An extraordinary event next Thursday in Calgary deserves national attention. In a public show at the Grand Theatre, five architects will present their proposals for the Cantos Music Foundation’s new national music centre, which will be built on the site of the old King Eddy Hotel in Calgary’s East Village.
Cantos has been active in Calgary for several years, and it’s kind of a bunch of things at once. It houses easily the most complete collection of historical keyboard instruments in Canada, from historic and replica harpsichords and fortepianos, to a big old movie-house organ with drums and noisemakers attached, to the piano Elton John used to write Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and assorted electronic keyboards. It’s a peformance space and it organizes musical events in the broader Calgary community. It has music-education programs. And it’s the new home of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame collection.
But that’s just the beginning of what comes next. My conversations with the people at Cantos suggest they want to move, in one great big step, from being an important Calgary organization to being a significant national institution. The amazing list of architects who’ll be in town pitching their wares on July 23 gives a hint of the scale of that ambition. How’s this for a short list:
• Jean Nouvel, winner of the 2008 Pritzker Prize and designer of more kind of crazy-wonderful buildings than you can shake a stick at, including the Abu Dhabi Louvre and the new Paris Philharmonie.
• Allied Works Architecture, whose principal Brad Cloepfil got worldwide attention for his audacious, controversial terra-cotta transformation of a historic building at 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
• Montreal’s Saucier + Perotte, the only Canadian lead architects on the shortlist (though many of the foreigners have partnered with Calgary firms). Saucier + Perotte is familiar for their bold, black designs for Perimeter Institute and McGill University’s new music building, among others.
• Studio Pali-Fekete, a Los Angeles firm that seems to be responsible for half the glamour projects in Southern California. Here’s founder Zoltan Pali explaining how a lot of his work is a reaction to LA’s urban sprawl, which suggests he may be a good match for Cantos’s role in Calgary’s East Village.
That’s a heck of a list. Nouvel is one of the world’s half-dozen biggest starchitects. Cloepfil and Diller Scofidio are coming off two of the highest-profile Manhattan renovations in 20 years. Saucier Perotte are hungry to solidify their reputation outside Quebec, and Pali Fekete just seems to think a little different. If Nouvel wins, the Cantos project will automatically attract some of the international attention that Frank Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario and Daniel Libeskind’s Royal Ontario Museum enhancements drew. And if anyone else wins, well, they beat Jean Nouvel, so they’re off to quite a start.
Last week I had an article, based on the arts-oriented real-estate development around the Montreal International Jazz Festival, that mentions Calgary’s East Village as another example of cities using culture as an anchor for commercial growth and downtown rebirth. Cantos’s new national music centre will be the anchor for that. It promises to be a hell of an anchor. I do wish I could be in Calgary next Thursday to see what these five have been cooking.