31 October 2008

Mat Building in Halifax

rebuilding the mat in the contemporary urban landscapeMatthew Neville
Density is a contentious issue in Halifax. A region characterised by a slow growth conservatism, the city appears divided, even paralysed, between heritage preservation and new urban real estate development. Misrepresenting density as purely height, coupled with excessively rigid and paradoxically vague municipal building regulations, Halifax shows a great disconnect between social and spatial perceptions of the liveable city. One process, called mat-building, defines density as both physical and of social characteristics at the ground plane, and is measured by levels of intensity and mixitié; mat-building is density at the scale of habitat. As a strategy to increase density in low-density North American cities, mat-building can enrich the presently hostile [sub]urban pedestrian environment, offering an alternative to the relatively unchallenged New Urbanism model. With a fine-grained historic fabric and many vacant sites ripe for redevelopment, Halifax is an ideal testing ground for mat-building. It would give the city valuable insight into the tribulations and contradictions of its rich history, culture and its unique sense of place.
Introduced by Alison Smithson in 1974, mat-building provides individual freedom of movement through the city by weaving close-knit patterns of association between objects, supported by a dense internal language of circulation. Mat-building emerged from Smithson’s fascination with the traditional Arabic casbah – its rich texture, ‘full of starts and stops and shadow…with a high degree of connectedness to allow for change of mind and the in-roads of time’. As connective tissue in various phases of construction, destruction or decay, mats are never finished: they encapsulate the continuous evolution of urban form.
Mat-building is a process: it structures high density patterns of living. Mat-building requires delicate interplay between variations and repetitions of form; it is governed by connections and thresholds rather than by geometric boundaries. In contrast, a grid is indifferent to and detached from topography; no where is this more evident than in the 1749 British plan for Halifax where a flat military grid was laid upon a steep hillside. The ultimate objective of mat-building is total integration of building, tissue and landscape. From building to city block, mat-building intensifies the relationship of landscape to culture by emphasising process and organisation over objects.
Mats are close-knit, fine-grain fabrics with a dense internal language where choice of movement for the user is maximised; they allow for easy appropriation of space; they welcome organic, incremental growth and various states of construction, destruction and decay. They are produced under the influence of culture, landscape and time.
Remnants of mats are visible in Halifax as one navigates from the top of the glacial drumlin where a 19th century citadel remains, through the historical residue scattered over the slope, down to the harbour and the edge of the ocean. As the grid pattern aligns the short side of the blocks with the water, it increases the east-west porosity –the number of choices– of the fabric. Personal space unfolds; each part of the route is governed by time and a series of sequential, changing thresholds.
Although the Citadel and harbour seem to present a stable bi-polar system while peripheral areas fill a dynamic role to meet changing urban needs, recent history tells us this is not the case. Such monuments act as divisive objects that fragment the tissue as well as the city. At a smaller scale, there are numerous vacant sites scattered throughout the fabric that act in similar ways by creating barriers, dead zones and areas of exclusion that further degrade quality of place.

The site of the former Halifax Infirmary (including two adjacent parking lots) is the most significant vacant site on the peninsula. With no shortage of ideas for its redevelopment as residents, business leaders, politicians and developers express their desires through many recent visioning exercises held by the city, the debate over the future of this site is only just beginning. Many proposed uses are institutional (a library and courthouse) while others focus on more residential and commercial space in the area. The site is a strategic location, next to the Dalhousie’s schools of engineering, architecture and planning, and between Citadel Hill, a national historic, Spring Garden Road, a main shopping area and Barrington Street, a proposed heritage district. Rather than highlighting these differences by engaging in acts of monument building, the city is in desperate need of a strategy to build associations and social and spatial interdependence in this area. As a site where distinct urban areas collide, it has the potential to act as a threshold between the primarily residential south end of the city, commercial areas to the east and north, and the hospital and university areas in the west. Instead of creating an exception in the tissue, the city requires a reciprocity that weaves together old and new physical elements, and social patterns of use and behaviour, creating a dense fabric that remains active throughout the busy summers and often long winters.
Imagining a new centre of stability in the city – anchored by strong existing public institutions – the elements that fill the site must take on an unconventional, anti-monumental shape. Through an organic understanding of the in-between – a sort of interstitial urbanism – these elements can not only form the physical construct of the site, but can create habitat and allow for unexpected patterns of human behaviour. Such a process requires one to step away from buildings and plans viewed from above and to explore the hidden potential on the ground, in the city, on the street and in the landscape.
Aldo Van Eyck predicted an end to architecture’s fascination with form, to be replaced by a ‘culture of determined relations’ where ‘the relation between things and within things are of greater significance than the things themselves’. Mat-building continues this push for a shift in architectural design from static imagery to organisation, temporality and transition. It places architecture closer to the humanities and in a position better able to deal with the dynamics of contemporary cosmopolitan forms of urbanity. Mat-building is place-making in a phenomenological sense – using the experiences of people as the foundation of design. The mat is a discussion of density, city life (in buildings and in the street) and cultural differences in the use and meaning of space. In this sense, the mat may be the most appropriate ’ground cover’ for culturally diverse cities as it embraces the overlapping and complex structuring of social and spatial elements of urban life.

Neville, Matthew. 'Rebuilding the Mat in the Contemporary Urban Landscape' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Matthew Neville and On Site review

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