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Modern problems

Dalhousie professor provides a local architecture primer for modern buildings.Sean Flinn reports.



Let’s say on your way to work every day you follow the same route heading north on Barrington, toward downtown. You pass the curved steel and glass Sexton gym—on Dalhousie campus—every day with no more than a passing glance.

With his recently published overview of 50 years (1950-2000) of exemplary architecture in Atlantic Canada, including many familiar structures in Halifax, Steven Mannell wants to improve your vision of the everyday built environment.

“Stop and look at these things for a minute,” says Mannell. That’s what he wants people to do when they pass the buildings in Atlantic Modern, which presents drawings, models and photographs to illustrate the history of each building.

An exhibition toured art galleries between 2001 and 2003, and was based on juried selections. Juries comprised of the four provinces’ architectural associations’ appointed exhibition committees. They chose the best examples in their area of modern buildings, using the criteria set out by the international body, the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement.

“I just want people to get a fuller story of the history of these buildings,” Mannell adds. Book in hand, you can easily visit the Nova Scotian choices. With the exception of Brian MacKay-Lyons’s Howard House in West Pennant, they’re all urban examples, including the Canada Permanent Building at 1646 Barrington and the Dalhousie University Thermal Plant at 1236 Henry.

If you’re asking yourself, “What’s so great about the Thermal Plant building?” you’re likely not alone. Mannell is aware of the criticims modern architecture projects often face for the material, scale and expression used.

Consider Dalhousie Arts Centre—one in a “parade of big facades” on University Avenue, the heart of the university’s south end campus. In its Atlantic Modern entry, the multi-purpose building, which houses academic departments, the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, smaller studio spaces and the Dalhousie Art Gallery, is described in the book as “by far the most radical of the new Dalhousie campus buildings of the late 1960s.”

Mannell and company further detail the structure as “phantasmagorical.” Perhaps you’ve heard a friend call it something decidedly less kind, like “that building is ugy.”

Today, and when it first opened, according to Mannell, the Dalhousie Arts Centre exposed the ambivalence the public feels towards the modern buildings. He says people want them because they announce to the world that they’re not yokels, but, at the same time, they reject these same structures for their imaginative look.

While the facade of modern buildings such as the Arts Centre may make some passersby feel small and uncomfortable, Mannell and his colleagues argue in the book that the building has positive energy.

In conversation, Mannell says throughout the 1970s especially, architecture students from Japan came to Halifax to visit the Dalhousie Arts Centre because Junji Mikawa—who worked in the office of Halifax architect Charles A. Fowler before going on to become a prominent teacher in Japan—contributed significantly to its design.

Mannell and company humanize the buildings in Atlantic Modern—from a ski lodge in Newfoundland to a golf course club house on PEI to a set of townhouses in New Brunswick—by showing you the people involved and their motivations for designing spaces often written off as cold, alienating and impassive.

Mannell believes that, despite the peculiarities of modern buildings in Halifax, what should win out is “…the particularity of each building’s story.” And these are edifying stories to him. “They represent a moment in history when people were optimistic,” he says, adding these buildings beg an important question: “How do you transform a society?”

Mannell worries that question is being ignored in the city. “Tourism is selling it as an old place,” he says, adding it’s a view cemented in the 1970s with the repackaging of Historic Properties and the like. “That’s often gone hand in hand with a dislike, a danger, to modern buildings.”

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