Work of Art: Spire by Charles R. (Bob) Boyce

This red sculptural arch at the entry to the Olympic Oval has long been known by its nickname “the paperclip.”


Photograph by Dave Brown, University of Calgary


Title: Spire (1987)

Artist: Charles R. (Bob) Boyce

Medium: Endura polyurethane on 16-inch tubular steel.

Size: 19.88-metres high, by approximately 30-m wide, by approximately 21-m long.

Weight: 20 tonnes.

Location: Olympic Oval, north entrance, University of Calgary.

Note: This work was commissioned by the Government of Canada with construction by Viking Steel. Other local works by Boyce include The Bridge (1980), currently at the Kiyooka Ohe Arts Centre (KOAC) in Springbank and The Archimedian (c. 1990)  at 909 11 Ave. S.W.


Time to reassess a piece of Calgary’s ’88 Olympic cultural legacy: the red sculptural arch at the entry to the Olympic Oval, long known by its nickname “the paperclip.” In scale and structure, the arch relates to its surroundings with verve, quite an accomplishment when you realize the entire area was under construction while the giant sculpture was assembled, welded and painted on site for its debut in August, 1987.  

Walk through to experience the sensation of the transition of width to height. Five elements (called “bipods” by the artist) form a sequence. The first opens wide and low. The next ones become narrower and more erect, yet are still anchored to the ground, while the final one is held aloft. In this sense, the work’s official name Spire, is more fitting than its nickname.

Artist Charles R. (Bob) Boyce has always had a keen interest in systems, especially underlying ratios. Viewing the sculpture from the east side (with a view of the distant ski jumps) reveals that the tips of the bipods trace the arc of a perfect circle. The diameter of that circle, 19.88 metres, is both the crux of the design and the height of the sculpture. Using the numbers 1988 (the calendar year of the Calgary Winter Games) and five (the number of rings in the Olympic logo), he developed the structural logic. As Boyce has said: “Once I had the number, the rest fell into place.”

Boyce got the commission for Spire by winning a national competition. Just 31 years old at the time, he didn’t have a studio and created the design by using pick-up sticks, graph paper and a Texas Instruments calculator. When University engineers checked his design for structural stability using computers, Boyce’s drawings were accurate within three decimal points.  

Boyce also folded pop-culture references into the work. Playing off the iconic Rudolph Zallinger illustration “The Road to Homo Sapiens” (a.k.a. “The March of Progress”) on the evolution from ape to modern man, Boyce proposes five stages of athletes: crawling, walking, running, jumping, flying. Look upward and you’ll discern a slight twist that complicates the symmetry of the sculpture, a nod to the DNA helix and a reminder of our physical building blocks. 

Born in Saskatchewan, Boyce came to the Alberta College of Art (now Alberta College of Art + Design) from Moose Jaw. In the early 1970s he saw the Valley Curtain Documentation exhibition by the artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the Alberta College of Art Gallery, and it had a powerful influence on him, setting him on course to make large-scale sculptural works that created an environment, a stage set for people to move within. Spire is his most monumental work.

In recent years, Boyce has focused on photography, though still with a feel for how people relate to their environment. 


This article appears in the August 2018 issue of Avenue Calgary. Subscribe here.


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