Brad Pickard, Devin McCarthy, and the Free Lab team on the steps they built today at Citadel Hill.
Brad Pickard, Devin McCarthy, and the Free Lab team on the steps they built today at Citadel Hill.

by Chris Benjamin

The southeast corner of Citadel Hill, at Sackville and Brunswick Streets, is significantly eroded. Climbing onto the pathway leading up the hill poses a challenge, even for the fleet-of-foot and healthy-hearted.

But today, a group of nine Dalhousie architect students is solving the problem, led by Devin McCarthy of DSRA Architecture and Saskatchewan’s Brad Pickard of OPEN, a Dal grad himself. They are building a wooden staircase to reconnect the sidewalk to the pathway.

Pickard, who spent part of last summer leading a Free Lab with the Hope Blooms community garden, calls the project “stair bombing,” an act of Tactical Urbanism. “Chair bombing is putting seats out in a public place like a park or street to make it more welcoming. This is the same thing but with stairs.”

Tactical urbanism is a movement led by artists, activists, and skilled trades people—like architects—to create quick, cheap projects aimed at making city living more fun or more accessible for everyone. Guerilla gardens are the most famous examples. In Halifax, street art at the intersection of Black Street and Northwood Terrace is another example.

Sometimes tactical urbanism is done guerilla style, but not always. Despite the linguistic implications of “stair bombing,” McCarthy and Pickard have city permits in hand and are working with Parks Canada, which manages Citadel Hill. The erosion takes place partially on city property and partially on Parks Canada property.

Dalhousie’s Free Lab, or the design-build course, has been running since 1991 and has long been one of the most popular choices among students. This year, more than a 100 of students are working on 12 projects across the province. Halifax builds include an exploration of the Halifax Explosion through sculpture (led by Dalhousie professor Brian Lilley), and a mass decoration of Gottingen Street with art installations another (led by artist and architect Joshua Collins).

In each of these projects students, faculty members, and practicing architects work shoulder-to-shoulder as teammates. They have two weeks to design, build, and install their project, which can be artistic, practical, or both. The Citadel Hill team didn’t get its building permit until Monday, and its ground-clearing permit not until Wednesday, leaving them just two days for installation.

The goals are to connect students to a living, breathing community outside a purely academic setting, and to creatively explore new materials and ideas. “The Free Lab is unique in Canada,” says McCarthy.

If citizens are lucky, it keeps future architects from falling into set ways of thinking about urban design and function, and keeps their minds honed on the communities who actually use the things they design. Pickard seems a pretty good example of this kind of thinking. He co-founded OPEN, which advocates design as an inclusive community-building act. A former employee of Dalhousie’s Cities and Environment Unit, he facilitated award winning “design and build projects through a collaborative process with a number of First Nation communities across Saskatchewan.”

He sees with clarity the challenges involved with urban planning in Halifax, but is always inspired by the Free Lab experience, he says. “Saskatchewan is even further behind than Halifax [on design]. I’m inspired by the density here. Prairie towns are very horizontal.”

At Citadel Hill, the team strove to create not only a solution, but one that was cheap, elegant, and beautiful. “We wanted to embrace Citadel Hill as an urban amenity,” Pickard says. “To make it welcoming, to provide less challenging access for visitors.”

The stairs were built offsite, using tools at Dalhousie’s School of Architecture and FSC spruce from Rona-Pierceys, which gives Dal a discount. The incline in the steps is gradual, with ample room on each step. In fact, they are meant to double as benches—a social gathering place.

Alas, as with most tactical urbanist intervention pieces, the stairs are temporary. Although they are built solidly and could easily last 10 years, they will be taken down in November. “We used nominal 2 x 4 and 2 x 6s and it’s assembled with screws,” Pickard says. “It can be disassembled easily and re-used elsewhere.”

He hopes, though, that Parks Canada will replace them with something more permanent. “They have a master plan and this has sparked a conversation internally about the erosion issue,” he says.

Students from all 12 Free Lab projects are presenting their results at Dalhousie today.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Bravo to these students, their featured staircase project, and to the other worthy projects mentioned, and their designer/creators. They’re all making a difference using their unique, individual talent and abilities. Great to see them recognized!