Calgary’s Olympic Plaza, adorned with tens of thousands of engraved brown bricks bearing the names of Calgarians, is facing an uncertain future as plans for a major makeover loom.
The bricks, introduced as part of a city promotion in 1986, allowed individuals to leave their personal mark on the plaza for a cost of $19.88. Yet fears are starting to mount about the future of the historic bricks as a makeover – said to cost almost $500 million – is set to get underway.
A lively history
To outsiders, Olympic Plaza might sound like the name of a sports shop, but the central square holds a special place in many Calgarians’ hearts. It served as a central hub for the famous 1988 Winter Olympics where the city celebrated its athletes’ medal wins. Beyond the Olympics, the plaza is also linked to the history of Calgary’s first Chinatown, standing on the site where Chinese immigrants first settled in the late 19th century.
Then, in 1986, the city government decided to honor the history of the square by offering citizens the chance to carve their names onto some of its bricks. The campaign grew to include over 30,000 of them with people all over the world – almost all with Calgarian connections – signed up to take part.
The bricks became a part of the city’s folklore and a software developer even mapped out all the bricks’ locations and put them into an app in 2017.
Today the square is one of the city’s most notable meeting points. In an age where we’re bombarded with stay-at-home activities, ranging from watching a movie to playing on an online casino, community hubs are falling by the wayside. The Olympic Plaza provides residents with this sense of unity, which explains why a planned renovation has provoked such an uproar.
An unwelcome change
The news came as a shock to local resident in 2016.
According to an official report, it no longer met the requirements for modern concerts and cultural events.
Councillor Kourtney Penner highlighted the need for the plaza to adapt to the city’s growing diversity and changing technological demands shortly after. It led The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), in collaboration with the City of Calgary and Arts Commons, to announce a $480-million project to revitalize the plaza and its surrounding areas.
This planned upheaval threatened the future of the engraved bricks, much to the alarm of residents.
It has reignited the long-standing debate surrounding the preservation of the plaza’s physical legacy, particularly these engraved bricks. Although the project team acknowledges the historic significance of the plaza, the condition of the bricks has rendered them unsalvageable. The report states that due to their age, the bricks are crumbling in place and cannot be retrieved whole.
As the plaza’s reconstruction is set to commence in 2024, the fate of these bricks, which hold deep personal and historical meaning for many Calgarians, remains uncertain.
A new legacy
Despite worries about losing the plaza’s historical legacy, there is an opportunity to create a new one.
Some locals believe that the redevelopment project provides an ideal opportunity to reflect the present-day identity of Calgary while honouring the spirit of the 1988 Winter Olympics. Councillor Penner proposes incorporating the names of new Calgarians into the design, creating a new slice of history.
As the plans for the major makeover of Olympic Plaza progress, the balance between preserving the plaza’s historical importance and adapting it to meet the city’s evolving needs remains a key challenge. Many Calgarians would love to see the city competing with the Canadian supercities like Toronto and Vancouver on the international stage.
The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, along with input from various stakeholders, will play a crucial role in determining how the legacy of Olympic Plaza and its engraved bricks will be honoured and integrated into the redesigned space.
The public, too, will want their voices to be heard during the reconstruction.
In a world increasingly dominated by digital distractions and individual pursuits, the existence of community spaces is essential. Among them, the Olympic Plaza stands out as a city landmark, where residents can connect, engage, and partake in shared experiences.
Although the bricks may seem like a small part of this to outsiders, removing them from the square could result in a huge blow to the communal spirit that the plaza represents.