With BMO Centre’s opening, it’s now established that new Rivers District buildings have to look cool

Photo credit:Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports
Ryan Pike
28 days ago
Over the past few years, a lot of attention has been paid to boosting development in the Stampede Park and Victoria Park area – the part of the city that City Hall has dubbed “The Rivers District.” The redevelopment is centred around a pair of tent-pole projects that hopes are will draw Calgarians and tourists alike to Stampede Park year-round.
The two mega-projects are the BMO Centre expansion, which opened its doors on June 8, and the upcoming new arena for the Calgary Flames, which is expected to begin construction later this summer. These two major projects follow on the heels of a few others that have been completed in recent years in the area, such as Studio Bell (opened in 2016), the Central Library (opened in 2018), the Platform Innovation Centre (opened in 2022) and the SAM Centre (opened in 2024).
If nothing else, the buildings that have opened in the area thus far have set a specific architecture standard – if you’re going to be in this neighbourhood, your building better look cool and have some local flavour to its design. That sets a high bar for the two firms tasked with the two mega-projects: Populous (partnering with Stantec and S2 on the BMO Centre expansion) and HOK (partnering with DIALOG on the new Flames arena).
Earlier this month, FlamesNation chatted with Populous’ Michael Lockwood and Stantec’s Leo Lejeune on the challenges of designing the BMO Centre expansion. In particular, convention centres – like arenas – can fall into the trap of feeling generic and disconnected from the city they’re located in. Lockwood likened the BMO Centre to the “living room of Calgary,” and the team designed with that mindset.
“A core tenet of our practice is understanding spirit of place,” said Lockwood. “So we have to live and breathe the place in which we design buildings. And for Calgary specifically, having amazing partners with Stantec and S2, one of the most important things that we did is that we attended Stampede in 2019 before we picked up a pen and started designing the facility, because we wanted to live and breathe the Stampede brand and our partners with Stantec and S2 allowed us to understand and experience it for the first time. I went for eight days, went as long as I could, but really understanding the energy of the space, the energy of the event. And one of the core mottoes of our project here was ‘Stampede 365,’ so how do you capture that Stampede spirit year-round, for international guests that may never attend the 10-day festival? And we think this building does that.”
Populous is a gigantic company with design projects around the world. They’ve done work on recent arena builds (or rebuilds) such as Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena and New York’s UBS Arena, and they’ve built convention centres around the world in places like Sydney (Australia), Qatar and San Antonio. (They also worked on the Sphere in Las Vegas.) They rely on their locally-based partners, Stantec and S2 in the case of BMO Centre’s expansion, to help the building have a sense of place rooted in the area.
“We were able to help inform some of the big site moves and those decisions about bringing 17th Avenue into the site, bringing Calgarians into Stampede Park in a way they haven’t been able to do in over 40 years, and creating this anchor building on the corner that doesn’t block the district,” said Lejeune. “In fact, our design moves support a new future arena, diagonally through underneath this canopy to a new Flames event centre. Supports whether the Saddledome stayed or whether it was demolished. It all works because of careful thought as to the placement of things on the site together.”
One of the key design elements that was used to help make the new BMO Centre feel like Calgary was, well, allowing visitors to see Calgary as much as possible. The designers really focused on creating access points to natural light, with a lot of windows and skylights throughout to provide views of the city. And while Calgary’s unabashedly a winter city that gets cold at times, balconies were also included in the design to leverage outdoor space when the seasons allow.
“That’s really important because convention centres of the past were historically closed boxes, inward-looking,” said Lejeune. “Dark meeting rooms, dark ballrooms. So if people are going to be spending the money on coming to Calgary, the best way to attract them is to actually sell your city, showcase your city, put it on display through the windows. And in addition to that, about creating great light, great views, is creating some of those Calgary elements, those unique architectural moments that patrons can experience inside the building.”
Some of the “Calgary elements” integrated in the BMO Centre include enlarged medallions that replicate classic 1960s Stampede coins embedded in the main level’s flooring and a recreation of the Stampede Corral’s old “Neon Cowboy” design. The centrepiece of the indoor gathering space, The Exchange, is Canada’s largest fireplace, while the large outdoor gathering space including several seating areas and a grand staircase underneath the large canopy arm.
If nothing else, the BMO Centre expansion is a bold piece of infrastructure that attempts to knit itself into the community it’s located in, and meets the “must look cool” threshold for inclusion in the district. We’ll see what HOK and DIALOG have up their sleeves when the event centre designs are unveiled sometime later this summer.

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