Talking with architect Chris Crawford 

Architect Chris Crawford’s (right) philosophy is to use all the design disciplines to tell a site’s story and honour its past. Photo: Bruce Murray

How diverse design tells our city’s story 

Born and raised in Halifax, architect Chris Crawford soon learned an old-fashioned East Coast value: if you need something, build it yourself. 

While at Dalhousie University, Crawford took classes that gave him a clearer understanding of how his projects could affect people’s lives for the better. 

When he worked towards his environmental design studies and architecture degrees, Crawford learned how design work can bring a deeper meaning to communities. He’s now at the helm of some big projects shaping the city, working through Dartmouth’s Fathom Studio

In the following interview, Crawford shares his unique perspectives on the shift Halifax is undergoing in architecture and design, how diversity plays a crucial role in storytelling, the challenges designers face in the city, and what the future holds. 

On the Press Block (a new development between Grand Parade and Province House): “We’re doing concept design, so our office did a fair amount of historical research to the site. There are two heritage buildings … quite a rich history of buildings that were built, rebuilt, and lost on the site. The Dennis Building itself was rebuilt and added on to … This site has always been a big missing tooth in the street of Barrington Street. It’s always been on the architectural community’s mind. In that process, we were really paying homage to not only the buildings that are there, making sure that the character-defining elements and heritage pieces already that were remaining were celebrated, but also making sure that the new pieces spoke to the past of the site.” 

The historical connection to journalism: “It really was the site of the founding of journalism in Halifax, so there were quite a few newspapers that were born and published on that site. That drove us into the branding, pushing this name forward as the Press Block … Now, we’re working with the (construction) team on even the interior design wayfinding and we’re actually doing some interpretive planning. So, we’re actually going to be telling that story in the street. We’re tackling almost all the design disciplines to really reinforce that story.” 

Storytelling through architecture: “This is a new building and a new architecture, but it didn’t completely ignore what was there before. That ties into why people love heritage buildings. They love them not because they’re old; they love them because they’re articulated and they have a human scale … that’s certainly further enriched when, for example, there’s a terraced planter that steps down George Street. That’s helping transition, that grade change, but we’re using that to have a timeline of the history of the site. That’s where it’s going beyond the building: we’re using the building to tell that interpretive story.” 

Chris Crawford and his colleagues are reshaping Halifax, to tell a broader story. Photo: Bruce Murray

Diversity adding value to architecture and design: “Our office does a lot of cultural work and is proud and honoured to represent a much more diverse community … We strive to make sure that our office itself is a diverse group of designers from all over the world and from different backgrounds … The biggest piece is our clients. It’s understanding that we’re in service to the client. When we’re working with someone like the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, we’re doing it, building, for them … It’s really important that there’s a deeper understanding and ability to listen and represent your clients and help them get their voice out there. That ties into a lot that we are as interpretive planners. We are storytellers, so we’re used to listening and translating people’s visions to the built environment.” 

The vision and concept of the new Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre: “It was a very enlightening experience, as a designer, to get to go through that level of engagement with the Mi’kmaw community to develop that project … It’s a great example of making sure that we spend the time to listen. It was one of the best design experiences I’ve had and the Mi’kmaw people were very generous in sharing their culture with us to make sure the space represented them. Outside of that and functionally, it’s something that is really needed in the city — a place where Mi’kmaw culture is celebrated and present in the downtown … The Friendship Centre plays such a huge role in that community, but also in the greater Halifax community right now in their current space. It’ll be really amazing to see what they can do with a new building.” 

Design shift: “Everybody wants to have a little bit more connection to place. In the distant past, there was an international style of architecture and modernism. We’re moving into a place right now, where there’s a bit of a counterpoint to that, in that people want to have that connection to the city and place they’re in … That’s been a big shift in the design industry.” 

Changing population and demographics: “There’s an exciting thing happening in the city; we’re having immigration from all over the world. Cultural diversity and richness is going to continue to increase in the city and that makes the city a much more vibrant and more meaningful place to live. The architectural and design world — whether that’s landscape architecture, or branding, or whatever that is — seeing that represent the diversity that Canada continues to grow into, is just going to make the city that much more interesting, exciting, and more accepting to people from different places. That’s a huge opportunity.” 

Challenges: “My struggle is usually patience. I want to see the city change quickly, and I want to see it embrace these communities faster. I would like to see the pace of change be a bit quicker so the new Friendship Centre would already be open. These kind of projects that we really want to see to make our city a better place — sometimes, I’d like to see them happen faster.” 

Five years from now: “It will be a place that celebrates a much more diverse culture and group of people and supports that. I really hope that that’s the case. We’re in a unique opportunity … a lot of people are moving here — we’re seeing pretty rapid growth. We need to make sure that everybody is a part of that discussion and that we make a city that everybody is proud and happy to live in, and that design is a major priority.” 

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