Roughly 15 feet above street level in downtown Calgary runs a system of paths, hallways, dead ends, coffee shops, fast food franchises and shade loving tropical plants. It’s a rat maze that is so quintessentially Calgarian that it was the premise for cult Canadian film waydowntown.
On Friday, August 3, I undertook a journey through the labyrinth like +15 system looking for gems hidden within. I am not downtown often and it had been a good decade since I actively sought out the paths that connect tower to tower throughout the core. I had no map. I had no idea where I was going. All I wanted to do was find pieces of art hidden in the structure, places of tranquil beauty amongst the throngs of corporate Calgary.
My hike took nearly eight hours and although most of the passages were dull, drab and full of people, there were a few places where I had no choice to stop and take in their unexpected sparkle. This was my +15 adventure.
THE START: The beginning of my trek started at the McDougall Centre and took me towards my first piece of art Synergy by Roy Leadbeater found between a parkade and a gym.
Photos by Amy Jo Espetveidt, Quadrophonic Image
The start of the walk was muggy, steamy and full of bustling office workers heading in for the day. The trek started at the McDougall Centre – a beautiful heritage building – at 7:30am. The heat was on to combat the coolness (15C was the high the day before) and everything smelled of wet dog and dryer lint.
My first art sighting sat across from the Pacific Parkade (715 5th Ave SW). Produced in 1993, Synergy (remember that buzz word from the 90s) is a sculpture by Roy Leadbeater. It stands 10-feet high, glitters with aluminum, steel and bronze and was commissioned for the new lobby of The Norcen Tower (now the Compaq building) where it once stood. Now, it’s nestled down a yellow lighted hallway between a parkade and a gym.
The next art surprise I found was down a dated +15 kind of out of the way and not too heavily used. Derek Besant created Daydream back in 1994 and his etched glass messages line an entire skywalk. I spent a good 20 minutes in this one spot. People gave me funny looks a couple of times but no one stopped to see what I was looking at. The etchings in the glass tell a story, one side is about a guy and the other about a girl. They say things like “He works in that building over there” and “Her eyes met mine”. They’re hard to see if you aren’t looking and while your studying them, the bustle of downtown goes on around you.
DAYDREAM: Derek Besant’s story of love and curiosity sits hidden along the glass in this +15 heading into First Alberta Place. One side it’s about a guy, the other a girl.
I walked one building to the next with really no clue as to where I was going to end up. Just when I was getting too claustrophobic, craving the sky and the smell of fast food and recycled air was getting to me, I’d find a splash of colour that would draw me back in.
GOING TO FIND YOU: Sometimes finding cool art is as simple as turning a corner like these pieces by Kathy Lycka. Other times you have to search for it like this hallway leading to the bathrooms of Fifth Avenue Place. Here you find a couple paintings by Arlene Wasylynchuck that date back to 1997.
My fellow +15 travelers seemed to be made up of business men and women on missions, with the odd lost tourist thrown in for good measure. People were polite and held doors. They said thank you and they didn’t shove or walk into you (even though many were on cell phones). The art on display was mostly passed by quickly, many of these travelers had seen it hundreds of times and had stuff to do that didn’t allow for a 10 minute break.
I went from one nook, to a different cranny and back again, trying to find my way through. I hit many dead ends, ended up a few parkades, paced a few office towers and passed more Jugo Juices than I knew could exist in 16 kilometres.
A STEP BACK IN TIME: These gems are found in a courtyard at Amec Place (801 6th Ave SW) where it’s a mini oasis and a step back into the 1990s, a time when all the malls used to look like this.
And then I found the cows.
I remembered all the arts cows that dotted the sidewalks and buildings of Calgary at the turn of the millennium. Every city seemed to have something along those lines, cows, horses, moose. One day there were there and the next they weren’t. Well. I found them. At least a few of them anyway. The program was called Udderly Art: Colourful Cows For Calgary, it started in the fall of 1999 and by July 2000, 125 cows (and a bull) were sold to be painted. They went up in May, had their final public viewing in October, over 100 were auctioned off on October 28, 2000 and the strays were moved to their permanent Legacy Pasture (where I found them) in the Centennial Parkade +15 walkway.
THEIR FINAL PASTURE: The Udderly Art cows that spotted Calgary’s streets in the summer of 2000 can be found in the +15 system at the Centennial Parkade.
Art Central (100 7 Ave SW) on a Friday morning is a quiet place but worth the hike, most offices were closed so a trip during the height of the week would be best. Three floors of galleries, offices and shops, this is where Uppercase has its office and so does Calgary Arts Development. Even though no one was around and the koi in the pond were bored, there were tables filled with flyers and pamphlets for every kind of art under the sun. I filled my bag with story ideas and moved on.
A PARK IN THE SKY: Colonel James Walker Park sits adjacent to Art Central on the +15 Level and has its own character and art. It over looks the Ctrain Tracks and a questionable strip of buildings but has a wonderful view and a playground too.
By 10:30am I was about half way through (or so I thought) and ready for a break. Thankfully I had an interview booked with amazing artist and Mini Maker Faire proponent Casey Hughes (look for the story in early September) booked for 11am at Jamieson Place (308 4th Ave SW).
THE LIVING WALL: Jamieson Place (308 4th Ave SW) has the most beautiful living wall I have seen. In their Winter Garden the Green Wall stands. It was the first of its kind in Western Canada and has over 20,000 plants of 20 varieties. It’s approximately 2,000 square feet and its design was based on a satellite photo of the area west of Calgary. The plants were chosen for their colours, textures and shapes to depict the landscape.
Let me tell you a bit about Jamieson Place. I had never been there before but had often remarked from ground level about how I really wanted to go in and see if it was the garden I thought it might be. And I was right. They have this place called the Winter Garden on the +15 level which is an oasis. The garden still has the feel of corporate Calgary, but it’s done well, with bamboo dividing sitting areas and the best green wall I have seen (it puts the Devonian Gardens to shame). It might be the fact that it was mature and in bloom, but I think it was the fact that it was designed to look like an aerial view of the fields that dot Southern Alberta. It’s a living piece of art.
They even have these three very impressive glass chandeliers over an infinity pool. They’re blown glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly that were commissioned as part of the City of Calgary’s public art program when the building was constructed.
WILD GLASS: These beauties hang in Jamieson Place’s Winter Garden and were commissioned from blown glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. There are over 400 glass pieces and feature blues, yellows and ambers to bring the pieces to life. Other interesting things hang over the +15 Level including this moving, lighted piece that is just off to the left as you come through the skywalk.
BRIGHT & ABSTRACT: These pieces line the +15 Level at Livingston Place (222 3rd Ave SW).
I made it to The Core which was full of people, stores and advertising but no art at the +15 level. I wandered over to The Calgary Tower, which was surprisingly plain, drab and utilitarian. I went over to Bankers Court, which had some beautiful paintings and sculptures on hand, and passed by the Canadian Pacific offices in Gulf Canada Square, which had a hooked rug bigger than my house.
GIANT ART: These gems are found in Gulf Canada Square (the giant hooked rug on the top) and Bankers Court is full of paintings and sculptures (bottom two). All the information for the artists was down on the main floor, but the works stretched far into the +15 Level.
And then I got lost.
I really tried to stay in the system. I really did. But no matter how I twisted, turned, followed or asked for help, I could not connect The Core, the Calgary Tower or Chinatown with The Glenbow, The Epcor and City Hall. It turns out that you really can’t make it to all the buildings via +15 and sometimes you just have to go outside. (Once The Bow is finished it should connect a bunch more). So I walked down Stephen Ave and went back into the fray at The Telus Convention Centre.
THE EPCOR: Of all the +15s in Calgary, the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts has the most happenings. You can look in to the workshop where Theatre Calgary creates their sets. There are dozens of types of permanent art from murals to sculptures. The Ledge Gallery gives a place for artists to complete a residency (like Heather Kai Smith’s work hung up on a clothes line). And the Window Galleries provide an ever changing assortment of art like Translations by Kristine Zingeler.
It’s no surprise the +15s of the Culture District had the best showing of artwork of all. Bronze statues at The Glenbow. Murals on the walls of the Epcor. A lone man working on the sets for Theatre Calgary’s Next to Normal (that runs September 11 to 30). And of course, the window gallery.
I even took in a showing of Subliminal Rabbit Presents, a short film being played as part of Dreams, emotions and life’s lessons. I was the only person sitting on the bicycle seats at the west end of the Jack Singer Concert Hall but got to watch the collaboration by filmmakers, performers, musicians, dancers, fashion designers and photographers. A surreal experience.
TO CITY HALL: The skywalk from the Epcor Centre to City Hall is the brightest, funnest, most colourful +15 I found and just as you get into the Municipal building, there’s these two painters sprucing up the place. Called So the Bishop Said to the Actress, the Brozne was created by J Seward Johnson JR and was presented in 1983 to the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations.
I crossed from the Epcor into City Hall which has hundreds of pieces, big and small, at +15 Level and really could use a story all to itself. The bronze men painting just into the Municipal building stands out in my mind as does the brightness of the skywalk itself. From City Hall I tried to get to the Central Library, but again failed. The wonderful people of Youthlink Calgary pointed me in the right direction until I got to the John Dutton Theatre, which was closed and the +15 passage gated and locked. I took it as a sign to end my +15 adventure and finished my day by walking through the East Village and to the Calgary Zoo.
My feet hurt. My back hurt. But by golly, what a day. I know I missed some, but my day was not wasted. I learned a lot and saw some cool things.
So here’s my recommendation to you. If you work downtown and use the +15 system, slow down every now and again. Look at what’s around you. Read the plaques for the stories behind the art. Visit the Winter Garden. Stop by the Epcor and see how a stage set is built. But most of all, stop and smell the roses (or bromeliads in the case of the +15s), you never know what will happen tomorrow.
The first Plus 15 opened in 1970 and was the brainchild of city worker Harold Hanen. It was named so because most of the bridges are about 15 feet above street level. At 59 bridges and counting, the skywalks are 16 kilometres long and the +15 is the most extensive pedestrian skywalk system in the world. (According to Wikipedia, it’s the second but it references Downtown Calgary’s website which states it’s the largest linking over 100 office buildings. Don’t ask me who’s right but I’d put my money on the sources that actually live here.)