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Architecture that crushes the soul…

May 31, 2013

I think – at least I feel – that  I am one of the few remaining people in the world who believes that the world that we architecturally create tells us about who we are.

I know I am not the only one who thinks this way, I have read Milan Kundera and Primo Levi and Charles Dickens and Karl Marx and others who have commented at least since the birth of the Industrial Revolution that western culture was giving up architectural beauty for functionalism, profit, and an indifference to life that verges on nihilism.

DSCF0034And I see that Halifax is no different. While Halifax has quaint and colorful homes that pop up along streets – and I have delighted in that color since coming from staid and brown Toronto there is an architectural ugliness here as well.

A profound ugliness in fact.

And it is an ugliness that goes to the heart of all that is wrong with the Canadian spirit. That bestial place where monumentalism and ego meets authoritarian functionalism – that place where architecture is more brute force bottom line than anything else.

And they tell us a lot about ourselves and where we see ourselves in the world. They speak too to the last 50 years – when we were steadfastly opposed to that vast evil nemesis known as Soviet Russia – yet all the while we pursued similar architectural styles.

Take, for instance, the Nova Scotia Public Archives building.


Nova Scotia Public Archives


What can I see about this beast? It’s like the headquarters for the Borg from Star Trek. Imagine working there! Going to your 9-5 cubical, to your cube within a cube. Hideous!





Or, take Capital Health’s Sick Kids Hospital!


Capital Health Sick Kids Hospital, Halifax


Jesus, the place makes me ill just looking at it!

(But then every building Capital Health builds are monumental pieces of shit.)




Capital’s Queen Elizabeth II Hospital is easily one of the ugliest hospitals I have ever seen anywhere in my travels around the world. My camera cannot consume its massiveness, its giant dead block of evil. 


This is but one wing of this colossal beast of a building where Halifax warehouses its sick and dying.

It looks like the kind of place that when you enter, you never leave.


Old Dalhousie – Chemistry Building


But the truly sad buildings for me are two examples from Dalhousie University. They make me sad because they sit in time and space along with the old Dalhousie University and they reveal what we have come to think of higher education. And what we have come to think of our children and how we have come to value higher education. There was a time when university buildings were idealistic in form. Even in staid old Halifax, the old Dalhousie buildings had a certain protestant charm about them.



Now, in a town where you can’t build a condo more than 15 stories high, the Dalhousie student residence (just down the street from us on Fenwick), is straight out of Lord of the Rings. It simply towers over our community of two and three-story houses. It obliterates time and space. I have been fascinated in trying to capture it in pictures. If, on certain dark and cloudy days, I saw the Eye of Sauron looking down on me I would not be surprised. The building is pure fascism – and it is where students come to live.

tower 3

Dalhousie Student Res – Fenwick Street, Halifax











But perhaps the most depressing building is Dalhousie’s Killam Library. I have always thought that the University of Toronto Robart’s Library was the most evil university library I had ever seen. I was wrong.


Killam Library – Dalhousie University, Halifax


Don’t let the blue sky fool you. This windowless (virtually) block of cement is where we expect our young minds to come and think and research and explore. My girlfriend (studying at King’s/Dalhousie) refuses to enter the place. It gives her the sweats just passing by.

Talk about pure functionalism in architecture. Talk about adhering only to the bottom line – of fast and cheap. There is a name for this kind of architecture – its called Brutalism.


We think the world we want to live in, and then we make that world.

I will leave you with a quote from Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, and who knew the ugliness of man in ways I will never know. This is what he had to say about the death of beauty in architecture that came into vogue in the 20th century…

“Where is the Philosopher of the Spirit; that of the Bohème from whom the forces of history have stripped away place and identity? My gaze is directed on high and rarely lingers on the vulgar populace of the metropolis, or its typical character, the functional building, the worn-out people; whose intellect is dying, or dead. Beauty, art, and poetry, are no longer any help in deciphering a place from which they are, by unspoken consent, banned.”

 Ugliness is the new beautiful. And it continues to sweep across the land…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2013 10:42 am

    Abbot Suger, we need you now!!!!!

  2. Alix permalink
    August 14, 2013 9:37 am

    Just a note: the Fenwick Towers were actually built by a developer as a luxury condo building, but he happened to go bankrupt before it opened. Dalhousie had a major shortage of student residences at the time and steeped in to take the building over. So we really should blame private development on that monstrosity, Dalhousie just got pinned with the image.

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