Trendsetters: Alec Brown and Jane Abbott

Jane Abbott and Alec Brown both grew up in Nova Scotia, but studied and worked around the world. Now partners at Abbott Brown Architects, their work combines a love of local landscape with international experiences.
Abbott studied theatre costume-making and design and worked in Copenhagen and Toronto before earning a masters degree in architecture. Brown, who studied at TUNS, worked in Vancouver, England and Berlin. But Nova Scotia lured them back.
“Working and living in Toronto, I felt very landlocked and I really missed the ocean,” Abbott says. “I understand the landscape in a way. You grow up here and you just know it.”
Their projects include Harbour East Community Council offices in Alderney Landing, additions and renovations at the Dartmouth Ferry Terminal, work at The Hub in Halifax, a new studio for Journeyman Films in Dartmouth, as well as design of private homes across the province. They, along with Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto, were also recently awarded the project to revitalize the Dartmouth Sportsplex.

What architecture in the city inspires you?

AB: I think Central Library has to be the main answer because it’s reached out beyond the community that actually notice architectural projects, to the public at large and made them appreciate what a new conception of a public space can do for a city.
JA: I am excited to see how these new condominium projects filter through. I am interested in what effect those projects will have on revitalizing Barrington Street and the port end. Halifax has a tendency to put money in one end and then the other end suffers. What we want, of course, is that everyone thrives. I want to see how those projects fit into the general sense of energy. I feel like Halifax, right now, is on a little bit of a see-saw.

What do people not understand about architecture?

AB: What people sometimes forget is that it surrounds our lives and has an enormous impact on our lives. We work 48 weeks a year and when we have a week off, we travel…to Paris or Venice or London or New York because of the architecture, because we find it a beautiful place to be. But then we forget we can do that at home. In the worst form, people talk about architectural quality as something optional. The form of a city and a town and one’s own house has a daily impact on what one does in that city, that town that house… There is a sense in Nova Scotia we don’t deserve or can’t afford quality places and spaces. Our city is all we have. You can’t go around with your senses locked down.

Is that a modesty issue?

AB: I think when I graduated in the 1990s, building projects were considered as opportunities for jobs. They were economic things. They weren’t cultural things. They weren’t building a city. They were building an economy. So now, our whole city has these blemishes, in a way, of the previous economic injections.
JA: I think there is recognition now that urbanism has got to be based on the life of a street. That’s what keeps your city alive. People on the streets doing stuff. Bring them down to the ground. If we want people to move here we want to make it a place people want to go. You have to have bicycle lanes. We have to have great libraries. We have to have great urban spaces.

Where would you like to see Halifax go architecturally?

AB: I’d like to see an emphasis on bolder, forward-thinking vision of a city in the 21st century, instead of buildings that half-heartedly acknowledge a heritage context and end up kind of falling being new nor effectively old and just end up being bland.
JA: Halifax is the bookend of the country. I’d like to see that emphasized. So what does that mean? We need a new art gallery. We can’t even showcase a lot of art because we don’t have the infrastructure to do it. Let’s make ourselves the equivalent of the other bookend. And that will draw people. Someone said to me people don’t come to the city for jobs, they come to the city for the city. So make your city that kind of city and the jobs will come.

What is the creative process for an architect?

AB: It’s a wonderful way the brain works is you can’t face them directly. You have to look at them obliquely. Usually when waiting for that inspiration, it all goes quickly. It’s a synthetic thing. When you’re talking to someone else about something and then the penny drops. And then it also helps to be the two of us and we do every project together.
JA: An architect thinks on a very global scale. So our first step is to think very, very out there, large scale. Where is the site? Who are they? You can start to piece together these things they aren’t related in a kind of jigsaw kind of way. I feel like it’s a very complex narrative in the end.

What is one public space here you’d like to re-create?

JA: The Art Gallery [of Nova Scotia].
AB: There is still work to be done along here [the waterfront]. And there is, among other things, a need to find a new home for NSCAD.
JA: [From] the military base all the way to Point Pleasant Park, we have to make that the pearl necklace of the city… an art gallery, an aquarium, people living there. I think our waterfront needs to have that fabric. Right now there are too many parking lots.

What do you both love about working in the city?

AB: We both bicycle to work. We live on the Atlantic Ocean.
JA: We have a very tight community. We walk down the street and you see people you know. There’s nice mix in Halifax of meeting new people through old people you know that really works well. I love the scale of Halifax. The fact you can live relatively close to where you work.
AB: And also maybe that in Halifax there is only two degrees of separation between all of us. I think we like that because it feels like we’re all in this together. It’s all moving in the same direction. It’s not fractured like it can be in a bigger city. There sort of is a common ground in Halifax.
JA: It’s nice for people to come up to you and say I like your work, it’s really great. You work really hard and to have someone say, “Hey, I heard you did that work and it’s great.” Maybe that wouldn’t happen in a bigger city.
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This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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