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Can’t we find big architects at home?

I don’t know about you, but the next time I have dinner with Santiago Calatrava, he’s picking up the tab.

I don’t know about you, but the next time I have dinner with Santiago Calatrava, he’s picking up the tab. He’s the Spanish architect just handed a $2.3-million design contract by the city to design a foot bridge west of Prince’s Island. There was no design competition; his name emerged from city hall. That was that.

Go big or go home, some say. But can’t you go big and go home at the same time? There are two pedestrian bridges planned across the Bow River at a cost of $25 million. When the idea was brought to city council by Druh Farrell last July, it got voted down. Not to give up, ally John Mar referred it to a something called a combined city council, and Mayor (Build, Baby Build) Bronconnier voted for it, along with a few more aldermen. Cost aside, the question is then begged: Could we not have found design talent closer to home?

I’m a bit on the fence about this one. In terms of “staying home” for urban design, it’s not like any of Calgary’s architects, or their clients, have come up with anything worthy to look at, yet. Now don’t get all sensitive. But when you have a friend visit, can you think of one place you venture to, just for architectural significance? Unlikely. You pull the Calgary quick-step: Veer onto the TransCanada and hit the gas until mountains are in full view. Breathe sigh of relief.

So maybe it does make sense to unilaterally give a multimillion design contract to someone proven to make a mark. Maybe a “wow” foot bridge is what the city needs. (It doesn’t need foot bridges per se, there are two in the area already.)

And the money? Well, it gets spent on lesser things, like boring roads, and more boring roads. Quality costs, sometimes. Sometime paying more is worth it. At the right time, like two years ago.

But back to go big or go home. There’s a nagging problem. It’s Moshe Safdie, the McGill student who designed Habitat ’67, easily Canada’s most interesting, most original, most awe-inspiring housing development. What if the Montreal powers that be hadn’t stayed close to home, or gambled on a student’s project?

Design is a gamble and there’s no guarantee that a committee would make a better choice. But still, I can’t help but feel there’s a city designer waiting to break out. A chance she’ll never get. So how about this? Pay Mr. Big Wig Arquitecto his money, but set aside, let’s say a year’s tuition for five student finalists for Bridge 2, then hold a citizen’s vote.

It will be big, and be home.

– Janice Paskey teaches journalism at Mount Royal College, serves on her community association board and is proud mom to two boys.

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