The plight of modern heritage
In Canada, we’re fairly new to this whole heritage business. It’s taken some time, but we’re finally beginning to understand the intrinsic value of heritage buildings. If a building is in good repair and it “looks old”, it stands a good chance of being protected, at least in the major cities.
But what about the buildings that don’t look old? Across the country, stories have popped up of communities rallying around historic buildings constructed as recently as the 1960s. This begs the question: where does “old” stop and “new” begin?
These days, buildings from the 1950s and 60s don’t get very much respect. Brutalist monuments like the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto or the Quadrangle at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver are considered by many to be eyesores, but at one time they were considered to be ambitious and idealistic experiments in changing the way people relate to their environment. If trends can come and go with the seasons, should it really be up to our generation to decide which buildings are to stay and which ones are destroyed forever?
The prime example of a building torn down before its time was New York’s old Penn Station, a veritable temple of transportation, which fell to the wrecking ball in 1963. The 53-year-old building was not protected by the city’s government. However, public outrage stemming from its demolition was a major catalyst in the heritage preservation movement which protected Grand Central Station 15 years later.
Flash forward to the 21st century, and history appears to be repeating itself. In 2007, the Bata Shoe Head Office in Toronto was demolished, one of many modern heritage buildings not seen as significant enough for protection. Despite the edifice’s unique design and iconic site overlooking the city’s main eastern entry route, North York Community Council voted unanimously to reject a heritage designation. In the same year, West Vancouver’s cliff-hanging David Graham House was torn down, another victim of insufficient foresight. Its architect was homegrown talent Arthur Erickson, who noted that it launched his reputation as “the architect you went to when you had an impossible site”.
The tragedies continue. In 2013, Bridgepoint Health is slated to demolish Toronto’s Riverdale Hospital, once called the “Taj Mahal of bed-care centres”. This comes despite a massive mobilization of opposition. One of the most interesting angles on the fight came from the “Citizens for Riverdale Hospital,” who crunched the numbers and found that the demolition will result in 77,000 metric tonnes of carbon emissions. This takes into account all the carbon that was emitted in the construction of the building way back in 1963 (embodied energy), which will simply evaporate.
If history has taught us anything, it is that we must think long and hard about the importance of a building before wiping it from the face of the earth. No one’s judgement is beyond reproach – I know I am guilty of dismissing structures as ugly before realizing their significance. Tastes may change, but a demolition is forever.