On The Harbour Front

ORIGINALLY POSTED IN 2007

The architects are throwing a party and they want you to come.

On Saturday, June 9, (2007) The Newfoundland Association of Architects will be hosting a charrette — a huge brainstorming session where people come together to overcome design problems—to discuss the St. John’s harbourfront. They’re calling on anyone and everyone with opinions and concerns to come to the Murray Premesis Courtyard and, with help think of ways to make the north side of Harbour Drive better.

Inspired by Oslo, Norway’s vibrant harbourfront, Aker Brygge, local architect Jim Case has been wanting to do something like this for a long time. This exercise is his brainchild, and he and the association hope that by getting people talking and thinking more about their built environment, some great things will be on the horizon.

On Friday, June 8, there will be a number of speakers, including Shane O’Dea, Strat Canning, Chris Brookes, and Jim Case himself.

Elling Lien spoke with Case by phone as he was preparing his presentation

Tell me about your experience in Oslo.

I lived in Oslo for the majority of either 1996 or 1997, and my wife and kids came over with me for an extended summer period. Every night, Cindy­—my wife—and I would go down on the waterfront, and we would go down to Aker Brygge. What they have there now was the result of an adaptive re-use project stemming from the late 80s and early 90s. Aker Brygge (the Aker River) is very similar to St. John’s, where we have the Waterford river, where it comes down to what used to be the major ship-building area. Most of the old, late 19th century industrial buildings there were converted into high-end boutiques and that kind of stuff. Then they made the entire of the waterfront a pedestrian throroughfare, and they drove the arterial under ground for about 7 kilometers.

So to make a long story short, my wife and I would walk along this every night, and it always came up when we were talking: Why, with a place that is so similar to St. John’s, why is it that you can’t go down to St. John’s harbourfront on a lovely summer evening and run into 5000 or 10,000 or 20,000 people who are just there to take in the events? To take in the restaurants and the pubs and to see all kinds of busking and fish sales, you name it… It was just so alive with activity, and so vibrant. We thought it was just such a pity that St. John’s wasn’t like that.

One of the photographs I’m going to use in my presentation on Friday night was a photo I took, I think, in the second week in August of last year. It was a really, really warm, sunny Saturday afternoon and I stood there at the end of Harvey’s pier and I took a photograph up Harbour Drive to capture the sun on the buildings. Later, I looked at it and I have yet to find a single person in the photo.

On a warm, Saturday afternoon at about 2 o’clock, to see absolutely no people there, there’s something desperately wrong with that.

My wife has been after me ever since Oslo, telling me, “you’re an architect, you should be responsible for this! You should be doing something about this!”

Well, ten years have passed and I’ve often wanted to get down and really think about it, maybe take some aerial photographs… But the truth is, you get caught up in other things, other ventures, and other charity works, and you run out of time.

So when I joined the PR committee at the Architect’s Association… I presented this idea. I really wanted to introduce the public to architects—that would be nice — because we have a 50 year history here, a 50 year constitution, even a provincial Act. Yet I don’t know of a single event that has put the architects with the public in all the time I’ve been a part of the association.

So I felt that was desperate, and here was a chance to put the two together…

…To get the public drawing…

…Getting the public thinking and people talking—simply getting people thinking and talking about architecture in St. John’s—is so much more important. You know, I chastised the Telegram when I was talking to Rosie Gillingham the other day: “You know, you don’t carry anything on architecture any more.”

I think when someone puts up a very bad building, people should say, “Well that’s a really bad building!” You know? And equally so if someone puts up a really good building. I think there should be real debate about our built environment, because we all share it, and architects have this amazing responsibility.

We shouldn’t just sit back and think that everything that we do is right. We have to be guided.

I think that debate about downtown St. John’s development and those kinds of things have really almost died. People got tired of hitting their heads against the wall. But I think it’s time to rejuvenate the debate.

Atlantic Place caused quite a stir when it first went up. What’s so bad about that?

First year architecture deals with scale and context. It was a product of its time. But I can’t be too critical of Atlantic Place, because the new owners are doing everything they can to put a new face on it. They’ve hired an exceptional architect to do that—John Hearn.

And what’s the first thing John did? He put a balcony out on the back of the thing. Suddenly, it’s the first time in a long time people have said, “hey, there’s something here to look at! It’s interesting to sit out on this balcony!”

…My wife and I were talking, and started thinking about it: What if Scotia building were to develop another similar balcony or concourse on level one, with some shops facing out onto the harbourfront? …Next, who knows? Maybe a pedestrian bridge linking up to the concourse in Atlantic Place and continuing down past Baird property, through the Fortis property? Maybe an elevated walkway for the entire length and breadth of Harbour Drive, away from the traffic on the level below.

Now wouldn’t that be wonderful? You could have the whole area enclosed, linking together these interesting spots. People could visit these places and stay out of the elements, and see the harbour and the ships all the way up to Eastern Edge Gallery and beyond…

What would it take to actually get something like a pedestrian bridge there?

Well, I’m just daydreaming right now, and God knows what’s going to come up at the Charrette, but what I’m saying is the individual property owners have never thought about this. But if someone were to say, and if it was documented, “Hey this is a really great idea,” then at least everybody would be thinking about it cohesively and people could have the opportunity to say “Gee, how can we get into this?”

…Then the owners, if an idea like this catches on, might say, “That’s what we want to do. We want to tie into that, because it would give access to my shops, my space, and that transforms into revenue.”

What’s so important about the harbourfront?

For 500 years, that harbour was the sole economic driver of St. John’s. That’s what it represents. If it weren’t for that harbour, St. John’s would be Ferryland or Renews. It wouldn’t be St. John’s. That harbour is the lifeblood of this town, and it always will be the lifeblood of this town, whether it’s related to fishing or sealing or whether it’s related to offshore oil and gas development…

With that 500 years of history, if we decide to totally ignore it, it will be at our own peril.

…It’s the heart and soul. It really is.

Friday panel discussion will feature Shane O’dea (historical context), Strat Canning (economic/planning context), Chris Brookes, (resident/arts/media) and Jim case, (Architect) It will take place on Friday, June 8 at Gower Street United Church from 7-10:30pm.

The Harbour Charrette will take place on Saturday from 9am-4:40pm in the courtyard of the Murray Premises.

2 comments

  1. Laura Barron · January 23, 2013

    Great interview. So, what were the results of this charrette?

  2. Stumper · January 23, 2013

    Laura,

    There were no results from this charette, because most of Council and most of the property owners on the waterfront did not participate and do not give a flying fig about what went on there.