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July 01, 2013

Condoscapes - Fifth Avenue fantasy

Five West’s design gives it a New York state of mind

Richard White

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Nobody would confuse Calgary’s downtown Fifth Avenue with New York City’s famous midtown thoroughfare. NYC’s Fifth Avenue is not only one of the world’s most prestigious shopping, but is home to some of the world’s most important buildings — Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Flatiron Building, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lords & Taylor, New York City Library and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

While Calgary’s Fifth Avenue has a long way to go to become a vibrant pedestrian street for Calgary’s rich and famous, it is not out of the realm of possibility.

In 2004, when Calgary’s LaCaille Group announced their Five West condo project at Fifth Avenue and 8th Street I immediately liked it. There was an early 20th century charm about the design with its sandstone three-storey podium with an arched colonnade with shops at street level. From the podium rises two red brick towers with blue reflective glass that echo Calgary big blue sky. The top of the building is capped with a blue metal cupola with a small spire. It is a classic high-rise design, a base that grounds the building, a tall narrow tower with an ornamental roof element. I loved that it was both modern and yet timeless.

The cupola can be traced back to the 8th century Islamic architecture and over time has been used extensively to add character and charm to buildings around the world. Five West’s cupola lights up at night to become a beacon on the northwest side of the downtown.

The use of red brick as the major exterior façade material is also a salute to the past. Calgary has very few brick buildings, but our most famous one is the Mewata Armory, which is only a few blocks away. I often hear Calgarians lament that we don’t have more brick buildings. By using red brick, Calgary’s Poon McKenzie Architects (now NORR) has created a design that will stand the test of time.

Brick technology is the oldest known and most versatile building material dating back to 7000 BC in Turkey. It ages well and is tolerant to air pollution, fire and doesn’t stain. Despite the lack of brick buildings in southern Alberta, we have a long history of brick manufacturing. Medicine Hat was once the epicenter of western Canada’s brick manufacturing with five brick plants. Today, the Hat’s I-XL Industries is the only brick manufacturer in western Canada.

As I said earlier, when I first saw the plans for Five West, I immediately liked it — and I like it even more today. Recently I was walking along the river with friends from London, England, and one of them commented on how much they also liked Five West. The discussion then turned to modern architecture and urban design. I was surprised, when they told me how much they liked Calgary’s architecture and one of them commented on how much more they liked our architecture and urban space over Toronto’s where she had just been. Sometimes it takes visitors to help us appreciate what we have.

While Calgary’s Fifth Avenue might not have the status today of New York’s it could have in the future. Plans are currently in place to develop an enhanced pedestrian corridor along 8th Street to link 17th Avenue to the River. Five West at the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue is positioned to become an integral part of the corridor.

Who knows what could happen in 100 years!

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