When Edmund Bacon, author of Design of Cities, was in charge of the Philadelphia Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, he would not permit any new building to be taller than the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. To him, building height meant something. He believed that a city is a collective creation, guided by principles of urban design.
When buildings are arbitrarily tall, and when tall buildings are located arbitrarily, they reduce the coherence of a city. We look for meaning in their exceptional size or their odd location but can’t find anything significant. Consequently, we attribute these irregularities to baser conditions: opportunistic developers; loose municipal planning principles; city councilors with little knowledge of urban design or intelligent examples in other cities; vacant land that no one cared about; or local residents whose complaints fell on deaf ears. Are these really the stories we want tall buildings in Halifax to tell?
When tall buildings rise in the right place, they make sense. In religious settlements, a tall building has a symbolic meaning. In downtowns, where many people want to congregate during the work week, there is a reason for buildings to be tall. In large cities with a subway system, tall buildings may rise where underground stations for commuters are located.
The Halifax Common is a significant urban space. Erecting 25-storey and 29-storey buildings along its edge would be a crude way to reinforce its urban significance. Like loud juveniles, they would draw attention to themselves, not to the Common. There are much better ways for urban and architectural design to augment the Common, without simply going high. The Armoury, for example, has a story to tell in its massive stone construction and its fortification-like features. That’s part of the history of the Common. Lower, more collegial buildings with different stories to tell about this part of the city would be welcome.
Why should tall buildings be located at an intersection such as Robie and Quinpool? Is this really a city gate for travelers? Would they help us find our way at night? Would they provide refuge from sea-level rise? If Robie and Quinpool indeed is a significant intersection, as the developers claim, so is every other intersection in Halifax.
Roland Barthes’s essay on the Eiffel Tower describes how it withdrew from the ground and turned the city of Paris below into a spectacle. Until then, Paris was a city for inhabitants, not observers. Seen through the windows of elevated apartments, the Halifax Common and the neighbourhoods north and south of Quinpool would become what the Japanese call “borrowed landscape.” Do we really want our public open space and our ground-level neighbourhoods to be “borrowed” by tall buildings that offer nothing in return?
The cost of a large building is incurred mainly in its lower parts: land, excavations, foundations, and service systems. Tenants and condominium owners pay for that over time. Adding more floors to the top is where a developer’s profits accelerate. That’s all gravy – or Lamborghinis. Potential to strengthen the city’s urban design is forfeited when the height of a building is decided by flea-market bartering: a developer wants 20 storeys; citizens want no more than 10; they split the difference at 15. Deeper questions need to be asked, so that developers, architects, municipal representatives, and citizens can rise to an urban challenge that Edmund Bacon would have respected.
Steve Parcell / 17 May 2015