Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

HRM by Re-design: Swimming and social infrastructure

Read more articles by

new pool interior

A series that examines urban and architectural issues in Halifax by way of un-built proposals authored by different designers, this week featuring a project by Architect Oliver Dang for an aquatic centre submitted to the 2006 ACSA/AISC steel student design competition. All drawings courtesy Oliver Dang.

HALIFAX – The liveliness of a city is a reflection of the quality of its social infrastructure. In addition to housing and retail, leisure spaces are necessary to relieve uniformity, attract people to the downtown and serve as a locus for outward growth. More importantly, social landmarks contribute to the identity of a city by inscribing centrality, signifying values, and giving order to the urban fabric. Emphasising social infrastructure as a foundation for healthy urbanity entails that a city like Halifax be viewed not simply as a collection of shops and offices, but as a leisure destination. Two recently announced projects in Halifax are outstanding opportunities to create and improve upon social spaces in the city.

This August, the Centennial Pool — built as a venue for the 1969 Canada Summer Games — received a federal award of one million dollars for accessible upgrades to the building. Jointly funded by the Halifax Regional Municipality, the unassuming proposal includes the installation of solar hot water heaters, a district heating system, and some modest interior renovations. Meanwhile, plans to redevelop the site of the CBC building at the corner of South Park and Sackville Street have engulfed the neighbouring YMCA programme and will likewise include new fitness and pool facilities. Together, these projects are a rare opportunity to invest downtown Halifax with new and improved leisure amenities and celebrate one hundred years of competitive swimming.  The role that these two projects could play in helping to revitalize downtown Halifax merits a more critical discussion about design objectives that could be of long term benefit to the city.

The sheer size of recreational buildings (swimming pools included) is often incompatible with the scale of walkable city streets. The Halifax Metro Centre is a good example of how a landmark building can divide a city by turning an entire city block into a solid mass of concrete and brick. Not surprisingly, new recreational facilities are usually destined for suburbs where land and parking are both in abundance. In a competition entry for an aquatic centre, Oliver Dang works to preserve the pedestrian scale of the site while creating inspiring public infrastructure — an example from which both projects in Halifax could learn.

By conceptually cutting, lifting, and sliding beneath the landscape, the bulkiness of the building is concealed and the programme enriched by overlooking and extending into park space at numerous levels. The result is an expansive green roof that can be imagined as park space or even as a site for future building projects.

Sketch Diagram of building and landscape strategy

Beneath the building’s green roof is a competition sized lap pool, diving pool, a separate pool for children, open space for vendors, and a multi-purpose space that can be rented to ambitious partiers or used as a community classroom. As it emerges from beneath the landscape, the building makes a theatrical display of its interior as it becomes entirely transparent while simultaneously articulating the public nature of its programme. A more developed strategy for numerous entries and exits would help encourage public use by allowing people to move across the site through the building’s interior on cold winter days. The undulating form of the building’s roof, rising and sinking beneath the street level, achieves a visual complexity that both diminishes its bulkiness and creates outdoor spaces for discovery on foot.

Ground floor plan
Second floor plan
Second floor plan
Building section B-B
Building section B-B
Detailed Building Section showing various levels of the accessible green roof supported by a steel space frame, and the double façade with photovoltaic panels
Detailed Building Section showing various levels of the accessible green roof supported by a steel space frame, and the double façade with photovoltaic panels

An expansive double façade that contains motorized photovoltaic panels surrounds the pool space, filling it with natural light, and acting as a display case for its sustainable technology. The proposal calls on public spaces to demonstrate a high level of environmental design while setting a benchmark for similar building types.

The extensive roof is supported by a continuous tubular steel space frame whose simple, efficient, and repetitive geometry adds interest to the space and creates a striking pattern against the exterior glass walls. The straightforwardness with which the project is executed demonstrates how a few well conceived design ideas are all it takes to resolve a successful project, alluding to strategies for the development of similar building types in downtown Halifax, and for the more thoughtful development of recreational buildings in general. Given the important role social infrastructure plays in shaping future development, and the rare opportunity to create spaces for leisure in the downtown, more attention is due to these two formative projects taking shape in our city.

Oliver Dang is a recent graduate of the Dalhousie School of Architecture, he lives and works in Toronto.



  1. I think your assessment of the Halifax Metro Centre (HMC) is flawed. Although a bit dated in appearance, the HMC does not present a ‘solid mass of concrete and brick.’ While the George and Duke sides of the HMC do present a ‘working’ view of loading bays, servicing equipment and alternate entrances, the Brunswick and Argyle sides are quite different.

    The East/Argyle side of the HMC consists of the World Trade and Convention Centre (WTCC) – while not the best piece of architecture the city has to offer, it is far from the worst as well. It serves to compliment the sidewalk, street and Grand Parade quiet well (by my assessment, at least).

    The West/Brunswick side of the HMC is perhaps its most impressive (again, by my assessment). Only a few steps off the street will take you into the heart of a concert or hockey game. For passerbys, you can even get a glimpse of the action if the ushers forget to close the curtains. Given that this side of the HMC is ‘at the top of the hill,’ it further benefits from a shorter facade which hides the true scale of the facility from passing pedestrians and visitors of Citadel Hill.

    Additionally, the HMC has been ‘sliding under the landscape’ for quite a while now. The bulk of its operations occur underground, or into the hillside. While although it doesn’t employ a green roof, the design of the HMC does lessen its footprint on the downtown area.

    A venue of this size (the HMC and the WTCC) that can fit safely and comfortably into a 100m X 100m block in the heart of a city shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly.

  2. Great to see conceptual work discussed here – competition entries and student thesis work etc. have a much bigger part to play in discussions about the future of the city. 

    But I find this one a bit strange – while the idea of integrating the building with the landscape is great, the images here show it surrounded by a vast expanse of nothingness, with no sign of anything “urban”, making it difficult to see the potential of something like this within the city itself.

    This could be very interesting if one imagines and reflects on the possibilities of something like this in relation to Citadel hill, intensifying land-use on the peninsula by burying the program(s) – from recreation to parking – in the side of a glacial drumlin! 

  3. I understand this post was not about the Halifax Metro Centre, but it should be noted that it devoured three blocks of the city. It’s construction prompted the consolidation of three city blocks and combined it into this impenetrable super block. Scotia Square did the same, on an even larger scale.

    Also, how does the new pool incorporate District Heating? My understanding of District Heating is usually not just one building, Dalhousie does it for all three of its campuses, Helsinki does it for 94% of its city.