The Industrial Aesthetic

In 1971 I took a design history class at NSCAD and it changed how I saw the physical world. The teacher was Tony Mann, who had incredible enthusiasm for objects and typography and design. One of the many things he opened my eyes to was the industrial aesthetic, the special look of industrial buildings and objects.  In the 70s and 80s I snapped a few pictures of industrial structures around town, most of which have gone or have been altered.

This enigmatic seven-story concrete tower was in the Fairview rail-yard. I suspect it might have been for loading coal into steam locomotives.



On the same Sunday afternoon in 1984 there was an impressive gathering of diesel locomotives at the Fairview turntable. In the background is a Dayliner next to our concrete structure. Frank Fox, who taught design with Tony Mann, had something to do with the design of the wonderful CN logo.

PICT0041 PICT0038

Much less gritty and still with us is the Robie Street water reservoir. This 1913 concrete structure  survived the Explosion and is designated a “National Historic Civil Engineering  Site.”  The original roof was replaced in 1945 with the largest pre-stressed concrete dome in the world (so there). That roof has since been replaced but when I took these pictures in 1984 the elegant dome was still in place.  I was amused by the hydrant.    PICT0032

Imagine this building in 1913 .  Not hard to understand that some industrial buildings were sources of inspiration for modernist architecture. The walls of the small building flare out and give it a real sense of strength.PICT0034

Continuing with the water theme, here are a couple of waterfront water towers. In early 20th-century photographs of the downtown you see a number of these on the tops of buildings (I guess to increase water pressure). This one was on a big concrete cold storage building that was near Dover Flour and the grain elevators. NHB stands for National Harbours Board.


This tank in the Shipyards was next to a concrete smoke stack. All wonderfully sculptural.


In 1980 there were still Irving oil tanks at the foot of Sackville Street (that’s Maritime Centre in the background). The stairways up these tanks are quite refined.


At the that time the power plant on Water Street was still in place. To take this picture I climbed a huge pile of dirt and debris (that maybe was used to claim some harbour). Hard to imagine that 35 years later this plant could get converted into the NS Power headquarters and that in front of those derelict wharves you would be dining at Bicycle Thief.


I think the expansion of the Tufts Cove power plant made the Water Street one redundant. It is another brilliant piece of engineering. The red and white stripes have a boldness that none of our office towers dare.  More points to the engineers.


Also on the Dartmouth side was this  Navy crane that I believe was that last of several on the harbour. The little grey building and the #6 elevate it to the status of monumental sculpture.


Since my class in 1971 I think we have become open to many more aesthetics, which is a good thing. Someday the charms of vinyl siding will be celebrated. I’m not going to live that long, so I don’t care.


  • I  Googled the Robie Street reservoir and an amazing little video appeared. When the reservoir roof needed to be replaced in 1999 the old concrete dome was blown up! Those wacky engineers.  Am I the last person to see this?  Reminds me of Monty Python explosions.
  • And because one harmless explosion is never enough –  here is  Ripple Rock in British Columbia being blown up in 1958. This was a huge deal on television at the time. The CBC played it over and over for months.


About the author

Stephen Archibald

It’s Stephen Archibald doing the noticing. I’m a huge fan of Nova Scotia’s material culture and cultural landscapes. Twitter (@Cove17 ) made me realize I could share what attracted my attention (perfect for my very short attention) and I’m gratified when folks enjoy my content. Pleased to meet you on the internet.