The Vic Suites has emerged in Halifax, its red balconies lending the downtown a splash of colour and, according to its designers, a spirit of optimism.
“I call the Vic a threshold building. I think it really does bridge where Halifax has been and where it could go,” says Glen McMinn, creative director and partner at Breakhouse, the funky local design and architecture company.
“In the landscape of our city, it shows optimism, it shows forward thinking, and to me, it also shows respect to the places around it. It does its best to respect the two streets it’s on, it talks to the water, it talks to the street, it talks to the people who come to visit. It could be just a building with red balconies or it could be a building that is a landmark as we move forward.”
Breakhouse worked with Dexel Developments Ltd. and Michael Napier Architecture on the 10-storey Vic Suites, which replaced a run-down but distinctive 19th-century apartment building at the corner of Hollis and Morris streets.
The firm came on board to help navigate a contentious development: As is frequently the case with new buildings in downtown Halifax, heritage advocates were worried about the loss of view-planes and significant historical buildings – Charles Morris, Halifax’s first surveyor general, once ran a business at the site – to make way for the $15-million mixed residential and commercial development.
Breakhouse came up with a concept for the 82-unit building that was artistic yet functional, featuring aluminum panels, natural stone, glass and open balconies with red glass railings.
“We were collectively able to create, and I’m sincere when I say this, what I think is a remarkable building,” says Mr. McMinn, 45.
While the company, co-founded in the late 1990s by Mr. McMinn and Peter Wünsch, designs everything from retail stores to brands to public engagement initiatives, they expect to handle more residential projects with the installation of a third partner, architect Vincent Van Den Brink.
Before joining the firm last April, Mr. Van Den Brink, 36, received the Lieutenant Governor Award of Merit for a home in Mineville, N.S. He may have come from a traditional architecture background, but he’s embraced Breakhouse’s stable of graphic designers, art directors, industrial designers, project managers and communications specialists.
“When I came to Breakhouse and saw that there was a lot more that the built realm can offer, and all the layers that enrich the experience of that built environment, it fundamentally changed the way I look at architecture,” he says.
“I think it elevates the work. It’s about addressing all of a client’s needs, whether that’s designing a house they can truly feel at home in, or improving a company’s culture and bottom line.”
The firm was born when Mr. McMinn and Mr. Wünsch started working on small projects outside of their regular jobs in the film industry, where they met and became friends.
Their retail designs soon put them on the map: sophisticated but gritty nightclub Tribeca (in the space that housed Mr. Wünsch's one-time bar Cafe Mokka); trendy restos Fid and Jane’s on the Common; the vibrant FRED, a gallery, cafe and salon; and the solid but welcoming Uncommon Grounds cafe.
As a recent story in Canadian Architect magazine noted, Breakhouse has been changing Halifax “one thousand square feet at a time.”
The firm’s multidimensional approach evolved quite naturally, says Mr. McMinn, who went through architecture school but had no desire to work as an architect, instead plying his trade as an art director and production designer for several years.
“We realized we were a branding company because we take care of everything, not just the experience, but the strategy around the experience, from designing everything from the packaging to the space itself,” he says.
“The multidimensional aspect, the multi-services we provide, it’s what gets us up in the morning.”
Mr. Wünsch, a graduate of NSCAD University, agrees: “I was a kid who went to art school but who quickly realized I wasn’t really an artist. But I loved exploring design and sculpture and painting and drawing… and architectural history,” muses the 47-year-old.
“I feel at home in the environment we’ve created. Roles are interesting around here. We have this mentality of the best idea wins and we include lots of different skill sets and lots of different ways of looking at things.”
And while looking at every project like “an ecosystem” wasn’t a conscious decision, it loaned Breakhouse an edge to survive in, and branch out from, the smallish market of Halifax.
Most of their work – and about 90 per cent comes via referrals – is now regional or national, including clients such as Bell Canada, Wind Mobile, Aliant, Lawtons, Vogue Optical and Wicker Emporium, giving birth to more than 500 actual stores across the country. Where employee numbers have hovered around 10 for several years, Breakhouse now employs 15.
And they’re turning their minds to what Mr. McMinn calls “residential re-thinks,” including a gem of an apartment building on Tower Road.
“The cornerstone is you. It’s your story – all we do is help you enhance it,” he says. “All houses have a roof, yes, but design comes from a conversation with the end user: who you are, how you like to live, how you plan to grow.”
The company also nurtures discussion about design in Halifax, through a lunch-and-learn series known as Poodle Club held at their office in an old CN Rail diesel plant across from Pier 21, and a larger ongoing event, 4 Days Better City Lab, that aims to create sustainable transformation in the city and province.
“At the same time that it’s completely bleak [here] it’s also completely exciting,” says Mr. Wünsch. “It’s great being a voice and a party to the conversations that are happening. Halifax is in a transitional time and the world is in a transitional time… People in Halifax are hungry for the opportunity to be more engaged with their city – how to fix it, how to make it more liveable.
“Our tagline is ‘Design Makes Everything Better’ and we have a real heartfelt belief in that,” he continues. “We’re super excited about transitional times. It keeps our company fresh, because we are always transitioning ourselves – we are organic, we are chaotic, and all the stuff creatives have to be.”
The three partners – all Ontario-born transplants to Nova Scotia – see the situation in Halifax as a microcosm for what’s happening elsewhere.
“There are a lot of cities in our country that are going through the same things we are. And there are probably a lot of design firms that are fighting the fight. It’s a broad discussion,” says Mr. Van Den Brink.
Special to The Globe and Mail