Under a welcome sun, a dozen Dalhousie architecture students wrap up their Free Lab, an intense two-week field project that students design and build themselves. In this case, it’s phase one of the transformation of a long, narrow and steeply sloped strip of land running alongside the Salvation Army building into an urban garden on Gottingen Street.
“This is a project that’s right down in the urban centre and gave us a chance to add to the community,” explains student Corrado Agnello, slipping off work gloves at a table inside at the cafeteria.
Currently, the men who live at, and visit, the Salvation Army congregate at the front entrance to talk, have a smoke or a coffee. The new garden will offer them, as well as employees and the public, a great alternative to the sun-baked pavement.
Along the way, the project site posed some unique challenges. First of all, the site starts at streetfront. The students had to figure out a smooth transition from the pavement to the greenspace.
Their solution is a simple, but striking one. A row of steel rods, fabricated and bent to look like reeds, rise from a concrete planter, thus providing a screened entrance to the garden. Rather than enclose the site, small willows and clematis, a flowering climbing plant, will weave into the reeds. Students say this approach fit the spirit of the project.
“You can make something beautiful without buying really expensive materials,” says student Kristin Chrznowski.
Whenever possible, existing trees and vines were absorbed into the design. As for new plant material, some white birch trees will go in; rhododendrons too, at roughly the midway point, stretching into the back reaches of the site. “They bloom for so long,” says student Alexandra Bolen.
The greenery culminates in the back reaches of the site, the end point for a series of transitions beginning at the entrance. The students address the middle section of this long, rectangular piece of land by designing a curved series of lines to guide the eye.
One oval-shaped area near the front will have concrete formed tables and chairs. Students have planned for as much seating area as possible throughout the site, ensuring too that the seating areas face one another to encourage conversation. Even a retaining wall along the right-hand side—when looking from the street—provides bench seating.
A brick BBQ with two grills fits snugly into an S-shape, so one of the Salvation Army’s chefs works on one side, while the other has a separate space opposite.
“I told them to not try to draw but to work with the bricks. You can get profoundly more interesting designs when you have the materials in hand,” explains Dalhousie faculty member and Free Lab instructor Susan Molesky, a thick binder with notes, business cards (businesses from the neighbourhood and all over HRM have donated material, equipment and more) and a drawing marked ‘preliminary’ in front of her.
With only a budget of $2,000, unearthed stone becomes part of the design. “One of the walls is all stone we dug up from the ground,” reveals Logan Amos. Besides the slate wall, the students have turned “big quarried cubes” of granite into seating, says Chrznowski.
The students have had to remove up to a foot of earth to level off areas and make sure the steps up and into the sloping site were accessible to men using canes and wheelchairs.
When Barry, who doesn’t give his last name, visits the Salvation Army, he sits near the front door on the ledge of an old, cracked planter. He watched the students work in appreciation and in anticipation.
“They couldn’t pour concrete for awhile there because of the rain,” he said. Slipping a cigarette from behind his ear, he’s ready to enjoy the shade and the green. “It’ll be a lot better than this,” he says, looking down.