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OPINION: The Hub gets bad rap from some for challenging Calgary architectural norms

Over the past 20 years, Calgary has successfully shifted from the plain boxy architecture of the 1970s and 80s to today’s modern trend of funky, curvy designs.

Think Alberta Children’s Hospital, The Bow, Telus Sky, Central Library and National Music Centre.  However, recently a new 28-storey big box tower dubbed “The Hub” has appeared on the Crowchild Trail’s ever-changing skyline.  

It has some people upset.

From a distance, The Hub, a residential building designed by Toronto-based ARK architects, is a stark white box. However, as you get closer, its strange, random window pattern has resulted in some social media urban design nerds making some very negative comments about the building’s design before it’s even finished.

Indeed, if you stare at the west wall of windows, it defies you to find a pattern or rhythm – which our brains are wired to try and do.  The placement of the windows seems totally irrational.

But rather than immediately criticize, I thought I’d check out ARK’s website to find out what I could learn.  Unfortunately, ARK doesn’t do itself any favours. Their explanation of the building’s design is pure architectural “jibber jabber.”

The website explanation

ARK Website:

HUB Mixed-Use Student Residence

Client: Campus Suites

The Hub – Calgary Student Residence tower expressed as a 28-storey vertical shaft engages the city on an urban scale. The gateway element creates a diverse, active, sun-filled and pedestrian-oriented public room defined by built form. The subtle refinement of the forms include the development of a recessed Colonnade at grade which knits the retail component to the Public Square. The Roof-top Terrance and Amenity Recreational Space define and separate the Podium from the Tower shaft.

The landscape elements create a semi-public realm. The Public Outdoor Square is a gateway element at the entrance to the future Banff Trail Station Community. The articulation of the forms includes differentiation through materiality of the private residential areas which are flush with the podium below. Material palette refinement includes diverse cladding strategy ranging from transparent at retail areas and semi-transparent and opaque at private residential areas.

The Tower facade’s syncopated material palette of transparent, semi-transparent, glossy, opaque and matt patterning creates a dynamic building envelope which, juxtaposed against the strong horizontal elements, establishes an identifiable hierarchy. The Tower Top is expressed through an increased proportion of glossy panels, intentionally engaging the sky and de-materializing the building mass.

‘good architecture should be thought-provoking’

Still trying to keep an open mind, I contacted ARK to see if could talk directly with someone and get a ‘plain English’ explanation.

Guela Solow, ARK’s Managing Partner, was quick to respond to my request. Indeed, she has heard the negative comments and is OK with them. The firm’s belief is “good architecture should be thought-provoking and challenge the public to question what they are seeing.”

She explained The Hub’s design intentionally juxtaposes the rational (rectangle) with the irrational (random window placement). It’s reflecting our everyday lives, which are a constant mix of rational and irrational experiences and feelings. 

She added the random window pattern is not just about design but has a function. It’s make each room different, unlike the typical cookie-cutter dorm rooms.

“Our team embraces the rationality of a building’s budget, (this is not a luxury condo), against the need for individuality and diversity of design. Life is not a simple pattern or system,” she said.  

“Like it or not, the building’s design makes one stop and think –  an important part of post-secondary students everyday lives – or should be. We wanted the design to reflect that.”

More Than A Big Box

The Hub is Calgary’s first private sector, purpose-built student housing  project. 

It’s designed to appeal not only to students at the University of Calgary, Alberta University of the Arts and SAIT, but also to medical students and young professionals at the nearby Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children’s Hospital.

The Hub adds to the continued transformation of the mid-century Banff Trail Motel Village into a much more mixed-use, transit-oriented urban village having a diversity of residential, hotel, office, café and restaurant spaces.

The building includes a large two-storey amenity space featuring a fitness centre, roof-top patio and pubic square with café designed to create an attractive public realm.  

David Down City of Calgary’s Chief Urban Designer agreed.

“The project promises a well-developed public realm with active uses at grade, which we hope will set the tone for further development of this area as a more walkable and connected community,” said Down.

Last Word

In Paris, both the Eiffel Tower (1889) and the Pompidou Centre (1977) were hated by the public when first built. Over time, the public and tourists came to loved them because they were so different. 

The same could also be said about the design around Calgary’s Peace Bridge.

While “The Hub” will probably never become a Calgary architectural icon, it’s good that it challenges the way we see life in organized patterns and get trapped in our comfortable norms.