What’s Up with Trophy-Buildings?

“Neighbourhood compatibility” is one of the criteria for assessing a building proposal in Halifax. As noted in a previous editorial, a new development in the Quinpool Road area must be “in keeping with the scale and character of the adjacent residential neighbourhoods.” The Armco and Westwood projects for Robie and Quinpool clearly don’t do this, so let’s not kid ourselves that stepping down from 29 storeys to two storeys constitutes neighbourhood compatibility.

welsford_park_with_towers_2With that out of the way, let’s consider the opposite: Why might a developer aim for neighbourhood incompatibility? Why might a building want to stand out from everything around it? Without consulting a psychiatrist to explain this disorder, we can detect some clues in the size and form of these proposed buildings. Have you noticed that they resemble trophies?

A trophy – whether it’s for a sports championship, an ugly dog competition, a bowling tournament, or an auto race – symbolizes the genetics, skill, and/or hard work of the winner. Something notable was achieved on a particular day. It also symbolizes that the other competitors were defeated. A trophy is fine as a fetish object on the day of competition, but due to its excessive height and ostentatious design, most of us wouldn’t want to keep it in our living room.

When a developer asks city hall to waive municipal regulations (on building height, density, setbacks, etc.) and award the right to erect a trophy-building in an existing neighbourhood, an immediate multi-million-dollar profit is anticipated, but what else is going on? If the program of the building is ordinary (residential apartments, for example), monumentality isn’t warranted, so what other reasons could there be? Does the building indicate that the developer has achieved something notable and deserves a trophy? No, that can’t be right, as it’s harder to make a collegial building than to stack floors into a trophy-building. Is the trophy-building a monument to the developer’s wealth and status in the city? Perhaps. Does it also symbolize that the developer defeated the local residents who opposed it and the smaller developers who were squeezed out? Yes – but surely that’s not an achievement to be proud of.

Beyond the developer, does the trophy-building symbolize something momentous that happened on this site? That’s doubtful, as trophy-buildings tend to be located where developers happen to own land, so post-facto stories – such as Armco’s fable about a city gate with a willow tree next to it – seem laughably hollow.

Why would Regional Council go out of its way to waive municipal regulations and approve a trophy-building? Surely it’s not just to increase density on the peninsula; that can’t be the only reason. Is it a self-congratulatory gesture to help Halifax compete with other cities for tallest buildings and most trophies? Hopefully not. Trying to boost your self-esteem by awarding a trophy to yourself would be pathetic.

If, as a supposedly smart city, we’re serious about neighbourhood compatibility, a first step would be to recognize these proposed trophy-buildings for what they are: a desire to be incompatible. Along with their other urban problems, their size and form symbolize dubious values and negative relationships. Neighbourhood development shouldn’t be a competition with winners and losers. It shouldn’t anticipate glamour shots in the media on opening day. Good developers are quite capable of making collegial buildings that complement existing neighbourhoods (and generate a reasonable profit over time), rather than treating those neighbourhoods as a trophy base.

Because buildings last much longer than a day of celebration and can’t be packed away in an attic or garage, let’s not confuse them with trophies. To illustrate the superficial resemblance – but also the underlying differences – here are a few trophies from events around the world and a few more trophy-buildings proposed for Halifax.














Some trophy-hunters, however, do like to keep “trophies” in their living room.

Steve Parcell / 19 Jan. 2016