Photo courtesy TELUS World of Science

The sunlit galleries of Calgary’s angular new science centre gracefully enfold its signature four-storey atrium. The $160 million Telus World of Science, designed by Calgary architect Alan Collyer, reflects an emerging cosmopolitan skyline that includes Norman Foster’s crescent-shaped The Bow building and Santiago Calatrava’s glass-covered Peace Bridge. The first new purpose-built Canadian science centre in 25 years will open at the end of October and expects an annual attendance of half a million. North of the city’s zoo, it dwarfs its predecessor, a virtually windowless, domed concrete structure built in 1967.

Size and style, however, go hand-inhand with the centre’s function as a conceptual landmark, emphasizes CEO Jennifer Martin, who helped lead the push to reinvent not only the Calgary science centre but also the entire science centre paradigm. “The type of [visitor] engagement is going to be what really sets us apart,” she says. To this end, an inclusive and interactive strategy has been developed to broaden the traditional science centre audience of elementary school kids and chaperones to include teens and adults. “What people consider a science centre to be,” says Martin, “will be changed by what we’re doing.”

In a pioneering process dubbed “piloting,” visitors to the city’s existing science centre were set loose on exhibit mock-ups dealing with everything from pipelines to puberty, focusing particularly on energy, entrepreneurship and other hallmarks of Alberta culture. The results have surprised Devon Hamilton, the centre’s director of content. “You need to be willing to see the thing that you’ve been working on get ignored by visitors,” he says, “or changed by them into something completely different.”

Toy Mashup was just such a surprise hit. Teenagers were given heaps of toy parts and were asked, simply, to create something new. “It exploded on us,” says Hamilton. The teens ignored adjacent whizzy technology-based exhibits to attach doll heads and gorilla arms to robot bodies and created detailed backstories for their “Franken-toys.” Toy Mashup morphed into a centrepiece exhibit with its own program. “It was completely influenced by what we saw those teenagers doing,” says Hamilton.

David Oswald’s Montréal-based company Design + Environment Inc. was hired to oversee the centre’s inaugural exhibit-creation process. He compares the facility to the “phenomenal” City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, a landmark that draws visitors to explore the entire city. He believes that although the two projects are comparable in scale, Calgary took a more interactive approach to visitor experience. “The new centre,” says Oswald, “is fundamentally integrated with the place and the people of Calgary and southern Alberta.”

This connection with the local environment is layered, beginning with a target of LEED Gold-certified sustainable construction and a surrounding shortgrass prairie park on a former brownfield site. The building provides a 360-degree view of the park and the bustling city beyond and serves as a focal point for the volunteer efforts of local scientists. The cuttingedge audiovisual technology of its theatre will further contextualize Calgary’s place in the world by presenting global scientific phenomena — from tsunamis to space travel — as they unfold in real time.

“We’re not experts in all areas of science and technology,” says CEO Martin. “We’re the party hosts who set the great table, but it’s the guests who can have the great conversation.”