April 7, 2020

Calgary underpass design brightens pedestrian experience

School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape prof and alumni worked together on award-winning architecture project

Calgary created its CP Railway underpasses so pedestrians could move safely between the Beltline and downtown along its busiest streets. But over the years, these passageways have felt dark and at times threatening, becoming spaces to be endured rather than experienced.

The Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative (MBAC) reimagined the underpass on 4th Street S.W. as a space enhanced by lighting and interactive art that is a pleasure to navigate. MBAC is led by Marc Boutin, a University of Calgary alumnus and associate professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, and includes several alumni among its partners.

MBAC recently received a National Urban Design Award from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for its work on the 4th Street S.W. Underpass.

Enhancement part of a citywide conversation

Before its transformation, the site was marred by poor lighting, limited accessibility and deterioration of materials. Trevor Steckly, MArch’15, Sean Knight, MArch’08, Kristen St. Arnault, MArch’07, and Jodi James, MArch’12, worked to reclaim the space in a project called the 4th Street S.W. Underpass Enhancement, part of a citywide conversation in planning, design and public art.

Steckly, project co-ordinator, says, “It has been rewarding to see the project come full circle — seeing the public engage the project, interact with one another, and express themselves in new ways that were not possible before in the underpass.”

The underpass was designed in collaboration with artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, known internationally for his work projecting images and sound onto architectural facades and public monuments.

Boutin says, “The project is a significant accomplishment, primarily from the perspective that the design engages an urban residual site, that of an underpass, which is an urban challenge that the city inherited as it moved from an ethos centered around industrial and transportation efficiencies to an ethos centered around civil urban experiences."  

All lit up, a bicyclist moves through the underpass at night.

All lit up, a bicyclist moves through the underpass at night.

Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative

Investing in walkable neighbourhoods

“And it is also critical to acknowledge the role and vision of the City of Calgary in stewarding this project that is all about suturing the urban environment and investing in walkable neighbourhoods,” Boutin adds.

MBAC has played a significant role transforming the Calgary landscape into one that acknowledges history and promotes shared experiences. From the iconic aluminum fins at the East Village C-Train station, to the Landscape of Memory along Memorial Drive and the post-flood sculptural Parkdale Plaza.

Boutin notes, “One of the great joys of working as an architect and urban designer here in Calgary is that our firm has developed as this young city has evolved, working closely with the city, and Edmonton as well, in recalibrating their public realms to reflect the desire to be not just great places to work in, but more importantly, great places to live in."

Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative

A project rendering.

Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative

Local and national awards

For its work on the 4th Street S.W. Underpass, Boutin’s firm was awarded the Royal Architectural Institute’s Certificate of Merit in the Urban Fragments category. The jury noted the project for its “understated design” as having the “potential to turn a negative pedestrian experience into something positive. The use of dynamic lighting to reflect the movement of pedestrians is a highlight of the design. The lighting is as much an art feature as a security and amenity enhancement.”

In addition to its recent national recognition, the underpass project garnered earlier honours in the 2017 and 2019 Calgary Mayor’s Urban Design Awards. The firm has had a successful year, winning 2020 Prairie Wood Awards for both a private residence and the Sunalta Community Centre. MBAC was also recognized with a Progressive Architecture Award for its Edmonton Valley Zoo Children’s Precinct project, The Above Zone.