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Urban Systems Team Joins up With Beakerhead

Calgary’s Smash Up of Art, Science and Engineering a Hit



It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is was that made Calgary’s recent second annual city-wide art and engineering festival, Beakerhead, so very kooky, inspiring and cool. Maybe it was the giant, fire-spitting octopus? Or Golem, an 11-foot tall “steampunk rock” creature? Or possibly it was the famous guitar-playing astronauts, the towering garden gnome that shot flames 30 feet into the air, or maybe the irresistible playground made from rusted out old horse trailers?

If you ask Lisa Konopski, an Environmental Designer at Urban System’s Calgary office which recently partnered with Beakerhead to do some in-kind planning, approvals and implementation work for Beakerhead, the best part the festival was actually seeing some incredibly weird, wacky and wonderful ideas come to life.

“People at the festival were walking around in amazement, shaking their heads like ‘wow.’ The magic of the festival is that it takes what ‘should or shouldn’t be’ right off the table, and what might seem like nonsensical ideas are brought to life—it’s awe inspiring and cool to see—it makes you realize we can really do whatever we set our minds to.”

CalgaryTeam_SiteCMLisa says she also loved watching some of the Beakerhead team’s original vision—which the Urban Systems team ultimately helped guide and organize—materialize after six months of dreaming, brainstorming and planning.

“We knew that we wanted to be involved in Beakerhead because it was so unique,” explains Lisa. “Most festivals are very art oriented, but this one incorporates engineering and science too, and that’s such an important part of our work we do at Urban Systems. Here we create things that are based in a blend of art, science and engineering. Seeing the vision come to life at the festival was great.”

When the team from Urban Systems approached Beakerhead, Hanan Chebib, Director of Creative Experiences, was thrilled to have their support. Hanan was charged with making one of Beakerhead’s core experiences, Little Big Street, a success and she knew she couldn’t do it alone. Little Big Street was a community installation aimed at school groups—the vision was that adults and kids would interact with the community and all of the installations inside it in novel and interesting ways.

From inception, Little Big Street was a play on the idea of community and how people interact with communities. It was a fresh look at how the science and design behind a community influences how people live. It was meant to be unusual and different, yet still feel like a community.

Lisa and her colleagues began by taking the Beakerhead staff though a visioning exercise to determine what they wanted Little Big Street to be.

“The team at Urban Systems walked with us through raw spaces on Little Big Street and sat down and mapped things out with us from the beginning,” says Creative Director Hanan. “It was so crucial to get their help with a site plan that made sense—that was well above our expertise and it was so wonderful to have such a creative team at the same table with us.”

“In retrospect, the biggest contribution they brought to the table was that beautiful site plan. Everything was built around that core plan. Without it we couldn’t have moved forward on the logistics. For them to put our visualization down in a real format so we could move forward with it was crucial.”

And as always when planning a large event, things didn’t exactly go without a hitch.

“Our venue actually changed at the last minute,” Hanan remembers with a laugh. “We built for a particular space and it had to move to a totally different kind of venue and the Urban Systems team were rock stars at recalibrating and re-planning around that space. They knew the jam we were in and went well above their original scope. They were absolutely our partners from start to finish. Beakerhead loves Urban Systems!”

“They knew the jam we were in and went well above their original scope. They were absolutely our partners from start to finish.”

In the end Little Big Street was a huge success. This “condensed multiple installation event” had 15-17 different installations, everything from art to resemble other things or even to become laboratories or other strange settings to different takes on houses, playgrounds, and a less than 100 square foot trailer that serves as a house for its creator, an artist who takes it to various exhibitions. (Oh yeah, and a huge fire shooting garden gnome. Every community needs one of those.)

“One of the neat things,” says Lisa, “was that the artists and inventors were on site and attendees could walk up and talk to the person who came up with each wacky idea. This allowed you to hear about why they created what they did. It was more real than something like an impersonal art gallery and definitely inspiring.”

This was the first year Urban Systems participated in Beakerhead, and the festival’s second year in operation. Lisa says she and her team, which included Roberto Binda, Urban Planner, and Lee Giddens, Landscape Consultant, both from the Calgary office, will be back for more next year.

“People in the science end of things don’t often get out and celebrate what they do, whereas artists are very good at putting their work on display. Beakerhead flips that around and gave the science based folks a time to shine too. Our donation this year was a time and expertise in kind donation.. We feel they got so much more value out of that kind of contribution than if we had just written a cheque and waked away. The permitting, planning exercises and connections we brought through our relationships with suppliers and engineers and the City of Calgary were huge for them. We had an amazing time too, and we’d love to be back again next year in some capacity, that’s for sure.”

To learn more about Beakerhead, visit www.beakerhead.org

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