ELEMENT ON FIRST
Architect: Clem Lau
1911 / 1961
Schematic rendering of the residential buildings that stood here, according to the footprints indicated on the 1911 and 1961 fire insurance maps.
WITH CLEM LAU (ARCHITECT OF ELEMENT ON FIRST)
+ This is a residential building. Who lives here? What kinds of Chinatown residents were you thinking about when you designed it?
This is a residential building with commercial on the main floor. This was designed to suit the residential character of downtown Calgary: smaller units with the larger ones on the top floors as premium units.
+ When was this new building constructed?
It was completed in 2015.
+ Who was your client / who commissioned the new building?
I worked on this property for 3 different property owners.
The first time was a 2-storey commercial and residential building. The property was then sold to the second client who wanted to maximize the land. This client passed away when the DP was approved. The land was sold to this current client, who was then a contractor checking on the construction cost of the proposed building. He saw the opportunity and bought the property, and continued with the project.
+ What was on this land before this building was built? How was the land acquired?
The original land was occupied by a temple. This temple was the size of a house. It was owned by the first client for many years who rented it out to the temple group.
+ As the architect for this building, tell me a bit about your design decisions for the building. How did you think that the building would express “Chinese character” or fit into Chinatown?
The City Planning Department was giving me a hard time about the design of this project. They rejected the design three times.
We already gave them all of the Chinese characters, colors and symbols, like the round columns, red brick facing, etc. But they still did not accept the design. Their reason was that this was the “Gateway to Downtown”. (Pardon me? From where – the Bow River across the street? There’s no bridge here.)
Then the idea of this southern Chinese character of the dome came to my mind. We incorporated it in, and then Planning said they liked it.
Drawings courtesy of Clem Lau.
WITH TERESA WOO-PAW (CHINATOWN ACTIVIST)
+ You mentioned that the Chinese Calgary Community Services Association’s first office was located where this building, Element on First, currently is. What do you remember about what this old building (before the new Element on First building was built) was like? What was the CCCSA’s mission in Chinatown?
This building was a very old bungalow owned by Mr Liu (his daughter is Rowena).
CCCSA was run by a group of young Chinese Canadians professionals. The mission was to provide support and services to the Chinese community. We offered informational workshops, free annual tax reporting, interpretation and translation, and we accompanied people in need for their appointments, etc. I remember one of our volunteers was a counsellor. She once provided marriage counselling to people in the kitchen, as we could only afford to rent the living room and use of the kitchen. No Chinese organization expressed or provided support to CCCSA. The Chinatown Lion’s Club was the only organization that provided some financial support to CCCSA. Then the building was finally demolished, and the land was left vacant for many years until the current building was built.
+ Is there any interesting building history?
When CCCSA was providing community services in the old house, there were tenants in the house as well.
CURRENT DAY BUILDING PHOTOGRAPHS
Photographs taken in 2021 by Christina Yao.