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Beyond the Basilica

Slap on some sunblock and walk the line with our guided tour of Halifax’s modern architecture. By Sean Flinn. Photos Crystal Cox


Halifax offers many opportunities to the urban wanderer: plenty of great streetscapes, changing landscape, people and buildings. While some follow the prescribed paths leading to favourite and famous places—the gazebo in the Public Gardens, Citadel Hill or Saint Mary’s Basilica—others may meander off in search of the modern.

Modern buildings are the old new buildings of our city’s built heritage. They were once different, exciting, if not a little perplexing. Now they’re aging, often ignored. Modern buildings are described as ’60s or ’70s-looking, weird, out of place, ugly or dismissed with an historical metaphor such as “Soviet prison.”

Cool examples wait to be found throughout Halifax, as Steven Mannell points out in Atlantic Modern: The Architecture of the Atlantic Provinces, 1950-2000. (Vacationers could plot out a great east coast road trip by visiting each building in the book, ask for it in local bookstores.) Some sites visited come from Mannell’s book; some are additional choices from your friendly tour guide.

These buildings remain important because, as Mannell points out in his book, they embody political and social ideals such as increased access to education, human rights and improved standards of living—ideals too easily forgotten in our presently conservative times. At the very least, they represent a link in our history between the beloved 19th-century buildings and the post-modern “twisted towers” so hotly debated today.

A beautiful mind

Start the trek at the west end of the Common, near the Quinpool and Robie intersection. If you have a pair of binoculars, bring them—not to watch the people (ya creep) but to turn your attention to detail on the Welsford Apartment Building (1973-74) at 2074 Robie Street. While not in Mannell’s book, this highrise represents the past vision of the “future city”—high density and modern living.

Scan the Welsford’s facade up and down. Note the sections of combed, raised lines. Each pattern differs in line length and number. At first, it’s as interesting as stucco. Look, and think, again.

The modulation in the lines appears almost organized: a code? A message? Lay back on the grass and work it out. (Then publish your conclusions somewhere because I’m obsessed with it.)

Heavenly vision

Cross over to St. Vincent’s Guest House at 2080 Windsor Street—a short block west from your starting point. If your grandfather or great aunt lives there, pay them a visit. Even if you don’t have a relation there, St. Vincent’s is worth the visit for the iconic chapel out front of the residential building, now receiving a facelift, care of William Nycum and Associates.

A cross stands like a rocket atop the low, round, red brick church, causing even this lapsed Catholic to consider the thoughts and prayers of residents going upwards. A rounded column (actually a half-pipe of brick concealing a metal utility staircase; a pedway connects the residence to the chapel) and concrete brackets appear to hold the church steady and solid on the earth.

The church’s interior follows the same curvature, with the altar standing in the middle of a semi-circle, the priest virtually seen from all angles. A personal favourite of mine, the St. Vincent chapel resembles the circular plan of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Charlottetown, which Mannell describes as a “prototype of the late 20th-century church.”

Performing arts

Head across to 6086 Quinpool Road, at Vernon Street. Video Difference, with its glass facade and neon light sculpture (a reel on top of a transmitter tower), has the bearing of a church, a cathedral of cinema, a beacon calling all true believers in the form from all over the city. That’s why I love it.

Take Vernon Street for several blocks. Cross Coburg Road and pick up Seymour Street into the Dalhousie campus. Approaching the Dalhousie Arts Centre (1969-71), at 6061 University Avenue, you come upon one of the round corners of the building, pictured in Atlantic Modern. The design team—including Japanese architect Junji Mikawa, working on an exchange program with CA Fowler Bauld and Mitchell Ltd.—notes Mannell, chose an earthy brown “precast cladding” for the building, just one of the many elements of this exciting place.

Part of the visionary project of then-Dalhousie president Henry Hicks to modernize the campus, the Arts Centre has a large-scale facade running along University Avenue, a panorama of leaning lines and jutting blocks, signalling the busy creativity inside. (Much like the multi-purpose Barbican Centre in London, UK, if you’re heading there on a visit this summer.) The activities within differ—music, theatre, dance, visual art (cool off in the basement gallery), academic study—but they’re all meant to engage and excite with provocative expression and performance, but also a sense of community, as crowds flood out of the various spaces, down (or up) into the lobby.


Hang a left out of the Arts Centre on University Avenue and walk along the row of university buildings, back to Robie once again. Look for 6016 University Avenue. What the hell, you think at first, it’s just the Public Archives of Nova Scotia (1978-80) building—a simple, red brick box. Exactly.

The “resolute brick mass”—Mannell’s term—came courtesy of Keith Graham, Frank Harrington and Jim Donohue. The “vault-like image” of the archives caps off a decade of preserving the province’s past (Historic Properties was finished in the early ’70s) with a modern flourish.

As a material, the archive’s red brick complements the brickwork seen on some of the Dalhousie buildings and the fire station, the city’s oldest, across the street. Red brick also signifies containment and protection: think of all the historic and fragile records within the archives. Yeah, hurricanes can huff and puff, but this building ain’t going anywhere: The past will be preserved. Furthermore, the top-heavy form—brick mass above rows of windows slotted in, and running to, ground level—conjures a cranial image, the brain, with all its knowledge, kept safe behind its red brick skull.

Physical fitness

Leaving the Public Archives behind, you travel downtown where “historic” (19th-century) Halifax lives. Still, modern buildings crop up, providing provocative contrast.

Continue down University several blocks to Barrington Street. Take a left and you’re soon at 1360 Barrinton, the Sexton Memorial Gym (1960-63). A glassed-in entrance with a winged, cantilevered canopy offers a dramatic introduction to the core building, a gently rolling wave of a structure that breaks out, as Mannell describes, into three separate floating layers. Like the Arts Centre on the main campus, this building by Andris Kundzins was part of the technical campus’s 1960s modernization. It looks awesome in daylight, but it’s a real treat at night, when lit from within.


Keep heading towards the downtown core to 1646 Barrington Street where, behold, you find the first documented modern building in Halifax. Modernism came late to this city, but nevertheless it arrived. The Canada Permanent Building (1961-62) was heralded by one newspaper as “a tower of glass and steel…the city’s first curtain wall structure,” according to Mannell’s book.

Though a “mass building,” Mannell illuminates its light weight and translucency (a nice continuation from the Sexton Gym), and the fact it follows a narrow path from Barrington up Sackville to Argyle.

Another CA Fowler job, the firm’s namesake, Mannell reports, convinced the corporate honchos at Canada Permanent Trust to go with this modern design, rather than the requested, traditional three-storey masonry building. Ponder this part of our past as you climb the hill up Sackville Street to Brunswick Street. Then ask yourself: What’s it like to swim in a trapezoid?

Turn right and head for the cool promise of Centennial Pool, which opened May 25, 1968, in time to host the Canadian Olympic Diving trials that year. In 1969, some of the Canada Games were held here.

You don’t need to execute a high-flying, twisting dive to feel the history of the place. The building’s shape suggests a bygone, mythologized era: Canada at its 100th birthday. The sheer drop of the exterior wall down to Cogswell Street mimics the rapid descent of the diver; the pattern of diamonds strung together reflects a pool’s tiled bottom.

Still, you should climb the 10-metre diving board. Ascend that peak in dramatic fashion —you’re celebrating the modern, after all—to consider the corner angle of ceiling and wall, the high point in the trapezoid. Up there, with the ribbons of tinted window, you should feel good about what you’ve done today. How you decide to come down is up to you.

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