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Firm: Webb Zerafa and Menkès

Address: 540 5 Avenue SW

Date of final plans: 1968

Status: standing as built

The Aquitaine Tower was the fourth Calgary building put up by European capital. It followed the Fina Building (Belgium), the Britannia Building (England), and the Elveden Centre (Ireland).

The Société Nationale des Pétroles d'Aquitaine (SNPA) was formed in Vichy France in 1941 as 51 percent state-owned oil company. The creation of the SNPA followed the 1939 Régie Autonome des Pétroles (RAP), another state-owned company. During the War the SNPA overstaffed itself with members of the French Resistance and used itself as a protection for them. In 1944, the company's president was arrested by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp where he later died. After the War the company revived itself through the Marshall Plan. In 1949 it made a major oil discovery near the village of Lacq, and in 1951 the company found gas beneath the oil.

In 1963 the SNPA formed a Canadian subsidiary called the Aquitaine Company of Canada Limited. The next year it purchased a 44 percent share of the Calgary company Banff Oil Limited for $4 million. Then, in 1965 Aquitaine partnered with Mobil in an exploration project that resulted in a major oil discovery at Rainbow Lake. It later made gas discoveries at Strachan in 1968 and Ricinus in 1969.

In 1968 Aquitaine went public and in 1971 it purchased Banff Oil outright. In 1981 the Aquitaine Company of Canada was acquired by Canada Development Corporation, which in turn was acquired by Nova Chemicals in 1988.

In 1967 the French parent created the gas brand Elf. In 1976 the SNPA and RAP were merged into a single company called the Société Nationale Elf Aquitaine. In 2000 Elf Aquitaine merged with Total, which was the renamed Compagnie française des pétroles.

Aquitaine's Canadian headquarters were built a year after its new headquarters in France: the Tour Aquitaine (now the Tour Blanche) in the La Défense section of Paris. To design its Canadian headquarters Aquitaine hired the Toronto firm Webb Zerafa and Menkès. The first building WZM designed in Calgary was the 1964 Calgary House. In 1968 it won two more projects in Calgary: the Aquitaine Tower and the Standard Life Building.

To accompany the building, Aquitaine commissioned four pieces of art, three of which were by French artists. The first was a metal sculpture called "Moon Stairs" by Jacqueline Badord (1917-2013). The sculpture is outside at the northeast corner of the deck. Badord's husband Oliver Deschamps and son Dominique helped assemble it. See here for more. The second was a ceramic mural at the end of the elevator hall painted by Maurice Calka (1921-1999). Entitled "Landscape," it is an abstract representation of the landscape in the Aquitaine province. The third work is a series of sculpted copper panels, made by Pierre Sabatier (1925-2003), that line the elevator hall. For more information on these see here. In 1967 Sabatier had also produced a piece for the lobby of the Tour Aquitaine in Paris (see here).

The final piece was by Canadian Inuit artist Pierre Karlik (1931-2013). The sculptor produced a six-foot long, four-tonne soapstone carving of a walrus which included real tusks. At the time this was likely the largest soapstone work in the world.

In 1979 Aquitaine started a second building, situated across the alley at 555 4 Avenue. Called Selkirk House, Aquitaine moved into it in 1980. The building was named after Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, founder of the Red River Colony and namesake of Selkirk, Manitoba. The Earl of Selkirk died in Pau, France, a town in Aquitaine where the company had a major gas discovery.

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