As I talked with Wolfgang Fiel, I wondered if he’d heard any of Halifax’s development-versus-heritage debate while visiting our city.
As we talked, I hoped he hadn’t heard about it, because it seemed silly, contrasted with what he told me about his home state. Fiel is an architect from Austria, and curator of the exhibition Getting Things Done: Evolution of the Built Environment in Vorarlberg, which visited the School of Architecture at Dalhousie last month.
Vorarlberg is a sparsely populated, mostly mountainous, Austrian state. It’s nestled in the Alps and shares a border with Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, but has more in common with Nova Scotia than I expected. It’s geographically isolated, far from big industrial areas and economic centres. Its economy relies on a mix of traditional and cultural industries, natural resources, and small-scale entrepreneurs. Flat population growth is a worry, policy makers wonder how to attract and retain young people.
So bearing all those similarities in mind, I expected Fiel to tell me that the state also has the same tensions between heritage and development as Halifax does. But he didn’t. Instead, he describes a place that respects traditional aesthetics and riffs off them to create buildings, indeed whole communities, that are sustainable, functional, attractive, and people-focused.
“The local culture and its traditions are being reflected in the continued evolution of the local vernacular architecture,” Fiel says, “and its specific relation with the landscape, which it seeks to preserve, while making use of its abundant renewable resources for ecologically sound constructions.”
The exhibition Fiel brought to Halifax explores some 230 different architectural projects in the state, with a heavy emphasis on public spaces, such as community centres, kindergartens, and schools.
The philosophy is simple: public spaces should be attractive, accessible, functional, and benefit the whole community. “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.”
The state isn’t a collection of preserved heritage properties. The buildings he highlights were all designed in the last few decades. But they aren’t glass and concrete monoliths, or cheaply slapped together condos and apartment blocks. They’re designed to complement their community, not impose a new aesthetic on it.
The recent decision to build a new medical centre in Bayers Lake provides stark contrast. In Vorarlberg, the thinking would be: What is the most accessible, sustainable, attractive way to site and design this centre? In Nova Scotia, the thinking seems to be: where can we put a centre that will win us rural votes? Can we make sure we buy the land from someone who supports the Liberal party? We can protect a piece of pristine wilderness or build this centre, but we can’t do both.
When I talk with Fiel, the wrongheadedness of our thinking around these issues astounds me. Our leaders consistently let us down by making the discussion childishly binary. You either support this project or you hate development. You want a new medical centre in Bayers Lake, or you’re opposed to health care.
The citizens of Vorarlberg demand, and get, better from their government. “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 highquality architecture.”
It’s time we start expecting more from our leaders, our planners, and ourselves. We can do better.