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“Branding Spaces”: Featured in Progress Magazine

A new architectural movement is sweeping the region and leaving some of Canada’s most outstanding new buildings in its wake.

It’s not often that the residents of a city are genuinely fired up about the opening of a new building, especially a library. But the buzz leading up to the Dec. 13 opening of Halifax’s new Central Library was palpable. The occasion turned into a major media event, with social media awash with phrases like “can’t wait” and “a Christmas present for the city.” Since the doors opened, Haligonians have taken the new library into their hearts.

It’s no wonder. The library’s exterior—a jumble of geometric shapes stacked on a bias, vibrant colours, and textures created by Halifax architectural firm Fowler Bauld & Mitchell Ltd.—looks at first glance like a gigantic futuristic play set. Its show-stopping interior includes a multi-storey open-concept space and a top-floor observation-room lounge bookmarked by Halifax’s most iconic views: Citadel Hill to the north and the entrance to Halifax Harbour to the south.

The international accolades that the building’s dramatic footprint solicited certainly fuelled the excitement; after all, no less than CNN dubbed the library one of the world’s most “eye-popping buildings in 2014.” But there was more to the excitement than that; there was a strong feeling that the new building was going to be a game-changer. It’s not hard to imagine the Central Library becoming an instantly recognizable logo for the city, a shorthand symbol on par with Sydney’s Opera House or London’s Tower Bridge. It’s like no other building on the planet.

Despite its uniqueness, the Central Library has hardly developed in a vacuum. Halifax’s real estate portfolio has had more than its share of impressive entries in recent years, brilliant one-offs such as Nova Scotia Power’s industrial-chic harbourfront headquarters built out of a retrofitted power-generating station, an architectural masterpiece that is also the first LEED-certified platinum building in Atlantic Canada. RBC Waterside Centre morphs the facades of one of the most historic blocks in downtown Halifax with a modern nine-storey office complex. The SilverBirch development consisting of two hotel towers and a residential complex located on the old Citadel Inn property promises to revitalize a section of Brunswick Street that has been stagnant since the 1960s. And the controversial and dramatic $500-million Nova Centre is taking shape in the downtown centre.

“We’re seeing buildings that are pushing the envelope,” says Bill MacAvoy, the managing director of the commercial real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield Atlantic. “The new library, certainly, but also the Vic Suites, Nova Scotia Power, and Waterside Place. There are some really impressive spaces, both interior and exterior, in the downtown right now. They’re like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

While the building style may be new and startling, development in Halifax has always happened this way, in clumps. From about 1969 to 1974, the city saw a boom that swept away much of old downtown core, obliterating whole streets and replacing neighbourhoods with giant concrete and glass monochrome buildings. “Postmodern Moscow,” as MacAvoy puts it. A later boom that took place in the 1980s and early ’90s saw the beginnings of a more iconic style of building emerge, such as Purdy’s Wharf and Summit Place, that were clad in stylized coloured glass and oriented near the waterfront. This latest boom takes that trend and runs with it.

Sometime in the late 1990s, Scotiabank put its logo on the side of Scotia Square, sparking a downtown logo arms race as banks and other large corporations vied to place their own brands at the tops of Halifax’s highest downtown buildings. The age of branded buildings had begun. “Signage rights matter,” says MacAvoy.

But signage is just the tip of the branding iceberg. Branding is a complex art that taps into all levels of the conscious and subconscious brain. Drive by a McDonalds restaurant or look at a photo of Cinderella’s Palace at Walt Disney World, and you’ll instantly perceive the power of branded buildings in action. A branded space delivers a sense of uniqueness; it tells us exactly where we are and with whom we are about to do business. It’s a lot more complex than a company logo.

Allegra Snyder is the managing director at Breakhouse, a Halifax design firm that promotes a seamless approach to brand design and identity. “We approach everything in the built world as an extension of the brand,” she says. “We’re a strategy-based company, and we believe that design makes everything better.”

It’s no surprise that architectural design comprises a large chunk of Breakhouse’s deliverables. The company has worked on the designs for such downtown buildings as the Grainery Lofts, the Vic Suites, the CBC/YMCA building that’s now on the drawing board, and several branded restaurants. Snyder says that the conversation around branded buildings has become more elevated in recent years, as developers, building owners, and the people who occupy the buildings articulate what it is that will make their building comfortable to work and live in. The answer to that question, it turns out, is that buildings are a lot more than roofs over heads; they are also powerful catalysts of daily experience.

“A building has to respond on a lot of levels,” says Snyder. “It has to respond to the city, to the neighbourhood, to the other buildings around it, and to the people who work or live inside of it. It also has to respond well to the company’s brand. Buildings are meeting places and places of experience. The more contact people have with a building, the better it has to function as a place to meet and work.”

Snyder points to the Vic Suites, a residential property at the corner of Morris and Hollis streets that replaced a venerable old commercial complex that had become too dilapidated to save. The building design includes elements of both old and modern style, with a distinctive logo and red balconies accenting the exterior. “The Vic replaced a building that was a huge part of the urban fabric, a building with a lot of history,” she says. “Part of the branding experience was to make the new building blend in with the neighbourhood. It has to play a role in that neighbourhood, otherwise the brand isn’t going to work. When it comes to branding, there is a lot of significance to a street address.”

The ability of people to see dramatic and branded buildings on the Internet and on television is creating a real “out-of-market architectural movement” in Halifax, says MacAvoy. “Corporate occupiers and building managers are looking to differentiate the space they occupy from everyone else. They want their buildings to have an iconic flair, and they want them to be unique. If you look at the buildings going up now, every one of them has a name. That’s something new. In the old days, we used to talk about the great buildings in Halifax by their street numbers. Now it’s the Regency, the Trillium, the Vic. Branding matters.”