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Where heritage and progress meet

An Austrian state offers Halifax lessons on balancing history and development

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The "Getting Things Done" exhibition explores the unique architecture of Vorarlberg, Austria. Photos: Tammy Fancy

It’s hard to see, at first, what Halifax could possibly learn from Vorarlberg. But the similarities are there: Austria’s westernmost state has a few small cities, but is dominated by mountains and is sparsely populated. Geographically isolated in the Alps, it relies on traditional cultural industries and tourism. Its rich history is visible in its historically influenced designs and distinctive architecture.

But while Halifax often has the development-versus-heritage debate, Vorarlberg shows a way for the two to co-exist peacefully, symbiotically. Architectural students the world over study the “New Vorarlberg School,” which combines progressive designs with farsighted building and planning regulations. Traditional Alpine designs abound, but often with surprising innovations—a community that visibly progresses but stays true to its roots. The result is attractive and liveable, helping the largely rural area attract and retain young people.

Curator Wolfgang Fiel.

The Dalhousie School of Architecture hosts Getting Things Done, an exhibition featuring some 700 photographs, exploring 230 different architectural projects. Recently, Halifax Magazine spoke with curator Wolfgang Fiel. He explains Vorarlberg’s architectural traditions are unique because they reflect the state’s distinctive culture.

The single most important feature of the architecture in Vorarlberg is its rootedness in the quality of local craft and the building trades,” he says. “The local culture and its traditions are being reflected in the continued evolution of the local vernacular architecture, and its specific relation with the landscape, which it seeks to preserve, while making use of its abundant renewable resources for ecologically sound constructions.”

It’s not just about heritage; it’s also about respecting the living environment. “I believe the notion of social sustainability is something other communities can learn from Vorarlberg,” Fiel says. “What this means is that a joint commitment to high-quality architecture is more likely to yield the kind of spaces that are beneficial for a wider public. This is exactly why in the exhibition I set an emphasis on community centres, kindergartens, schools, and the like.”

He attributes the state’s architectural success to a combination of wise government policy and public demand for spaces that are beautiful and functional. “The government understood early on that this movement deserves the kind of support which is all too often is overlooked elsewhere, pertaining to the legal framework and the availability of public funds,” Fiel says. “The architects play a vital role here, has never grew tired of lobbying their cause and publicly pondering the importance of high-quality architecture.”

The final piece of the puzzle for Vorarlberg is ensuring that people don’t take its architectural success for granted: “The challenge therefore is to keep going, keep innovating, and keep attracting young talent, which probably is the single most important element in the context of continued urbanization.”

Getting Things Done continues at the Dalhousie School of Architecture until May 19. 

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