Brad Cloepfil On Calgary’s National Music Centre, A Bid For Big-Time Culture

The concept is designed as a 135,000-square-foot repository for the city’s cultural aspirations: It’ll be a performance hall, a recording studio, a radio station, a classroom space, and a museum.

Allied Works Architecture has revealed final plans for an ambitious $135 million National Music Centre (NMC) in Calgary. The concept, a chiseled arch of a building that spans two blocks in Calgary’s depressed East Village, is designed as a 135,000-square-foot repository for the city’s cultural aspirations: It’ll be a performance hall, a recording studio, a radio station, a classroom space, a museum honoring Canada’s rich musical heritage (which includes the likes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young), and an anchor for larger urban renewal. In sum, it’s conceived of to do everything short of take off for intergalactic space flight. “We’re inventing an institution here,” architect Brad Cloepfil tells Co.Design. “It’s an exciting thing but it’s a daunting thing. It’s a building type that doesn’t exist yet.”


“This is a building type that doesn’t exist yet.?

And Cloepfil wondered whether it even needed to. One of the first things he did after winning the commission (beating out starchitects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Jean Nouvel, among others) was ask the folks behind the National Music Centre whether a building was really necessary. “Why build a national music center when everyone’s on their iPods?” he says. “Does a music institution need a venue anymore?” It’s a legitimate question at a time when governments are strapped for cash and capital building campaigns look more and more like vanity projects that distract from more pressing civic matters. (Of the National Music Centre’s $135 million price tag, $75 million will come from public coffers.)

Ultimately, though, the answer was yes, Canada’s music-loving public needed a place to hang its hat. “It’s about people coming together,” Cloepfil says. “People always talked about how libraries would disappear. But they didn’t. People still go and bring their laptops. People like to be around people. So this space is about bringing people together for music.”



The National Music Centre is arranged as a series of “resonant vessels” inspired by Western Canada’s striking landscape: the crags and canyons of the Rocky Mountains, the hoodoos of southern Alberta, and the vast openness of Calgary’s prairies. The vessels work by dividing the building into intense, acoustically isolated performance spaces and quiet, break-out areas reminiscent of canyons. (Check out the fly-through video above for some nice visuals.) This creates what Cloepfil calls ‘a serial, sequential rhythmic experience of silence and music, silence and music.’ He goes on: “It’s that in-between space that we really designed. The void is what holds the building together.”


A building’s “resonant vessels” were inspired by Western Canada’s striking landscape.

Calgary expects the music center to be the crown jewel in a master plan to regenerate the city’s East Village. Once home to the city’s liveliest blues club, the King Edward Hotel, the neighborhood is now roughly 75 percent vacant, Cloepfil says. The new building takes pains to integrate into the area. It’ll envelop and revive the King Eddy, which closed in 2004, turning the space into artists-in-residence live/work lofts. It’ll feature lots of glass at street level to ensure that the place doesn’t feel like an impenetrable fortress. And the two-story bridge spanning 4th Street SE will appear as a literal gateway to the neighborhood.


In a bigger sense, the music center is a gateway for Calgary. Calgary is something of an underdog in Canada: not as cultured as Toronto, not as sexy as Montreal. The fact that Calgary gets the National Music Centre — and one of the Eastern cities doesn’t — is itself cause for major civic bragging rights (or what passes for bragging in Canada). The fact that the city also gets a thoughtful building in the bargain is just Calgary getting really damned lucky.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.