It was standing room-only on Saturday morning at a live broadcast of Brent Bambury’s neo-variety show GO at the CBC Radio studio on Sackville. The affable host gently poked fun at his former residence with the usual schtick: crappy weather, Keith’s beer and the disconcerting winter disappearance of Public Garden ducks. However, under all the CBC-friendly banter there lies a bigger issue: how do you describe Halifax to the rest of the country?
Poll a random group of people and as sure as bagpipes in July, someone will mention the historic downtown buildings. Tourism operators happily market every gabled nook and cranny, and the city capitalizes on its Victorian charm on all its tartan posters and television commercials.
Not everyone shares this quaint vision of the city. Last Wednesday, about 80 people braved the chill to check out Siamak Hariri’s proposed design for a glass, two-tower high-rise at the old TexPark site at 1591 Granville. The Toronto architect—fresh from winning Canadian Architect’s 2004 Award of Excellence for his translucent mushrooming Baha’i House of Worship in Santiago, Chile—initiated another round of the ol’ heritage debate, polarizing Haligonians into a Sharks-versus-Jets battle over the future of the downtown core.
Hariri took a holistic approach to designing the building, citing the city’s cultural and artistic communities as influences. The towers were designed on a Lazy Susan to ensure an attractive view from all perspectives, not just the obvious tourist lookouts.
“People kept speaking about the harbour and the Citadel,” said Hariri, back in his Toronto office. “But in fact, the city is much more complex than those two.”
Not everyone who attended Wednesday’s meeting appreciates his philosophy. Yet according to Hariri, newspaper coverage reporting that public reactions were mixed was slightly distorted. “Typically at these public meetings you hear nothing positive, so it was really nice to hear three positive comments so effusively at the microphone. Afterwards several people came up to say they were happy to finally see this kind of design in Halifax.”
Christine Macy is happy to see the public engaging in critical discussion about architecture. An architectural design and history professor at Dalhousie, she is also a partner in the Halifax-based firm Filum, which, along with fellow professor Sarah Bonnemaison, specializes in public space design for festivals. Macy thinks of city architecture in terms of recycling, another Haligonian pastime that Bambury took a winking shot at.
“If you think about it as recycling, what do you keep of the old? What do you recycle, what do you transform and adapt? Or do you put up something completely new? You don’t keep everything just because it’s old,” Macy says over the phone. “In the past in Canada, the old stuff hasn’t been treasured at all. Now it’s important to think about what old things you keep and then decide what values you start to foster in new construction.”Both Macy and Hariri agree that cities are much more livable when they have a mixture of old and new buildings that respect history, but tolerate renovation. Hariri believes that his proposed design is enhanced by its proximity to historical buildings. He suggests that light materials such as glass give the illusion that the towers will dematerialize into the sky, a contrast against the heavy quality of stone, downtown’s predominant material.
“We live in a world that celebrates diversity and unity,” he says. “The most wonderful children come out of mixed marriages. Sameness does not imply beauty.”
Architectural beauty is not just skin-deep. Ideally, new buildings should respect the scale of the street by controlling wind tunnels and shade; use durable, weatherproof materials; and encourage pedestrian activities. Macy also cautions against developers who amalgamate large parcels of land that destroy “the character and rhythm of the city.”
She points to Scotia Square’s failure as a design with the right intentions as a mixed-use space (retail and commercial), but without the respect for human scale. On the other hand, Lydon & Lynch Architects’ master plan for the Historic Properties avoids being what Macy refers to as a “big, clumpy mega-complex.” Macy praises another Lydon & Lynch project, Bishop’s Landing, as “an extremely well-intentioned attempt to keep pedestrian rhythm and scale.”Developed by Southwest Properties Ltd. and Waterfront Development Corporation Ltd., the multi-use building features 206 apartment units, specialty retail shops and most importantly, public access to the waterfront. Public approval didn’t come easy—an early 17-to-four city council vote to approve the development was appealed by a group of residents to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, and eventually to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. As a result of that rigourous public critique, the design evolved to reflect adjacent heritage buildings in their height, shape, roofing, colour and facade.
Hariri believes that architecture should be held up to this kind of public scrutiny, and doesn’t blame the community for skepticism over new developments. “It’s not if it’s old, or pseudo-old, or mimicking old, it’s an issue of whether it’s good,” he says. “I think that the design community has lost its credibility and we need to fight to get it back. I think our project is a demonstration of that.”
Macy thinks there’s a larger issue at hand: “What are your values in your new construction? You can’t let the marketplace set values. It basically completely runs off of desire, off of libido. These are not social values. That’s why we have to get together and that’s why we have elected officials and public forums. We need to say that these are the sorts of things we want to see in the new part of our city, and to make decisions about what to keep.”
Last Saturday afternoon Macy and partner Bonnemaison hosted a public forum, Pivot Symposium: The Politics of Space, co-sponsored by the Centre for Art Tapes, Dalhousie’s School of Architecture, the Dalhousie Architecture Student’s Association and NSCAD University. Over 100 students, artists, entrepreneurs and architecture aficionados filled a Dal lecture hall to hear three speakers discuss alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar developments. Although the TexPark design did not come up in conversation, its ethereal ghost hung over the room.
Los Angeles architect Jennifer Seigal, whose inspirations include her grandfather’s hotdog cart, the Italian Futuristic aesthetic and iPods, designs portable architecture out of reused materials and building components. Seigal’s industrially inspired designs might look like Wallpaper* magazine’s high-minded version of a trailer park, but their structures are manufactured with steel frames so that they won’t end up in Oz after a tornado.
Naysayers who think that’s suitable for hedonistic Los Angeles but not for conservative Halifax should think again. Seigal suggests many services that could easily be offered in mobile structures—dentists, blood banks, libraries, classrooms and internet ports. And as the city’s wireless communications capabilities grow, so do opportunities for portable architecture.
Macy, who used to live in California, suggests that the only difference between the two cities is our state of mind. During the discussion she mused that “Halifax’s imagination is all about memory and nostalgia. Los Angeles’ imagination is about possibilities,” an insight shared by Saint Mary’s Art Gallery director Robin Metcalfe, who observed that misplaced nostalgia is an enemy of Halifax’s growth. It’s this attachment to the past that resulted in the unsightly trend of imitation Victorian buildings with fake Greek columns and tacky arches.
As a newbie Dal architecture graduate, Alden Neufeld admits that his ideas are still to be realized in the “real world.” Inspired by the cowboy philosophy, “If you couldn’t carry it, you couldn’t take it with you,” his graduate thesis updates the cowboy’s mantra to apply to the modern-day nomad—the trucker. His “guerilla” designs, which reuse parts from trucks and semi-tractor-trailers, might not aesthetically fit in downtown Halifax, but his minimalist thinking shouldn’t be ignored. Neufeld suggests that portable architecture could be a transitional solution to a fluctuating condominium market, especially in suburban areas with a young, high rental population such as Clayton Park, which he fears one day “is going to become slum lands, if anything.”
Both architects were cautious to not sell their ideas as the only solution. “It’s not an all-or-nothing design,” says Neufeld. “I don’t want to dissolve the city. The city is beautiful.”
Harari thinks it’s time for architects and developers to start gaining back the public’s trust: “The real issue is mediocrity. Architecture has become so mediocre that there’s an absolute distrust of anything that’s built. The bar has settled so low that we’re—rightly so—leery of anything that goes up.”
Macy isn’t surprised that people don’t think about architecture as an art. “It’s no surprise if you think about how many ugly buildings there are. You wish there were more good examples. It may be because there’s a lot of money involved. It may be because in some cases you don’t need a designer, you can just put it up with a contractor,” she explains. “All these things contribute to people seeing architecture as less of an art form and more of a matter-of-fact thing. At the same time, when you’ve been exposed to well-designed spaces, people immediately recognize the value of that. They hang out and they enjoy spending time there.”