Halifax’s world-class architecture
I was out the other day with my camera – on a beautiful early spring afternoon – when I came upon the now nearly completed new Halifax Public Library. This is the building that CNN recently proclaimed one of the 10 best new buildings in the world for 2014. Not surprisingly, the local media here was suddenly pumped up with pride at such an acknowledgement, and ran the story for two or three days, while we all went around slapping ourselves on the back. We all stopped to pause, and look at the new library with fresh eyes.
What is it about this building that moves us? Is it that it soars above that old tree out in the front? That man dominates nature? Have we, through the use of glass, captured nature – captured the sky God – in our very hands? Is it that we love to build mountains? Do women look at this building differently then men? Is it really one of the grandest designs in the world? After the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Versailles, the Hermitage, alhambra, the Crystal Mosque – this is now considered world-class architecture? A friend told me that he thought the design was gutsy.
So what is it I am not seeing? To me, it looks like almost every other glass cube being built these days. It is, as far as I am concerned, no better or worse than the new University of Toronto cubes at the corner of University and College in Toronto.
What makes one glass box any different than the next glass box? And why do we like glass boxes in the first place. Is it just because they reflect the light, and are shiny?
If our architecture reflects us, as a society, is there any relation between the glass box and the new surveillance reality we also live in? If our electronic trail is always being watched – and the NSA admits that it is – why not just live in a box and get it over with? Perhaps the reflections create an illusion of privacy, just as my anti-pirating software does.
And we sure like things clean these days. Just look at the homes in commercials or in weekend newspapers. The Globe and Mail, every Saturday, takes us into someone’s home, in their Style Section. Every week we get a peek into the lifestyles of the uber-hip and their ideas of interior design. Every week it is exactly the same thing. Pure white kitchens, minimalism, tres chic furniture, and no where a spot of dust. Hipster magazine homes for the severely anal retentive.
God knows we’ve come to live with the modernist box of a building for quite a few years now. Dalhousie campus is full of some of the most atrocious boxes I have ever seen anywhere on the planet (outside of Eastern Europe/Russia). The Killum Library verges on pure authoritarian nightmare.
I know North American architects and interior designers have become addicted to the clean straight line. Sterility is the new obsession in decor, food, design, and ambiance. Some of those cupcake and tea shops that are popping up everywhere with their white walls, straight lines, rooms so clean you could eat off the walls or floors must be appealing to some form of the masses for they are everywhere.
I suppose, when compared to the earlier forms of the box brutality – this gem down on the Halifax waterfront comes to mind – there is a freshness, an openness, a breath of fresh air about the newer glass box.
Of course, if you have been to older cities – New York, Buenos Aires, Paris – you would immediately note that in comparison to the old curved lines, and focus on aesthetics, you can see that we are a more practical society, where functionalism trumps whimsy.
But compared to the most assaultive form of functionalism in this town – the Dalhousie student res on Fenwick (hideous! hideous! hideous!) – (made more oppressive by the fact that it stands all alone on a street of 2-story houses, and is the tallest building east of Montreal), you could say that we have stepped back from the brink of pure functionalism, to something with more of a heart.
In the movie The Fountainhead, the new independent man (or at least Ayn Rand’s version of the independent man) wants to break free of the past and build new functional buildings that reach to the clouds. He wants the cleanest lines, and the tallest buildings ever designed. Of course it’s all Randian phallic fantasy, but if you watch it, you will see that the movie does indeed glimpse the future of architecture.
Functionalism. Severity. Straight lines.
But now the new severity is nothing more than the new style of conformity. Glass boxes on the cheap (glass is the cheapest building material there is). From Hing Kong to Harlem. They are being built everywhere. Maximized profits. Built quick for a consumer society that doesn’t expect anything to last beyond the next iphone cycle.
Who cares if the experts are saying that these new types of buildings won’t last half a century before they will have to be torn down? What do the developers care about such things. They won’t be here to deal with their architectural messes. Not their problem.
We live for today.
And today we want to live and work in glass.