Pier 21

Inside the transformation of Halifax’s Pier 21

Canadian Museum of Immigration's expansion balances climate, heritage requirements
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

As visitors pass through the tunnel-like vestibule, they often pause to savour the scent of the freshly installed ash frame in the archway of the brick wall.

It is a measure of climate control in what has been described as a shed situated in a hurricane zone on the North Atlantic Ocean. It is also symbolic of the journey that close to one million immigrants made as they crossed into Canada between 1928 and 1971.

Last year, Halifax’s Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 officially reopened with two permanent exhibitions and new rental space following a $30-million capital and thematic expansion. Today the transformation supports the institution in telling both local and national stories of newcomers to the country under its increased mandate.

In supporting that mandate, the project needed to balance meeting rigid environmental requirements for new artifacts and preserving significant historical features of the building.

“Whether it’s the brick or the beautiful clerestory windows or the — by sheer luck — original doors leading out to the deck where people would have arrived, we had many pieces that were incredibly meaningful,” explains CEO Marie Chapman. “There were structural elements that would literally bring people to tears when they returned.”

In fact, that was really the impetus for establishing a museum dedicated to the local history of Pier 21. Founder Ruth Goldbloom, who was born in Cape Breton and the granddaughter of Russian immigrants, observed that she was not alone in visiting the vacant building and standing at its doors. They served as a point of departure for nearly 400,000 troops during the Second World War, and they served as a point of entry for the waves of immigration that followed.

The local museum originally opened in 1999, not long after the federal government recognized it as a national historic site. In 2011, it was designated a national museum, making it one of only two such institutions outside of Ottawa.

Recognizing Pier 21’s cultural significance, architects and collaborators Luc Bouliane and David J. Agro took a conservative approach to their design intervention.

“The most beautiful part of the building is the building,” says Bouliane. “What we did from day one was design around the historical structural systems of the building, and then we amplified them.”

However, what appears to be a simple design was extremely complex to execute and involved a large team of consultants with local representation.

The project was strategically phased across the complex, which treads a long and narrow north-south footprint in Halifax Harbour. The work started at the south end of the complex, in shed 22, where the expansion occurred, and finished at the north end of the complex, in shed 21. This sequencing allowed the existing Pier 21 exhibit, renovated last, and former Kenneth C. Rowe Hall event space, whose replacement was built out first, to remain open during a majority of the construction.

Facility rentals represent an important revenue stream in the museum’s funding model, with the prestigious local event space hosting everything from business meetings to weddings. It even provided the backdrop to a speech George W. Bush delivered in 2004 on his first official visit to Canada as U.S. president at the time.

The new 440-seat Kenneth C. Rowe Hall gives prospective users a neutral yet warm backdrop against which to envision their event in the versatile space.

A stage serves as a focal point, outfitted with lighting and rigging systems as well as three layers of curtains that, among other functions, can cloak an installation featuring a Canadian flag made from puzzle-like Styrofoam pieces — one of the museum’s original exhibits. Ash paneling flanks the stage, concealing made-to-measure chair storage and an accessible ramp up the three-step-high platform. Black channels bordering the paneling manage cables and visually reconcile the one-and-a-half foot gap between the steel beams underpinning the cathedral ceiling.

“A lot of thought has gone into what is the height of that black piece and how do you tie the different walls together,” Argo notes, pointing to the wrapping of materials, such as tectum panels, as another example.

The new materials play a supporting role to the refinished original Carnegie steel and sanded Douglas fir wood ceiling. The architects sensitively inserted floating tectum panels to provide acoustical performance without obscuring these good bones. And as a finishing touch, a light-rigging system suspends fixtures between the tectum panels and steel trusses with precision.

Sound-baffling material behind the ash paneling also contributes to the hall’s acoustical performance. The architects initially received a high-quality sample from the U.S., but passed on it after factoring in shipping times and a price of roughly $25 per square foot. Instead, they worked with contractor Bird Construction, as well as a subtrade, to get a replica produced in Halifax-based wood shops.

“This space needed to work with us, not against us, and that required subtlety and a respect for that was already there and yet an ability to wrangle it into submission,” Chapman says, lauding their work.

A “jewellery box” design seals off the new Canadian Immigration Hall from the building envelope, which Bouliane describes as “perforated” thanks to its age and location on the Atlantic. The system, developed with consulting engineers F.C O’Neill, Scriven & Associates, protects the artifacts on display by maintaining the required humidity level regardless of temperature swings outside. It includes testing units that sound an alarm if a certain threshold is breached.

The renovated Rudolph P. Bratty Hall houses the Pier 21 exhibit, with its archived photos, period costumes, personal stories and more, as well as a 100-seat theatre. And a mezzanine level artfully contains the maze of pipes that make up the mechanical system.

“[It] looks quite beautiful in its own right,” says Bouliane. “What we like about that is it’s the hidden stuff that makes the museum work.”

To install the large air handling unit, the contractor disassembled the equipment into six pieces and fed them through the trusses. The equipment couldn’t be craned in from the port side, where ships dock a mere six feet away, because it would have required the clearance to cross into what is international territory, Agro elaborates.

As it stood, the project required federal approvals because the Halifax Port Authority owns the facilities. Government funding also dictated tight timelines, with politicians scheduled to be on hand for the reopening.

When Agro attended the museum’s reopening, he recalls being struck by the story behind a Japanese orange on display, which a Japanese boy had gifted to a Czechoslovakian girl who had immigrated to Canada in 1938 and moved in next door in his B.C. neighbourhood.

“Interpretation is difficult; people don’t read text, they don’t look at messaging, they’re rushing through,” he says. “As an architect, if you can provide a setting where the exhibit people and the museum people can do their job so that it’s amazing and meaningful, it’s very rewarding — especially when you think about what’s going on with the Syrians coming to Canada.”

Indeed, as the ongoing global refugee crisis has shown, the story of Canadian immigration is a continuing one. And the renovation and expansion of the institution’s facilities have given it the capacity to share these next chapters.

Already, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 has hosted A Perilous Crossing, an exhibit featuring artifacts recovered from the rafts of Syrian and African refugees who traversed the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, collected by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders field workers.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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