It's not paradise, but this parking lot is close

Like the Joni Mitchell song, SAIT paved paradise and put up a parking lot . . . with one caveat: it's gorgeous. This is no ordinary $70-million parking garage. It's one of the best examples of functional art this car-driven city can call its own.
The new three-level parkade at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology both depicts the Alberta prairie sky, and blends into it, using a technology developed by Vancouver artist Roderick Quin.

Built into the south-facing slope on 10th Street N.W., the roof stops at ground level of gothic Heritage Hall, so that it doesn't obstruct the view of the historic 1921 building. Moreover, no green space has been sacrificed. The roof of the parkade has been turned into a year-round soccer pitch to accommodate the SAIT Trojans. The walking entrance off the Heritage Hall level into the lot is reminiscent of the Louvre in Paris. Pyramids push up out of the staircase, becoming an articulated glass atrium.

The best part of all are the clouds that look like they are airbrushed onto the east and south facing walls, but are actually created from sunlight, shining through millions of tiny holes punched into metal screens built into the two facades of the parkade. The natural light from the west reflects Quin's computer-generated pixelated image of a sky full of clouds.

"It's an alive surface that interacts with the environment and interacts with the viewers," says Quin. "If you stand at certain angles to the wall, the actual sky of the surface of the parkade merges with the real sky behind it. You can't tell them apart," he said in an interview from Vancouver.

"It's magic."

Imagine the canvas is the metal screen and the paint is the light from the sky, and together, they create a masterpiece. The canvas changes with the sunlight throughout the day, according to the shadows reflected from the position of the sun and the colour of the sky.

The garage is significant because it's an example of an emerging subculture that's uniquely Calgary, even though the structure is the first of its kind in the world. Increasingly, Calgarians are seeking a better way of interacting with their environment, proving our culture is much more than strip malls and suburbia.

Calgary is a sprawling city with growth that has outpaced the capacity of the transit system, resulting in a car-oriented society. We spend a lot of time in our vehicles. But just like a car for most of us is more than a hunk of metal, a parking structure shouldn't have to be a necessary but oppressive atrocity.

"Every parkade in the city, every parkade in the world, is a concrete bunker," says John Souleles of Marshall Tittemore Architects, the local firm that partnered on the project with Bing Thom architects in Vancouver.

"The idea is to humanize the parkade and to bring it back into the realm of landscape and into an artistic amenity for the people who are using it, instead of it just being a storage area for a shiny metal box."

Parkades are always a problem for architects and urban planners because people generally don't like looking at them, or even using them. The 1,000 plus students and professors parking at the SAIT garage are an exception.

Quin's inspiration to create the dramatic Alberta sky came out of his first trip to the province, which coincided with the big Edmonton tornado of 1987. He turned what was "a terrifying event" that left a big impression on him full circle, into something beautiful.

"We've turned this potentially negative structure and its impact on the environment, in the minds of those who use it and those who have to see it every day, into something completely, 180 degrees absolutely positive," says Quin. "The last thing anybody is thinking about is actually what the building is used for."

It's not paradise, but cloud nine is a close second.
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