Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Saving Place

Have you ever noticed how well Parisians dress? I have a theory about this. One of the reasons Parisians dress so well is to keep up with the beauty of their surroundings. Those steel gray Mansard roofs, the Fin de Siécle wrought iron lamp posts, that inherent beauty in endless epic vistas. This kind of one-upmanship is good for the city and good for Parisians. I like a place with high standards.

It's the 20th anniversary of Historic Calgary Week, and for many like myself who lament about Calgary's distinct lack of beautiful surroundings, it's a time of contemplation about what we have, architecturally speaking, and more importantly, what we have lost. It's a time to think about those well dressed Parisians.

My interest in architectural preservation/conservation began with my first visit to the Glenbow archives where I came across countless photos of Calgary as 'the sandstone city'. If you've never been to the archives you really should make a point of getting there. So much history, so much architectural legacy was destroyed in the name of modernization and progress, propelled by the prevailing belief that 'new' is always better. I was truly shocked. Judging by the architecture that exists today, one might think that Calgary had miraculously sprouted out of the ground around 1972. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the 70s in fact there were some very nice buildings designed during this period, it's just that a city which appears completed built at one particular time in history can appear monotonous and dull.

My interest in historic architecture continued when in 2005, I helped set up a contemporary theatre in the historic Lougheed Building on the corner of 1st street and 6th avenue in downtown Calgary. (This re-use of an historical building won a prestigious Calgary Heritage Authority Lion Award that recognizes successful conservation efforts in the city - these are given out biannually and in fact this year's winners were just announced a few days ago). I think heritage buildings give character to our contemporary streets and preserve the historical stories important to our culture. Maintaining them, whether as museums or re-purposed for new uses, intermingled with new buildings, is crucial to a multi-dimensional and vibrant cityscape.

Many pit progress and economic development against preservation of historical landmarks and spaces as if the two can not live side by side. I just finished an excellent book by Anthony M. Tung - Preserving The World's Great Cities, where Tung affirms that we can have both, indeed that we need both.

Tung set out to explore 22 cities including Rome, Cairo, Athens, Venice, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Mexico City, Beijing, London and lovely Paris, to compare their practice of urban preservation and, for the first time, to collect the information in one place. He honed most of his experience sitting on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1979 to 1988, so New York takes up a few engaging chapters in the book as well.

In New York, the push for saving historical buildings was triggered by a now infamous event – the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, the magnificent Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by Charles McKim in 1911. Think of the Crystal Palace (sadly gone) in London or the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Now picture someone willfully tearing either down. Despite numerous protests, New Yorkers at the time (like Jane Jacobs) were utterly shocked to see that this historical landmark was taken from them forever so that the company that owned the building could make a small profit and that an average looking sports arena could be built in its place. Vincent Scully wrote that before "One entered the city like a god" in the original station and that "One scuttles in now like a rat."

Architecture can be enlightening at its best and disheartening at its worst.

Just ask Cynthia Klaassen, president of the Calgary Heritage Initiative, an organization created only 5 years ago to help ensure our architectural heritage is well looked after. They bring buildings and sites of interest to the attention of the Calgary Heritage Authority (an 11 member group appointed by city council), who then determine if the buildings have potential to be added to the inventory of evaluated historic resources using the Standards and Guidelines for Historic Preservation in Canada as their bible. We are so lucky to have people like Cynthia and the fine people at the Calgary Heritage Initiative acting as a kind of 'watch dog' for Calgary's architectural legacy.

Without going into too many specifics, this is how it works – Once a building has been chosen for evaluation, the first step is stakeholder engagement. Get the owners, community members, architects, heritage planners from the city and other interested parties around a table to start a discussion. A decision can be made whether to go for municipal, provincial or federal historical designation (being designated by one does not guarantee acceptance to all levels by the way). Using the standards and guidelines bible, the group will determine if it can be added on to the inventory of evaluated historic resources. Then its all about long term maintenance and upkeep, ensuring that the buildings are well taken care of. Cynthia stressed that one of the biggest issues Canadians have in preserving their architectural heritage is 'demolition by neglect' where irresponsible owners simply let a building deteriorate to a point where demolition is the only answer.

That and the ease of which a demolition permit can be obtained by someone.

In Calgary, getting a demolition permit could not be easier. That might explain why there are so many demolished heritage sites here. We need to create more incentives to save what we have and make it harder to destroy what exists. I applaud the valuable work that the Calgary Heritage Authority and other local groups are doing but heritage preservation has to work hand-in-hand with all levels (and laws) of city planning to be truly effective. This is something that Anthony Tung stressed in his book as well.

Try this exercise. Go on one of the many planned interpretive walks put on to celebrate Historic Calgary Week. Take a good look at buildings like the Grain Exchange or the Lougheed building downtown. How much will remain after another 100 years of modernization? What collective stories do we lose when historical architecture like this is destroyed?

Keep in mind, as Tang says in his book "When experienced as merely a local matter, as just another old building or historic neighborhood removed from the changing cityscape, the destruction around us may not seem excessive, but when viewed across the world over a century, the speed of this global ongoing transformation is alarming."

And irreversible.

It's simple really. Heritage buildings add character and beauty to a place. They help make a city distinctive and are a physical manifestation of a generation's ideas and values.

And, not insignificantly, they may even help to create beautiful surroundings that can, hopefully, make you feel like dressing a little better.

Links, links and more links here: - a series of photographs showing exact locations where historical building have been torn down and replaced with new.

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