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Twisted design 

A pair of proposed towers have divided public opinion about the future of downtown Halifax. Lis van Berkel seeks out some professional opinions.

What stops Halifax architects Craig Mosher and Niall Savage from embracing heritage defenders is bigger than the chain-link fence that surrounds the Texpark site on Hollis and Sackville Streets; it’s their imaginations.

As modernist architects, both put function before form. They prefer straight lines. They emphasize shape, light and transparency before things like the decorative window frames we see on the nineteenth-century Barrington Street buildings.

Mosher’s tallest design is Stadacona, the 13-storey Officers’ Quarters Building near the Macdonald bridge, says the WHW Architects designer. He’s currently working on the new medium-rise Life Sciences Research Institute at Dalhousie University sited for the old Grace Memorial Hospital lot—which happens to be adjacent to the Tupper Medical Building, 16 floors of wind-tunnelling mass built in 1967.

Savage, who teaches at Dalhousie’s School of Architecture and runs his own office out of the Roy Building on Barrington, is known within Halifax for designing The Music Room, an exquisite small performance space on Lady Hammond Road, and the Creighton-Gerrish Development housing project off Gottingen Street.

Both architects choose their words carefully. They want to see a beautiful modernist building built here, and they are cautiously—and deeply, one senses—optimistic about the 27-storey, two-tower Hariri Pontarini design. Like many of its supporters, they use the word “elegant” to describe the Toronto firm’s work.

“It seems like an honest, elegant effort,” says Mosher of the “twisted towers”—the moniker which media and critics have used to describe the proposal.

Savage points to the firm’s Toronto housing and campus projects—work of a similar scale to his own—and to their National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais in Santiago, Chile: “They’re good architects, so they’re going render this thing in a very elegant way. And I like the way they’re not just making this your basic shard in the sky. And that they’re really concerned about what’s going on at the street.”

Steeling himself against the cold on the corner of Sackville and Granville Streets on Friday, Mosher agrees that the plinth-and-pedestal base in the proposed design will allow pedestrians to experience the building like a shorter, four-storey structure—although Mosher makes it clear that his opinion is not necessarily the same as his employer’s. Mosher contrasts that with a two-storey, stepped-back section of the Centennial Building across the street: “Now that’s quite clumsy looking, but it’s a buffer. And it’s classic solution to the wind problem—the wind gets pulled back up instead of down along the street.” Mosher believes that downtown Halifax already has a wind problem.

The towers’ design includes a two-storey canopied hotel entrance on Hollis, two-storey retail windows on Sackville and shops, a restaurant, and condo and office entrances on Granville; all are treatments intended to soften the street-level experience of the buildings.

So what are our local precedents for tall buildings? The Tupper was once the tallest, but it’s only half the height of Halifax’s most scorned high-rise, Fenwick Tower. Tall buildings have inched their way up in the downtown, starting in 1929 with the 13-storey Dominion Public Building, a modern classical design, and moving on to a spate of yet taller buildings—although not until forty years later: 1967’s Centennial Building, just 14 storeys; the 17-storey Bank of Montreal in 1971; the 5770 Spring Garden Road high rise apartments in 1975 and the Aliant Building in 1977, both 20 storeys; and the 22-storey Purdy’s Wharf 2 and 1801 Hollis Street, both built in the mid-1980s.

“Twenty years is too long between tall buildings,” insists Mosher. “This building would be a foil to the low-rises that exist already down here. If there’s no rhythm in character and form, that’s dangerous. To mimic old buildings is just patronizing.”

Savage uses even stronger words: “To keep all the buildings at 40 feet is killing the place.” He points out that in the nineteenth century, four-storey buildings were consistent with the economic and technical possibilities—there were, for example, no elevators.

At last Tuesday night’s city council meeting, the second part of a public hearing on the United Gulf Developments proposal, Savage is most convinced by a photocopied panoramic picture of the Halifax skyline. The superimposed towers, a mirage-like insertion, appear to blend in well: “It’s not that tall,” Savage declares. “This is the most convincing thing—the fact that it won’t stand out from the rest of downtown’s tall buildings. That it’s part of the fabric of downtown.”

Savage grimaces when one of the critics—who outnumbered the project’s supporters on Tuesday—invites United Gulf to move the design to Kempt Road, where it wouldn’t interfere with the view from Citadel Hill. “The problem with modernism is just that portability,” says Savage. “Design became so abstract that it could just go anywhere. A post-modern design like is conceived with the site in mind.”

That post-modern sensibility is also the source of the twists, which Savage explains as another way of tricking the eye into seeing the building as a penetrable mass.

Hariri Pontarini Architects prides itself, according to its website, on “producing designs that use an open collaborative process, intensive research, sensitivity to site, a dedication to detail and craftsmanship and an emphasis on enduring materials. work reflects an evolving philosophy that celebrates light and colour, material and texture, and sophisticated relationships to landscape and complex urban conditions.”

Mosher pushes that relationship a step farther: “Why are tall buildings beautiful? The Eiffel Tower. The Chrysler Building. Because we’re motivated by what we see in nature. By the mountains, by incredibly tall trees like the sequoias.” At more than 300 feet, west coast sequoias are even taller than Purdys Wharf 2.

The Texpark site, so named because of the garage and crumbling parkade that used to be there, is a “brown field” site in LEED’s books—according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the international green consensus-based standard for developing sustainable buildings, renewing it will earn the architects LEED certification points, a designation which provides incentive to build.

For Mosher, the building would be a tangible improvement on the downtown. “Look around you,” he says, casting an eye back up the street. “There is so much here that’s derelict.” He gestures past the Chronicle-Herald building, which will likely be redeveloped—the block-sized structure went up for sale earlier this year—and at the parking lot where the Midtown tower was rejected by city council.

“And it’s not like proposing to build on top of Citadel Hill,” says Mosher. “And they’re not tearing anything down.” Gazing across the rock-filled pit, he wonders of the heritage defenders: “Just what do they think they want to protect here? If the Citadel, the thing that gave Halifax its birth, ends up being the thing that kills us, it will be an incredible irony.”

City council will begin formal discussion of United Gulf Developments’ proposal on March 21.


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