Heritage in context

I was delighted to read David Reevely’s Citizen blog today.  

I do understand that a heritage building might have additional value if left in the context of other heritage elements. In San Diego, they took a bunch of their heritage houses and relocated them into a separate out-of-the-downtown enclave, put stores in them, and presto, heritage mall. Like Upper Canada Village, it is a theme park built with heritage elements. Fun places, but not exactly genuine. Ditto saving a farmhouse and reusing it as a community centre as plastic-siding boxes are built around it.

Is the Horticulture building at Lansdowne Park different? All the surrounding elements have already changed — the building is no longer surrounded by a fairgrounds, it sits squashed into the edge of an ugly parking lot. If we want to leave it in its context, do we have to leave acres of parking in place around it? But if we redo all the parking lots into a urban space with stores, art galleries, residences … and adjacent stadium, then the building is out of its original context and out of its subsequent contexts … so moving it a few hundred feet to make a quality urban sense of place with another historic building seems logical.

As one of those “who don’t get it”, why  is it important to surround the Horticulture Bldg with highrises so we can say this is where it always was? I suspect the heritage aficionados of snobbery, claiming to inhabit a higher plane of sophistication than unwashed me.

Ditto for the Convent on Richmond Road. It is behind a wall. If the grounds are to be bought by the city and used as a park, to preserve the historic context, then they better not knock down the walls around the lot, better not build a parking lot or restaurant there, because to do so alters the context. But if we are to build around it, then the residential building along Richmond with a peek-through arch offering a glimpse of the building seems to me to be honest to its prior context. And if context is so important, why do we feel so OK with changing the purpose of the building from a church to a bar? conference room? Why did the wall and ceiling paintings that were previously described as key elements of the heritage suddenly drop off the radar when they were removed? Is it a case of your change bad, my change good?

Christ Church (Anglican) Cathedral is putting together development plans for its site in the Bronson/Sparks/Queen block. This includes a ~20 storey condo tower immediately behind Roper House, the old house facing Bronson. BUT, attention all heritage buffs, they are going to preserve the grassy side yards so that the house can be seen in context. Provided you ignore the condos behind. And on the other side of the street. And the vacant lot that used to hold similar structures. And on the east side of the Cathedral itself, in the area now a parking lot, they propose a ~20 storey office tower. The struggle here is to see and appreciate the historic cathedral when it is bookended by modern tall buildings. I happen to think the site arrangements the developers are struggling with are being well handled, and they are busy consulting with planners, the city, the neighbors, etc. But yet … the context around the cathedral has been changing since it was first built and will evolve again.

Heritage is now defined by some Acts and groups as starting at age 50  (yup, I’ve got a heritage body — do I have to be mummified and put on display as an example of abuse, or can I go ahead with the cremation?).  I read recently online about several dubious cases: early office towers, functionally obsolete, cannot be torn down or renovated to modern standards to preserve heritage value. Hey, anyone want to pay the utility bills for a 30 storey office tower with single glazed windows??  Hmm, maybe the heritage groups could be the tenant and pay those utility bills. Or do we want to redesign a whole-block urban mixed-use redevelopment simply to avoid a 1950’s diner awkwardly located on the block because it is an example of working-class eating facilities? Can we mock those opposed to a Islamic education centre a few blocks from Ground Zero because it is blocks away, and then cheer on the heritage groups that oppose a new office tower a few blocks from the Empire State Building because it changes the skyline? Hey, maybe those Swiss burgers who opposed minarets changing the skyline of centuries-old roofscapes have a heritage point.

I like heritage, its one of the reasons I live where I do. There’s a mix of old and new buildings, of stone walls and stone buildings, and old brick structures. And sometimes those old buildings get torn down to be replaced by something modern. Sometimes that is an improvement; sometimes it is cause of regret. Cities are dynamic places, already severely constrained by ever more layers of planning bureaucracy and subjective reviews. Compromises are built into every heritage “save”, I remain confused by what is or is not heritage.

My impression of heritage afficionados is that they have flexible standards. If they approve of a development, OK; if they don’t, they have other standards to cite.

You can read David Reevely’s column here: http://communities.canada.com/ottawacitizen/blogs/greaterottawa/archive/2010/11/22/moving-the-horticulture-building.aspx

2 thoughts on “Heritage in context

  1. The fight is over the zeitgeist of the redevelopment. Leave it, as the original winning bid proposed, and you have increased public space. Move it, and you have additional commercial space, enough to fit a multiplex, considered an anchor tenant due to the predictable traffic, even in winter.

    This is less about architecture than it is about what the development is all about.

    It’s not quite over. Jim Watson, with some help from the province, which can have final say, might well influence that it stays in place. What’s forgotten is that while the commercial and stadium aspects of the redevelopment do not qualify for infrastructure funding the ‘front porch’ does, and moreso if the Horticulture building is not moved.

    Prepare from some deft moves from Jim and Bob Chiarelli.

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