Nova Scotia

Architects say city hall has big role in building a beautiful Halifax

At the end of Nova Scotia’s first ever architecture week, architects in Halifax say that building a beautiful city will take more than good design.

Architects weigh in on balancing the interests of the public with developers

The new Halifax Central Library in Halifax. Danish architect Morten Schmidt was one of the building's international designers. (Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

At the end of Nova Scotia's first-ever architecture week, architects in Halifax say that building a beautiful city will take more than good design.

"The municipal government has a really strong role to play," Christine Macy, dean of Dalhousie University's school of architecture, told CBC's Information Morning. 

Macy said a planning mechanism such as HRM By Design can ensure a balance between the interests of the public and those of developers seeking the highest possible return on their investment — but only if it's implemented.

Question of scale

"If [a developer] can take a piece of property and double the density of it, that's a hard thing for them to turn away from, especially if they know [there are] councillors who may not have that longer term vision in mind and certainly don't have the expertise to say what makes a livable city."

Macy said a key part of what makes a city livable is continuity of scale within neighbourhoods, which some newly approved developments do not adhere to — at least in part because those developments were granted approval to build outside the guidelines of HRM By Design.

Gregory MacNeil, president of the Nova Scotia Association of Architects, said citizens need to be involved to ensure planning guidelines are respected. 

'Tough role to play'

He said it's reasonable for citizens to demand government consider the same framework that architects use when designing significant buildings. 

"You have to take care for the generation that's here and now, you have to respect the three preceding generations, and you look for the future for the next three, and I think that's a reasonable expectation for us to ask of our politicians."

MacNeil said while architects are bound by the Architects Act to always work in the interest of public safety, they also have to respect the client's wishes. 

"The client is going to establish certain parameters that you work under, but on the other hand they employ you on the public's behalf," he said.

"It's a tough role to play."

Involve architects earlier

Macy says one way to address this balance is to get architects more involved in the design of new developments in the HRM.

She said having architects contribute to the earliest stages of a building's development, before the design is even started — as was the case with Halifax's Central Library — can help ensure the character of neighbourhoods remains intact, even as the buildings themselves change. 

If the architect is instead brought in to finish the final design of a large building that's conceived without the values of scale, community character and neighbourhood livability in mind, said Macy, "modern design can try and dress up [that building] any way you want."

"But it's still a sow's ear, it's not a silk purse."

With files from CBC's Information Morning