rough notes

Halifax Brutalism: Fenwick Tower

with 8 comments

Update: Jan.27.2008: Dalhousie BoG Approves Motion to Sell Fenwick Tower. Click For Details

Most of the western world is familiar in some way or another with Brutalism. It is traditionally considered harsh, crude, unpleasing to the sense and fatalistic to the local community. The foreboding, grey concrete apartment highrises that litter our towns and cities are likely the brutalistic form of architecture that we are most familiar with, but large-scale public institutional buildings such as libraries, hospitals and office towers can fit the mold as well.TurretsTo mix the metaphors for a moment, and paint in rather broad strokes – brutalist architecture features loads of reinforced concrete, sharp corners and perpendicular angles, heights out of proportion to the rest of the community, and all flourished with reflective glass (if it so pleases the contractors and developers). It is for these very reasons that brutalism has earned a poor reputation within learned and aesthetic circles over the past fifty years or so.There are times, however, when the sheer ugliness of an object overrides our delicate sense of taste and ultimately prevents what would otherwise be our recoil of disgust in an object. Whether our senses are slammed repeatedly by the impropriety of the environment, or are suddenly knocked over with a massive, and solitary blow, our tastes can be altered over time. (Matthew Arnold would not appreciate this observation, but not the the conflation of taste and unlearned passing fancies.) So it is with Halifax, Nova Scotia’s own monument to brutalism, Fenwick of hillFenwick Tower is considered a disgrace on the three-hundred year-old settlement of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Along with the Aliant Building two kilometres away, the Dalhousie University residence is a concrete blotch in a quaint, provincial sea-side town known for its stone-cut homes and spruce-sided cottages. Many people live with the Tower (and is shadow and winds) in their midsts, but very few appreciate the structure. Originally constructed as a high-rise apartment building in south-end Halifax in the late 1960s, the Tower quickly turned into a student residence when the original developers fell into bankruptcy. Dalhousie University, fearing a housing shortage for its undergraduates, purchased the Tower and completed the project for its own internal housing system. Located roughly five kilometres from the main campus, Fenwick Tower has always been set slightly apart from the school community, in location, and in architectural form.Fenwick Tower has seen its better days. Whether it is because The Tower is owned by a not-for-profit academic institution that is reliant on (ever-dwindling) provincial funding to maintain its buildings, or because its studentFenwick Tower dominating its street cornerpopulation translates to a rather transient, and therefore somewhat-apathetic community within the structure, the building has developed the typical weathered look and feel that the Brutalist form must put up with in northern coastal climates. It needs not be argued that massive structures made of concrete will not easily cope with the winds, rain, hail and snow of the North Atlantic climate, but there remains the Tower, steadfast, monotonous, and quiet as an aesthetic bone of contention in Halifax.montonyAs dark and ugly as the Tower can be though, a closer inspection of the building reveals a subtle beauty and wonder which must be disclosed. Fenwick stands as a beacon and reminder of another time, not far removed from our own, when unmitigated urban development, measurable on x-, y- and z- axes, was the benchmark of social and and national progress. Although our social values may have changed, the building stands as a cultural artifact. Fenwick Tower, the building derided for being a structure without a soul, carries itself with a touch of grace antithetical to the rest of its community. Standing alone, and apart, from its immediate surroundings, the Tower should be regarded not as a heartless architectural behemoth, but as a structure and form that offers us a chance to see witness our immediate past. Walking by, or living in Fenwick Tower is the urban equivalent to paying admission to a national historic site.Original Photoset available at <>Top Floors, closeupYou are commodified.


Written by mitchellirons

June 1, 2007 at 7:04 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I totally concur with your assessment of Fenwick Tower, in fact I shudder every single time I walk past. However, it’s just not that far from the main Dalhousie campus. One kilometre, tops!

    Unfortunately Dalhousie University foisted two other (equally hideous) examples of brutalism on the city of Halifax–the Life Sciences Centre and the Killam Library.




    September 10, 2007 at 9:22 pm

  2. Mind you, I don’t think any of the Brutalist structures on the Dalhousie campus are ugly ENOUGH.


    September 11, 2007 at 10:53 pm

  3. That is partly my point, Xine.

    There is, a facebook group at which rejects some of my thoughts and feelings re Fenwick, but I think its very presence is indicative of the impressions that Fenwick leaves on the group administrators. No one can so completely hate or adamantly oppose an object for so long without becoming somewhat obsessed with it. Fenwick’s charm lies in this obsession which so many in south end Halifax share.

    Fenwick Tower is pretty harsh on the eyes, as can be other institutional buildings from a certain time period (cf. the LSC at Dal, for instance, or all of New College at UT), but within those harsh viewplanes is a “tasteless charm” which should not be completely rejected or forgotten. Fenwick Tower, in fact and fiction, pervades the very-local sense of identity in south end Halifax. One either lives in it, lives in the shadow of it, lives close enough to see it, or is fortunate enough to have enough tree coverage to not even think about it. Rather than always opposing and rejecting the structure, I think the community should come to terms with the presence of Fenwick and embrace it as part of their local culture (just as they do with the rest of their venerable Dalhousie institutional campus).

    Like most other residents of Halifax, I would applaud the day that Fenwick Tower is imploded (such a day is a long way off, I must admit). But so long as the building stands, it stands as part of the community in which we live (circular argument, I know, but many romanticist notions are). Admittedly, Fenwick Tower gives little, yet takes away so much. But I feel that in some ways it should be acknowledged as part of the local community. South-end Halifax is not all Pretty Homes, Century-building Condos and Ivy-clad University Institutions. It is also the home of a working port, a downtown which has many warts and blemishes as it has quaint shops, and a massive hospital complex whose buildings date to the 1950s-1970s. Fenwick is **not** an architectural anomaly in the neighbourhood, but one of many structures that mirror the mixed-income with mixed-demographic status of the area.

    My ramblings are now done for the morning – back to my toast and tea.


    September 12, 2007 at 7:38 am

  4. […] unfettered by contemporary development, a quick review of the downtown will hold otherwise. Brutalist Fenwick Tower is a tasteless monstrosity at the fringes of downtown, and the Aliant building builds a cement wall […]

  5. I lived in this Giant Beauty – Fenwick Place Tower from 1975 to 1980 as a Chinese foreign student to Dahousie University. No sooner did I move in the Tower, I became one of the maintenance staff so that I was able to visit the Tower in side out. It was safe, nice, clean, charming and comfortable to live in. The Swimming Pool was meant to be a standard one on the top of the Tower, but it was never functional because of the extra water weights to the Tower.

    It has been 25 years since I left DAL Campus. I miss you Fenwick Place Tower!
    Will you still be standing tall?

    Dr Spencer Lai

    October 22, 2007 at 5:07 am

  6. I lived on the 29th floor… the first apartment of my new wife and I as I went to Dalhousie. I have to admit that it’s not the prettiest building in the world but it was home for a few years and the view looking out over the ocean and onto Dartmouth was great.

    We were in 2907 and loved all the sunshine that streamed in on us.

    It’s been over 15 years and I have fond memories of the place.

    Steven Clements

    December 17, 2007 at 11:21 pm

  7. Part of Fenwick Tower’s off-putting ugliness was that it has been for a long time very much out of proportion with everything around it.

    Fortunately I think recent development is — slightly — remedying the eyesore from at least when approaching from downtown. Recent, more attractive buildings going up along south street are able to incorporate Fenwick as a backdrop. When standing at the corner of South and Queen looking down the hill, the more attractive exterior of the new ten-story adjacent structure as well as a new high-rise going up behind South Towers look as if they will create an excellent feel that will possibly mitigate Fenwick’s Brutalism; at least at a close distance and from one side.

    Once those buildings are complete and filled, pedestrian traffic should increase considerably along south street, creating an expanded sense of downtown and making Fenwick seem at least a little less absurd than a great concrete obelisk placed in the midst of quiet Victorian homes.

    Brandon Butler

    December 23, 2007 at 1:59 pm

  8. […] 27, 2008 · No Comments An older post regarding the car-crash aesthetic charm of Halifax’s Fenwick Tower has seen a number of hits as of late – its visitors have spiked over the past two days, increasing […]

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