Once Again at the threshold: New Westminster and Halifax


Architecture & Art



2014 saw the grand opening of two prominent civic buildings exhibiting contemporary and dynamic Architecture on opposite sides of the country: The Anvil Centre in downtown New Westminster, British Columbia and the Halifax Central Library in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The timing and forward thinking Architecture of these openings are certainly not the only thing these two buildings and cities have in common.


The Anvil Centre, photo: Robert Billard


The Halifax Central Library, photo: Jacob Boon


Both Halifax and New Westminster share some interesting similarities:

Halifax                                                                          New Westminster

– One of the oldest cities in the Maritimes            – Oldest incorporated city in British Columbia

– Capital of Nova Scotia                                             – Was once capital of British Columbia

– Heavy respect for built heritage                            – Heavy respect for built heritage

– Suffered from an eroding downtown core           – Suffered from an eroding downtown core

– Small town feel                                                          – Small town feel

– Difficult to reach consensus                                    – Difficult to reach consensus


It has certainly not been easy for either of them and the long gaps between progressive Architectural expression have led to tensions on all sides of the civic planning table.

For both of these cities, the introduction of a civic or significantly prominent building which is, in part, meant to personify the attitude of the populous has been a difficult one to take and in both cases decades separate the grand openings of such intrinsic statement buildings. For many cities across Canada this is a much easier decision to make. Surrey, for example, has no Architectural heritage and as such has been able to erect massively dynamic buildings of Architectural merit with hardly a dissenting voice. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have passed a point where contemporary and intriguing buildings are isolated occurrences and are now expected in order to continue their goal of being world class cities”.


Purdy’s Wharf Towers, photo: unknown


For Halifax it has been 25 years since the Purdy’s Warf Towers were designed in 1989 by Toronto’s Shore Tilbe Irwin + Partners (STIP), now Shore Tilbe Perkins+Will. It came at a time when the city was trying to rejuvenate itself and take a place at the nation’s economic table as a viable centre for development. Even today these two towers grace every single promotional advertisement for investing in Halifax. Their innovative engineering and dramatic design for the time put them at the forefront of Architecture in the Maritimes. Nothing that has been designed and built for Halifax has come close to getting national attention Architecturally or has made as dramatic an impact to the visual landscape.

Dalhousie Arts Centre photo: Wikipedia/SimonP

Prior to the Purdy’s Warf Towers the only project that garnered as much attention and made such a statement was the Dalhousie Arts Centre by C.A.E. Fowler & Company (Charles Fowler) of Halifax, with significant contributions by the Japanese educator Junji Mikawa which opened in 1971, eighteen years before Purdy’s Warf. That being said, the 1970’s were a tumultuous time of development for the Maritimes when there was a push for more modern expression and a lesser respect for heritage. The era saw Architectural achievements like the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown and the F.H. Sexton Memorial Gymnasium in Halifax.

Like Halifax, New Westminster also struggled with an eroding downtown core and a sense of place only derived by aging and in many cases un-kept brick low-rise buildings. A large gap existed between the statements of the past to the introduction of any statement Architecture of the future.


Inn at Westminster Quay, photo: Savoury Chef Foods website


The Inn at Westminster Quay, designed by Waisman Dewar Grout and Carter, now Architectura, and opened in 1988 can arguably be the only significant building of note to grace the downtown core in decades. Poling of New Westminster residents indicated they could not remember a relevant Architectural component of their city. Apart from this masterpiece that soars over the Fraser River, the only other structure to grace the promotional material for New Westminster is the SkyTrain bridge which opened in 1990.

Both the Purdy’s Warf Towers and the Inn at New Westminster Quay are excellent examples of late 1980’s Architecture and in fact share many similarities in aesthetic not to mention that both jut out over the water and make an aging statement for their cities’ waterfronts.

Now, 25 years later both cities’ have each introduced a striking piece of Architecture that is definitively of its time.


Halifax Central Library, photo: METRO/Jeff Harper


The new Halifax Central Library, designed by the Danish firm schmidt hammer lassen architects with the local partner Fowler Bauld & Mitchell Ltd opened with a tremendous amount of attention both locally and nationally. It is a dynamic addition to the city and undeniably represents its importance within the community in its striking Architecture. Photos of its grand opening were not only a delight to see the design but also the multitude of smiling faces craning their necks to capture all of the building’s glory.



Similarly, the Anvil Centre in the center of downtown New Westminster, designed by Vancouver’s Hughes Condon Marler Architects, attracted hundreds of smiling people at the grand opening with the streets closed all around it for the party. Its sharp angles and slices of glass, stone and concrete are a dramatic indication of the time we are living in.

Is this a beginning or an end? Is this an indication that both of these cities have recognized the value of relevant Architectural expression and plan to continue to develop and grow? Or, will these two influential and amazing buildings be the last they will see for another 25 years?

Halifax has a history of doing just that. Its councils have repeatedly denied permits for contemporary designs while pointing to the Purdy’s Warf Towers as if they were enough. Many Architectural critics have expressed their amazement that the new Halifax Central Library got approved. Meanwhile, New Westminster appears to have turned a corner with its recent city councils and is recognizing that in order to become the city they want to be, they have to embrace today and tomorrow. Both cities have stated they are moving forward but will this be the first or last step? If they are truly progressive, or as Halifax claims – bold – this will be the foundation to build more and not the be all and end all of their architectural story.

With some high profile projects in the short to mid-term plan for the City of New Westminster such as a new City Hall, a new Secondary School, and a new Massey Theatre there is an opportunity to keep the momentum and thrust New Westminster into the spotlight. New West is hosting a public forum this February to ask the question of what should the city look and be like in our future. Coincidentally, Halifax has prominent projects slated (new convention centre), however early renderings of that project show a lackluster attempt at making a significant Architectural expression. Has Halifax peaked? Has New West?.

In the next few years it will be interesting to see the direction each city moves. It could be an amazing ride or it could be a long dreary period while we wait for another Architectural awakening.

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