The Halifax Common, at its most very mundane, is the site of recreation with a small "r" - the runner who trains for the Bluenose in the wee hours of the morning, the cyclist that passes through on her commute to work, the recreational softball league, Sunday-morning cricket, that game called Spikeball that brings people together. At this most basic mode, it is extremely well-used and well-loved. This everydayness is punctuated in time with monumental events, such as the 1983 royal visit of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales; the 1984 Papal visit; the 2006 Rolling Stones Big Bang Tour with Kanye West, Alice Cooper and Sloan; Paul McCartney's Mull of Kintyre backed by the 78th Highlanders' bagpipes in 2009; and more recently, a vigil supporting the LGBTQ community in the wake of the Orlando shooting in September 2016. These happenings can occur without a building on the grounds, save a couple of less-than-notable buildings that provide public washrooms.
In 1763, King George III designated the Halifax Common “for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax forever" and it stands as Canada's oldest urban park. The history of the city's "largest public room" is varied -- from its earliest days as common space for grazing to its military uses, to its fragmentation into a series of green spaces and institutional buildings including the Public Gardens, Victoria Park and the Wanderer Grounds, the IWK, the Nova Scotia Museum, Dalhousie University and St. Mary's University. The Emera Oval opened up as a temporary long-track speed skating competition venue for the 2011 Canada Games, and was removed then rebuilt as a permanent fixture in the Commons. The Commons' most recent evolution is the addition of the Emera Oval Pavilion, which was initiated by the Halifax Regional Municipality in 2012 as a response to the overwhelming popularity of the Oval as a recreational site.
Halifax Member of Parliament Andy Fillmore was the Manager of Urban Design at the City of Halifax at the time, and was involved in the decision to transform the temporary Oval into a permanent installation. He recalls the advice he and his colleagues gave to City Council at the time: “We helped the Council to understand the importance of a significant investment in good design at this location. We inspired them with images of fantastic public buildings in important public spaces, from historic structures like in NYC’s Central Park, to contemporary structures like in Chicago’s Millennium Park. We made the case that the Halifax Commons is no less important, and deserves high quality design and materials that would endure over generations. We were absolutely thrilled when Council agreed and approved the funding.”
Since its opening one year ago in December 2015, the recreational site's popularity has grown. The pavilion intensifies an already active and revered spot in the city, especially in the warmer seasons. The summer before the pavilion opened, the Oval saw 7,742 visitors. With the new building and amenities supported by it, it saw nearly 40,000 the following year. But beyond the numbers, just what does the Oval Pavilion accomplish?
The Pavilion makes a place. Located at the border between the northern and southern portions of the Halifax Common, the pavilion provides a gathering place for users of the skating oval and the broader Commons. Not only did the architects of the building make a special place within the Commons, the community had a large hand in making it their own. Through two design workshops during the early phases of the project, the community at large provided input into the way the pavilion would be designed and used. The aim of the process was to engage public stakeholders to help establish a shared vision and aspiration for the Pavilion.
The Pavilion enables. When The Coast published about Regional Council's approval of the $2.5 million-dollar pavilion back in the spring of 2015, it pointed out that "here's where you'll pee." The value of a clean, bright public washroom should not be underestimated; a warm spacious place to go to the washroom is really attractive for parents with newly-potty-trained toddlers. And anybody, really. One can even keep his or her skates on because the rubberized surface protects both the skate blades and the floor. That aside, the thoughtful and notable architecture comes alive in partnership with HRM's exceptional programming. The Oval Pavilion enables people to learn how to skate or bike - kids, adults, visitors, international students. It enables people to connect to their community through leisure.
The speed skating community in the Atlantic region has seen a rise in interest of the sport as a result of the pavilion's presence. The open storage of rental skates bumps up tte visibility of specialized speed skates for loan. "The pavilion has expanded the means of entry into the sport," says Matt Reynolds, a skater with the Nova Scotia Masters Speed Skating Club. Besides a place for racers to get ready for competition, the pavilion provides a place for conversation between ice maintenance crews, coaches, junior and senior racers from across the Maritimes, volunteers, and the public.
The Pavilion includes. With funding and programming support from both Emera and HRM, the Oval is a true public space, accessible to all. It does not cost to use the space with sporting and safety equipment rentals being loaned for free. In contrast, a skate at the Rink at Rockefeller Center -- arguably the most famous outdoor skating rink in the world -- costs $25 to $32 American dollars, plus $12 to rent skates, making it inaccessible to many. The inclusive nature of HRM's mandates also makes the Oval accessible to users of all abilities. Equipment loans include all necessary safety gear, sledges, roller sledge, scooters, skateboards, tricycles for adults. The pavilion provides a suitable platform for these inclusive programs.
The Pavilion belongs. The pavilion seems like it always should have been there. In winter, its white roof renders it a quiet glowing lantern in the snowy landscape of the Commons. A snowy Hobbit house radiating warmth for those city Hobbits, the hearth of the urban home. Evoking the sharp blade of a skate, the roof folds up from its centre addressing both the Commons and the Oval, then tapers towards the edges to hug the ground. The two areas of the building are separated by an outdoor space, sheltered by the warm wooden roof. The narrowness of the buliding when one approaches it from Cogswell Street renders it small from a distance. This design decision minimizes the building's profile and visual impact, creating the sense that it is native to the park setting.
The Pavilion introduces contemporary architecture into a historic landscape. Nova Scotia is a place steeped in tradition and heritage. The Oval Pavilion helps pave a new road for our built heritage to evolve and progress without ignoring where we have come from. The brick cladding of the pavilion corresponds to the civic nature of nearby landmarks. The placement and design of the building respects the Commons in which it resides.
Architecture can make public space greater than it can be on its own. Architecture enables programming enables people enables community. It is an expression of what we can do and lays out how we can live in common.
Project Team, Oval Pavilion
Architecture: DSRA Architecture
Structural: BMR Structural Engineering
Mechanical: M. Lawrence Engineering Ltd.
Electrical: MCW Group
Landscape Architecture: Gordon Ratcliffe Landscape Architects