Queen’s Marque Rising: Queen’s Marque, Halifax, Nova Scotia
A new mixed-use development on Halifax’s Waterfront draws inspiration from its maritime site.
PROJECT Queen’s Marque, Halifax, Nova Scotia
ARCHITECTS MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (Design Architect and Urban Design) with FBM Architects (Prime Consultant)
TEXT T. E. Smith-Lamothe
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux
In the 1970s, Halifax developer Ben McCrea transformed seven run-down waterfront warehouses into Historic Properties, a series of shops, restaurants and office spaces that reused the existing buildings. The project was part of a larger proposal to preserve the waterfront as a pedestrian district, developed by architectural firm Duffus Romans Kundzins Rounsefell, and set a precedent for the city’s valuation of its heritage fabric—as well as of its harbourfront.
McCrea’s son, Scott Armour McCrea, has since become head of the family business, Armour Group. With Queen’s Marque, just steps down the shoreline from Historic Properties, he has aimed to create a new legacy—a place that he hopes, in 30 years, Haligonians will regard with the same civic affection and pride.
“The goal was to create a quintessentially modern Nova Scotian place,” says McCrea, who engaged Halifax firms MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (MLSA) as design architect and Fowler Bauld and Mitchell (FBM) as Prime Consultant for the 41,800-square-metre project.
The development includes high-end shops, gourmet dining, luxe apartments, professional offices, a five-star hotel, and a large plaza. Fully two-thirds of the development’s ground plane is open to the public. Multiple street entrances, generous gateways, an amphitheatre, steps down to the water, and numerous artworks draw in passersby. As MacKay-Lyons remarks, “Urbanity has to do with diversity.” Durable materials—sandstone, granite and bronzed metal cladding—convey elegant permanency, and are sympathetic to other stone masonry buildings downtown, including the hilltop Citadel fortification. Using the best local talent and materials, McCrea wanted to infuse the project with, as he puts it, “the power of place.”
This was no easy task. The lot was leased for a 99-year term to Armour Group after it won a 2004 public call for concepts by the provincially owned Waterfront Development Corporation (now known as Build Nova Scotia). The long duration of the project meant that the developer and designers were challenged by building code iterations, evolving downtown planning bylaws, and supply-related snags.
George Cotaras of FBM declares, “In my almost 40 years as an architect, this was, by far, the most complicated project I’ve worked on.” A dense matrix of differing floor elevations, code classifications, elevator lobbies, exiting regulations and diverse materials called for hundreds of intricate, atypical drawings and intense administrative diligence over the ten-year span from design to opening. Additionally, the project was phased: with occupancy of the offices first, then residences, and then hotel, which mandated convoluted hoarding and exit access to maintain site safety. The result was worth the effort though, delivering a vibrant mix of commercial, hospitality, residential, office and public uses.
Architecture, a Team Sport
The complexity of Queen’s Marque entailed intense collaboration and innovation from all disciplines, including specialists in harbourside construction. This integrated team formed bonds of mutual respect: “Architecture is a team sport. We [at MLSA] are relationship people—you have to be decent to develop good will,” says MacKay-Lyons. It also helped to have a savvy and enthusiastic client: McCrea met every Friday in a “creative bubble” with MacKay-Lyons and MLSA Project Architect Shane Andrews for brainstorming and exchanging ideas.
“I can’t overestimate the creative reach of Scott on this project,” says MacKay-Lyons. “It’s impressive. We think we’re actually pretty good, then we realize he’s pretty good, too!” If MacKay-Lyons suggested a more frugal material choice, McCrea’s usual reaction was, “I can handle the money, just design what you think is right architecturally and we’ll work backwards from there to make it happen, if we can.”
Between Sea and Sky
The main building’s ten-storey height responded to two site-specific parameters: a municipal view planes bylaw preventing developments from blocking views to the harbour from the Citadel, and calculations of rising sea levels which determined that Queen’s Marque be situated over one metre above the existing boardwalk to withstand predicted surges. Thus, the building height was compressed between sea and sky. To accommodate practical floor-to-ceiling heights and to reduce large ceiling ducts, Denis Morris of M&R Engineering designed chilled-beams charged thermally by submerged coils in the harbour, to sustainably heat and cool the facility. (Historic Properties, developed by McCrea’s father, was the first development in Atlantic Canada to use seawater for heating and cooling.)
Both the building site and water lot were compromised by two-and-a-half centuries of fill, some of which was contaminated, necessitating remediation. Building three new wharf foundations required a temporary coffer dam to seal off the harbour, pounding myriad piles, and skilful structural gymnastics. To create two levels of parking below sea level, the project entailed infallible waterproofing and over 200 bedrock anchors to restrain those levels from floating upward. The site’s warped topography, with four different corner elevations, created a one-metre height difference with its southern neighbours, mitigated by new ramps and steps to maintain the continuity of the harbourfront boardwalk.
History, too, cried out for attention. Known as “Queen’s Landing,” the site is remembered as the point of British landfall in 1749, and where the settlers constructed a defensive battery and the port’s earliest seawall. During excavation, a team of archaeologists uncovered huge engraved granite survey markers placed by the Board of Ordinance, along with numerous artifacts from the colonial era. Steamer trunk-sized granite blocks were salvaged from the obsolete seawall, for reuse as benches on the new plaza.
Art and History Lessons
As an art piece itself, Queen’s Marque has many references to anchor it in Halifax. MacKay-Lyons’ initial concept sketch abstracted boats in winter yards, with their bulks braced by slender chocks that support their massive hulls. This concept is mostly realized in plan—the wings jut towards the water like anchored ships, and a boat-like outline in the paving connects the harbour steps and planted terrace to the sea. But subtle nods to maritime culture appear elsewhere, too. Alluding to the wooden chocks, the central sandstone box is buttressed by halftone-perforated, slanted metal panels on the northwest corner and by repeated Fresnel lenses—used in lighthouses— at the southwest corner. Generous portals connecting the plaza to the existing boardwalk have pendulous hull-like shapes overhead. A similar scale of opening would have been appreciated in the two passages from Lower Water Street, which feel more tunnel-like, but that sense of compression dissipates with the surprising openness of the piazza. In the plaza itself, the wedge-like Rise Again building, with restaurant below and beacon above, floats upwards on one end, as if bobbing on the waves.
Material selection enhanced connections to Halifax’s maritime heritage. Muntz metal panels—a bronze-toned alloy of copper and zinc, used to coat wooden ship hulls to ward off ship-worms and barnacles—clad the lower floors. At eye-level, these are engraved with maritime stories, charts and symbols designed by Adam MacKenszie and Sherry Design, a gesture MacKay-Lyons likens, wryly, to “tattooing the building.” The archetypical steps-to-the-water, made of slip-resistant granite, have become an attraction for Haligonians and tourists alike.
Millions were spent on art to enhance the project. The most notable of these contributions is Ned Kahn’s Tidal Beacon, which stands 12 meters tall above Rise Again. The lighthouse-like form ignites in a programmed 12-minute light event at the moment of high or low tide. At night, the reflections on the water from the city lights of Dartmouth, passing ferries and ships create a magical atmosphere augmented by Tidal Beacon’s intermittent performance.
At Play in the Plaza
The north end of the plaza was designed to double as an amphitheatre, with the surrounding buildings providing acoustic amplification for events, while overlooking windows and terraces act as choice box seats. So far, string quartets, aerobic classes, buskers and even the local scuba diving club have used the plaza, amphitheatre, and harbour steps. In summer, the Port Authority welcomes recreational boats to moor next to floating docks between the arms of the buildings, recalling the busy finger-wharves which once traded with the world from this exact location.
The east-facing square embraces the morning sun and the other three sides protect it from the intense western sun and cold north winds. In order to provide summer shade and buffer city noises, Devin Segal, landscape architect with Fathom Studio, specified a grove of a dozen maples to grace the plaza’s raised terrace. “The courtyard creates a micro-climate—the Autumn Blaze Maple trees there were the last ones downtown to lose their leaves,” he notes. Segal also designed the lighting scheme: at the sides of the harbour steps, light strings dive whimsically into the water, an invitation to touch the ocean.
In olden days, when a Letter of Marque came from the Crown, it was an invitation to privateering—adventure, glory and riches—which naturally appealed to the sea-faring folk of Halifax. Overnight, ambitious merchants became patriotic pirates and the port, already busy with trade, became wealthy with plunder. At the time of Confederation, Nova Scotia was arguably the richest of the colonies to unite. Queen’s Marque has, as Cotaras asserts, “created a special place in the city,” and it aspires, as McCrea says, to kindle a new attitude that “this can be a place to reach out to the world.” The built form makes this optimism tangible. Standing atop Rise Again, one is reminded of Leon Dubinsky’s upbeat song We Rise Again, an unofficial anthem for the region and an expression of intergenerational aspiration and perseverance—concepts which MacKay-Lyons has placed, by design, at the centre of the project.
T. E. Smith-Lamothe is an architect-artist who lives in Halifax and is the principal of Architech, Ltd. He is a past Chair of the Halifax Regional Municipality Design Review Committee.
DEVELOPER AND MASTER BUILDER Armour Group Limited (Scott McCrea) | ARCHITECT TEAM MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple—Brian MacKay Lyons, Shane Andrews, Will Perkins, Rimon Soliman, Sawa Rostkowska, Talbot Sweetapple. FBM Architects—George Cotaras, Wayne Duncan, Carl Hicks, Caley Scholer, Ben Griffiths, Jeff DeCoste, Dan Wraggett | STRUCTURAL Campbell Comeau Engineering | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL M + R Engineering | CIVIL Stantec, Eastpoint | LANDSCAPE Fathom Studio and Brackish Design Studio; Queen’s Landing Staircase—MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects | URBAN DESIGN MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects| INTERIORS The Muir Hotel—Studio Munge; Lobbies, cores, residences—MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects | CONTRACTOR Armour Construction in joint venture with bird construction | PUBLIC ART Tidal Beacon—Ned Kahn with Heavy Industries; The Sirens’ calling—John Greer; Water—Thaddeus Holownia; Zenith—David Spriggs; Embarkment Steps and inhabitants—Chris Dorosz; Convergences—Peter Powning; Landscape Tapestry—Allisson Pinsent Baker; A Moment in Nature—Laura Jean Forrester; Field 2-34—John McNab; Sail—Tresoldi Studio; Light Chocks—MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects with Heavy Industries | AREA 41,800 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION Spring 2023