Deconstructing Mount Royal’s design
by Laura Lushington
It’s hard not to notice your surroundings when you spend four years of your life getting a degree at a university. When you take that brief moment to glance up from your books, you might find yourself puzzled, then thinking, “Why the hell did they put that there?”
Main Street and its wings
Calgary’s oldest architectural firm, Stevenson Raines, built Mount Royal’s Lincoln Park campus, which opened in 1972. One of the designers of the campus was Dale Taylor. Taylor said American architect Louis Kahn, and Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger, influenced the way he thought of the school’s layout.
“I was influenced by the idea in the ‘70s of setting up organizational grids and rules that allowed things to develop as time went on, in a way you didn’t really know, but it brought some kind of order,” said Taylor.
This tartan grid, which is like the lines on the plaid of a Scottish kilt, led the way for what is now known as Mount Royal’s Main Street and its alphabetized wings.
“What we basically did was to set up a grid on the site that would allow it to grow in any direction,” he said. “If one thing wanted to get bigger, it could get bigger.”
The flexible design would allow Mount Royal to insert classrooms, offices and other spaces when needed.
Nooks, crannies and windowless classrooms
However, the tartan grid would end up leaving Mount Royal with today’s wonky hallways, interior classrooms and bathrooms that are crowded onto either end of an elevator.
“This system works good in theory, but when you start actually having to add all the good stuff to it you end up with these situations,” said David Harper, a senior designer with Calgary’s Marshall Tittemore Architects and a former student of Taylor’s.
“I’m just as guilty because I’ve actually added stuff to Mount Royal because interior design or the chaplain’s office or the cafeteria needs a storage room… and they take any space that’s available,” he said.
“The expression of the art of the building isn’t relevant, only the function for the immediate task at hand.”
Concrete, concrete and more concrete
What solidified the idea of the tartan grid was that the campus would be constructed out of concrete and the majority of it would be pre-cast.
“One of the reasons for that, was that you had to build a whole campus, not just a building,” said Taylor.
“And you had to build it over a period of time which meant you’re going to go through a couple of Calgary winters and to be able to pour concrete in the winter is tough. So if you do it in a factory somewhere, where you have control of the conditions, then the concrete turns out better.”
Also, at the time, part of the new idea of using concrete was that you could etch a design into it and express something with the concrete.
“They were trying to bring art to the material,” said Harper.
However, Taylor said that the brush hammering (seen below, right) was one of the unfortunate fads of the time.
“That’s the one sort of 1960s style that, you know when you put really bad wallpaper into one of your rooms, you can at least change it,” he said. “But sometimes, you know the rumpus room that’s full of knotty pine? That’s the equivalent.”
What can now come across as an almost prison-like atmosphere was actually an attempt to make the oppressive, unfriendly material something textural and rich, says Harper.
“Concrete block at the time, and still, is considered this warehouse material,” he said. “They were trying to use it as a way of trying to add nobility to the humble concrete block and expressing it as something new.”
Gutters on the stairways
Although it can be seen as a concrete conundrum, the gutters lining some of Mount Royal’s stairways were actually designed that way.
“It’s got to do with the constructability of the building and the cleanliness of the construction,” said Harper.
He explained that it would have been easier to build one form for the wall and another for the stairs and not have them meet, instead of making a form for the wall with the stairs cut out.
“You’ve got to cut around it perfectly and step around each of these things and it has to be perfect because as soon as you take the forms off, if you didn’t build it right, then that’s what you’ve got.”
Taylor gave another reason for the gutters: “It was also kind of a janitor’s dream. That you can just brush the steps off and then brush it down here. You don’t have the corners and all that kind of stuff.”
The bell tower
As part of his contribution to the design of the campus, Taylor also designed Mount Royal’s bell tower. He said he designed it in honor of Mr. George Kerby, the founder of Mount Royal College.
“That was one of the things we wanted to be really permanent and we wanted it to age quickly,” said Taylor.
Part of the bell tower is a carillon, a set of bells, which are played through a keyboard. Taylor says it was hoped the design of the bell tower would allow it to broadcast the carillon to the neighbourhood and be a part of Mount Royal’s architectural identity.
“We did those big speaker boxes out of weathering steel that rusts and turns dark,” he said. “Then when the rain gets on it, the rain washes down and stains the concrete.
“We did that on purpose so it looks like it’s been there forever.”
So, the next time you are studying in the library or walking down the stairs, take a look around. What you may have previously considered only the four walls around you may suddenly have a new meaning.