Pride and preservation

Last week, I wrote an article about the declining quality of government office space in our downtown, arguing that we would save money and have a higher-quality environment if governments invested in permanent buildings, rather than renting space through short-term leases.

The example I cited of this declining quality was the leased headquarters for the Department of Indian and Native Affairs (INAC) on Hargrave Street.

The building consists of two parts:  A renovated bus-maintenance facility (more recently the home of Malabar) and a new building immediately to the north.  The renovated portion was photographed for the article, with a caption noting the poor quality of the building.  Because this part of the project is a fairly handsome heritage-quality structure, I suspect there may have been more than one confused reader.

It is the newer addition to the north, rather than the renovated older building, that prompted my concern.

The development of both parts of the project was carried out concurrently, and the difference in quality got me thinking.

For many years, heritage buildings across North America were torn down rather casually whenever highest- and best-use calculations indicated that a parking lot or a new building was more financially attractive.

As a result of continued efforts by concerned citizens and government authorities, heritage buildings can no longer be demolished simply because their owners sees potential short-term gain.

Heritage preservation has become a cultural norm rather than a fringe reaction to “progress” – and the architecture and construction techniques of heritage preservation have also become cultural norms.  As owners, contractors, engineers and architects, we know how to do it, and we do it with reasonable quality and consistency.

Restoration and renovation of a heritage building usually starts with a building of reasonable architectural quality.  The interventions that are made in the building – especially the visible aspects of the building – are made within a framework of well-understood conventions.  And the result of most heritage restoration efforts is reasonably nice enhancement of our urban landscape.

But interestingly enough, the same principle does not apply to the design of new buildings:  there is no industry-wide consensus about what is supposed to be done, no architectural framework or protocols.

When we see a restoration adjacent to a new building – as with the INAC project on Hargrave – it should not come as a surprise that the heritage portion seems well finished and a comfortable urban neighbour.

And without a demand and expectation for quality architecture, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the new building lacks the presence and comfort of its older sibling.

In any age, most architecture is of middling quality.  Most of the buildings in the Exchange District were built as low-cost warehousing and manufacturing facilities using the technology and the architectural habits of the day.  These buildings were not “high architecture.”  However, neither were they the cheapest buildings money could buy. And there appears to have been a certain level of corporate pride evidenced in most of the buildings we now find there.

It is this level of (admittedly hypothesized) pride in creation which may be the telling distinction between good average buildings and buildings which appear ready for oblivion as soon as they are completed.  We do not have to imitate the texture, style, materials or image of heritage buildings in order to have successful contemporary urban architecture.

But the fact that most heritage restorations are positive elements in our urban landscape, and that some contemporary construction is lacking a message of quality and pride, should give us pause.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, May 15, 2004

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