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The first scheme is from New York architect DS+R, joined by landscape architects Hargreaves Jones and Halifax’s Architecture49. Their scheme lifts up the galleries in a very forthright manner.

How do you design a magical place? You start with ideas, and choose the best one. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax is proving that right now, with its design competition for a new waterfront building.

Three shortlisted teams presented their visions on Thursday; drawings and models are on show at the gallery now. The three design teams are led by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro; by New Brunswick’s Acre Architects; and by Toronto’s KPMB.

Each proposal is rich with ideas, and dramatically different from the other two. This is how a competition is supposed to work: By getting different thinkers – in this case architects, landscape architects, Mi’kmaq artists, and more – to push the bounds of what’s practical and what’s possible.

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The new gallery will fill an empty block on Lower Water Street, extending the waterfront boardwalk with a mix of art and community space and anchoring a new Arts District.

The three proposals each lift the building up and away from the water – anticipating sea-level rise – while opening up the shore as parkland. Any of the proposals would be radical for Halifax; any would be the most interesting building to land in Canada in a generation.

First, the wily DS+R, New York art-world provocateur turned established architect. It is joined by landscape architects Hargreaves Jones and Halifax’s Architecture49. Their scheme lifts up the galleries in a very forthright manner: it creates a solid platform, resting on a set of treelike steel columns, and then fills that platform with a sort of village of boxes and sheds wrapped in shingles and slats of tamarack wood. A waterfront-facing auditorium puts the sea on show – evoking DS+R’s beautiful Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

The accompanying landscape, by Hargreaves Jones, creates a pair of tidal inlets, where the rise and fall of the tide could provide what landscape architect Mary Margaret Jones called a “living exhibit.”

The second scheme, led by the smart young New Brunswick firm Acre, along with architects DIALOG and landscape architects Brackish Design Studio, places most of the gallery spaces in one tall oblong slab, and an auditorium in a separate building facing the water.

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The second scheme, led by the smart young New Brunswick firm Acre, along with architects Dialog and landscape architects Brackish Design Studio, is much bolder in its approach to form. It places most of the gallery spaces in one tall oblong slab, and an auditorium in a separate building facing the water – joining the two with a bridge. The space in between would be a covered outdoor performance space, suitable for the rainy climate, and an extension of the boardwalk.

Most of this shape, curved like a beach stone, would be wrapped in galvanized aluminum – a material familiar from barn roofs, said Acre’s Monica Adair. Maybe so, but how do you use it to wrap complex forms that are curving on two axes at a time? This is a serious technical challenge; it’s unclear how it would survive the design and construction process.

Also complex is the third scheme, led by KPMB with architect Omar Gandhi, landscape architects PUBLIC WORK, climate engineers Transsolar and Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett.

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Theirs, of the three, is most visibly shaped by Indigenous influences. The main shape of the terracotta building is modelled after a hat traditionally worn by Mi’kmaq matriarchs. This would be wrapped by an arcing sheath of glass and heavy timber; its curves evoke an eel, which is important in Mi’kmaq tradition, and the curve extends out to become a ramp and stairs that lead down toward the water. (The ramp matters; this team was most emphatic about considering accessibility.) Here the eel would touch the water, where a new saltwater marsh would be cradled by a new pier. Here, you could touch the water.

At this point the city and the institution are in a fine position to create a gallery that will be a landmark and gathering place. A jury will choose a winning design, which will become the basis for the new building. Surely some details will be shed along the way, and perhaps new ones added, too.

The third scheme, led by KPMB with architect Omar Gandhi, landscape architects PUBLIC WORK, climate engineers Transsolar and Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett, is most visibly shaped by Indigenous influences.

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There’s a lesson here. Competitions – when, as in this case, they are well run and come with enough compensation for the designers – are a valuable means of creating thoughtful architecture and landscape and meaningful places. In general, the Canadian public sector tends to treat design as an ordinary commodity. Governments usually hire architects the same way they do accountants, and often they get a building as lively as a balance sheet. Not here. Halifax is looking out to some unpredictable seas, and jumping in.

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