey and Layla

Behind every collaborative process, there is a collection of artists, craftspeople, architects, engineers, and community members channeling their talent and values into a shared object. In this series, we will share stories from the designers and creators that uncover moments of inspiration and appreciation for our environments. We will explore the making of a collective identity through the dynamic composition of creativity, functionalism, experimentation, and technical skill.

Stay tuned for… Part 2: Process & Part 3: The Future of Craft

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Alison MacLachlan

Alison MacLachlan

Architect, AAA, RAIC, Design Lead