Schooled in Concrete: Modernist architecture at Dalhousie

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Dalhousie Gazette.

HALIFAX – Despite what you might hear about dropping student enrollment, Dalhousie’s student population is booming. In the past decade, seven massive new buildings have gone up just on Studley Campus, the last being the new academic building still being built at Coburg and LeMarchant.

This growing list of new buildings includes the Computer Science Building, the McCain Arts and Social Sciences building, the Fountain House extension of Howe Hall, Risley Hall and the Rowe Management Building, all of which have a prominent, unavoidable presence on campus. Believe it or not, we are witnessing one of the most transformative moments in the University’s history, the likes of which haven’t been seen in 40 years.

Surely these new buildings are in some way shaping the lives of the thousands of students who continue to use their lecture halls, live in their dorm rooms, smoke outside their front doors or simply pass by their shiny new facades on a daily basis. But how do they compare to the buildings already existing on campus? Are they an improvement, or a step in the wrong direction?

The last time construction of this magnitude occurred was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. when the legendary Henry Hicks presided over the University. In barely five years, no less than seven buildings were completed, all of which remain unmistakable landmarks today. They include the Killam Library (pictured above), the Life Sciences Centre (LSC), the Dal Arts Centre, the gigantic Tupper Medical Building on Carleton campus, the Student Union Building (SUB) and Fenwick Place, as well as the massive powerhouse behind the Rowe Management Building, which still provides heating and lighting to many of the buildings on Studley campus. These buildings reinvented a tiny “College by the Sea” as one of Canada’s premier academic and research institutions that now attracts hundreds of out-of-province and international students every year.

Not only did these buildings springboard Dal’s reputation onto both the national and international stage, but also like today’s new buildings, they profoundly changed the look and feel of campus. The more uniformly traditional, neo-colonial architecture of the Henry Hicks Building and Sherriff Hall was forced to make room for the quintessentially “modern” architecture of poured concrete and sandblasted exteriors.

While history hasn’t looked kindly on this era of “brutalist” architecture — and perhaps rightly so, as anyone who’s spent a day in the dungeon-esque LSC will know — in its heyday brutalist architecture represented the most progressive social ideals. Here, form reflects function and ornamentation mere excess. Using these standards, it begins to make sense how both the Killam and LSC could have received architectural awards back when they were built.

Today, while most of us continue to look down our noses at Dal’s dinosaurs of modernism, other cities are going through a concrete renaissance. In Toronto, appreciation is growing for this once forsaken style and millions of dollars are being poured into revamping and re-envisioning aging structures. It’s time we revisited Dal’s concrete heritage with a similar eye for resuscitation.

Take the Killam, for instance. Although largely decried for its barrack-like cladding, the hulking monolith is actually proof of the vast potential for renovations to reuse formerly barren concrete spaces and transform them into remarkably successful gathering places. The Killam atrium — arguably the most popular meeting place on campus — is the product of a 1996 renovation that added a glass roof, ponds, year-round greenery and seating, tables and food, all of which transformed the formerly lifeless open-air courtyard of the Killam into a hub for student life.

In terms of Dal’s outdoor spaces, here too the Killam leads the way. Its immense staircase over the learning Commons, its massive circular garden and landscaping (both front and back) are more attractive to spend time in than most other outdoor spaces on campus. Books and quiet spaces may bring people to the library, but it’s these physical touches that keep people around, studying or not.

The SUB’s success can also be in large part attributed to renovations of the last two decades, which greatly improved the front entrance and food court. The Dal Arts Centre, however, hasn’t even needed a modern upgrade; its facade, front steps and landscaped sidewalk remain vibrant public spaces four decades after it was built.

Fenwick Place is a little more complicated. In many ways, its history is most revealing of our longstanding antipathy towards concrete has been self-fulfilling. While it may have been a real eyesore from the outside, Fenwick efficiently provided desparately needed affordable housing for many students with unconventional housing needs, not to mention giving residents an unbeatable view of the city.

Despite its vital role at Dal, Fenwick was allowed to waste away to the point where the university figured it should be abandoned rather than revamped, its midlife crises deemed fatal. In the face of Templeton Properties’ current plans for the tower, hindsight is twenty-twenty.

There are other spaces that also seem condemned to death by neglect — the LSC’s unused yet perfectly good outdoor courtyard, those trench-like passageways connecting the Hicks to the Chase and Dunn buildings (pictured below) or, most obviously, that concrete desert alongside the Chemical Storage Facility on the roof of the Killam’s Learning Commons. This last example could be one of Dal’s pre-eminent social spaces. All it needs is a little bit of proper landscaping, a serious injection of greenery and some sheltered, inviting places to sit and replace those clusters of chairs that are hardly ever in use.

These are only a few of countless campus spaces desperately in need of attention. For too long Dal has made do with warped asphalt pathways, parking lots instead of green spaces, and smarties coloured Muskoka chairs rather than proper gathering spots. You should not have to search for makeshift seats to eat a Phat Boy when you’re right smack in the middle of campus.

Dal should start taking pride in its inherited campus spaces by redirecting a fraction of the millions of dollars presently being spent on new buildings towards maintaining and improving the spacing and buildings it already has.

Although the steel and glass aesthetic of the new buildings may look a little fresher than their sandblasted predecessors, they mask the fact that these new buildings are completely lacking in outdoor social spaces. The Rowe’s pillared northwest corner and the McCain’s front door landing are minuscule gestures in comparison to the Tupper’s gigantic square or the fronts of the Killam, SUB and Arts Centre, all of which are significantly set back from the street to make room for public art and, more importantly, people.

As for the soon to be completed New Academic Building, it too will be flush with the sidewalk, leaving little to no space for anything except perhaps a handful of tiny trees.

In light of the shortcomings of these new ‘post-modern’ buildings, Dal’s aging modernist landmarks don’t seem quite so brutal after all. Now pushing into their fifties, Dal’s concrete buildings are in the midst of a midlife crisis that calls for new thinking.

It’s time these concrete landscapes get the respect they deserve. We need to revisit our inherited architecture with fresh eyes unprejudiced by decades of self-fulfilling cynicism. Enough with the shiny new multi-million dollar boxes already. The time is ripe for Dalhousie’s concrete renaissance.

photos by deanbouchard (first and third), Ben MacLeod (second), and Jake Schabas (last)

2 comments

  1. This is a really oversimplified analysis. While I do think the Arts Centre and the LSC have great architectural merit, I do not think open space magically equals good all the time, every time. The New Academic Building should not have open space — it fronts a busy street and should maintain the streetwall. There are countless examples of failed modernist plazas around this city: Scotia Square @ Albemarle, The Law Courts, and….the upper plaza at the Killam. If the space is not used it is wasted.

  2. A architecture walking tour or brochure about Dalhousie’s buildings would be useful. I’m surprised to find myself being charmed by brutilist concrete these days. I was attending Dal when the first of the buildings you discuss were being built and at the time they felt very awkward. Today what strikes me as awkward and strange is the mini-me Dalhousie sign on University Ave at Robie.

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