The Smith Report: Hope for Ottawa’s Heritage Conservation Districts?

Ottawa is going through a difficult time. There is a structural flaw in its management and how it listens to its citizens, especially when it comes to protecting its heritage conservation districts (HCDs). Yesterday, the Smith Report was released, outlining the state of crisis in preserving and protecting Ottawa’s HCDs. There are key insights in the report that everyone should be aware of.

The present situation is not surprising since most governments are ‘amber organizations’: highly structured hierarchies of power, with few opportunities for staff to engage with communities in a meaningful way and often lacking in transparency. They are out of date and likely part of the cause of such polarity in politics today.

Because Ottawa is driven mostly by federal government institutions and employment, there’s little room to advance how we can have a better and more engaged polity. We imagine ourselves to be humane and leaders in progressive urbanism , but sadly this is lost on a Council that has inherent structural flaws – thanks mostly to the Mike Harris government of the 1990s. Ottawa is not known for its bottom-up innovation, though there are sometimes glimmers of change.

There are many actions the City could easily take, but a key one that I have heard mention is it should be more transparent. Politicians and senior executives always have a difficult time being open in these old-fashioned organizations. When they don’t truly listen to citizens, there is the reason why we have such consistent frustration and dissatisfaction by the public. Many citizens have experienced this first hand when attending and/or speaking at committees (which also have low public turn-out).

There are many innovations the City could adopt: free public transportation, better bike infrastructure, low-carbon incentives (imagine free full-electric car parking), develop real public space etc. But, an easy step in the right direction would be for the City to take heritage conservation seriously.

Place only has meaning when it is cared for through passion, intimacy and immediacy. This was understood in Ottawa a century ago when the City Beautiful movement was influencing the transformation of the City from a lumber town into a capital.

Heritage conservation at its heart is sustainable and the only option for our future. Why? Because it works within its means. Yes, there are disastrous abuses of heritage, such as the Chateau Laurier addition, though this debacle was avoidable if there was better independent leadership by the City. Where there was once a strong sense of how Ottawa could be a livable city, this is being challenged, particularly by certain developers wishing for short-term gain.

Heritage can be a loaded term. It can be manipulated to benefit different stakeholders, but ultimately, the goal is to maintain unique and distinctive qualities of a space that imparts connection between each other and rootedness in place, time and history.

In many ways heritage districts were born out of a need to counter the modernist project of the past century. It speaks to the local, which many people lack in their lives (especially by globalised people).

Beauty, love and social fabric should be in your backyard, and those social values are part of preserving the architecture, design and sense of place of neighbourhoods and districts. Tower landscapes may be the lollipops of councillors, but the sweetness of Ottawa will not be found in the proposed Lebreton Flats developments, instead it is found on main streets and in small mixed neighbourhoods.

What Ottawa must better understand is the natural and cultural capital of its 20 heritage districts and improve on their protection. They are being compromised and eroded, to the disappointment and frustration of citizens who live within them. Personally, we were attracted to our neighbourhood because our house was within a heritage district. This is a good quality to preserve.

A very important report has been circulated addressing the crisis of heritage conservation districts in Ottawa. Written by architect, planner and heritage advocate, Julian Smith, it was spearheaded by the Rockcilffe Park Residents Association, with support of other Ottawa community associations.

It succinctly outlines why protection of heritage conservation districts is not being supported by the City and constructive suggestions on how to improve this situation. Read it here:

The Smith Report

 

I want a livable and unique city. One that is healthy and related to both the human and natural world. That is Ottawa’s identity, and yet, the tendency for our leaders is a wish-fulfillment for being Toronto or Vancouver instead of seeing the love of our place for what it is. Let us hope this report will bring about a better council and a better commitment to protect our heritage conservation districts.

When Architecture Fails to Speak for Itself…The Château Laurier addition.

Imagine it is 2030 and over the past decade the Château Laurier addition has been derided not only for its misunderstanding of architecture, but for the City’s poor decision to allow this decorated box to be constructed. In 2030, visitors to the Capital are surprised that a generic rectangular box, clearly struggling to relate to the Picturesque Château, was ever built. They will ask: isn’t it a National Historic Site? Weren’t there strict controls? Didn’t it hold a symbolism and meaning that is part of the City’s identity that should be better respected?

This future cannot be: an outside architect, who does not fully appreciate context, produces a weak design that is built because we lack awareness of our own architectural identity.

Downtown Ottawa is composed of four quadrants: a federal precinct (north of Wellington and Mackenzie), a business core (south of Wellington), a former transportation hub (east of Sussex Drive) and a people’s market (the Byward Market). Each quadrant holds its own architectural expression. The federal quadrant is revivalist, with nationalist and historicist meanings that the original architects of the Château Laurier understood. The office towers of the central business core offer another expression – more functional and less inspired by an aesthetic approach to architecture. The Union Station, the Canal and the driveways are transport routes and buildings for the core. The Byward Market is a human-scaled pedestrian zone.

What architectsAlliance and their conservation architects, ERA Architects, are proposing is the insertion of a functional, albeit now partially dressed, decorated box into the historicist precinct. They resist and ignore the conceptual and architectural language of this space.

Château Laurier Addition, 4th Version (May 2018) released by Larco Investments.

As version has followed version, it has become abundantly clear that the architects do not understand the place. They are misguided in understanding the identity of Ottawa and its relationship to landscape and the spectacle of this romanticized space.

Good architecture speaks for itself. It is not defended for years by the designer. Good architecture may be challenging, radical and exciting, but that is not the story of this addition. It is a story of a resistant architect, and by consequence a resistant owner, neither of whom can see the values of the Chateau Laurier.

Peter Clewes insists he is not interested in being popular (although his communication team released to the media that 70% of respondents support the latest design), and he considers Ottawa to be  “fearful of change” and “skeptical of change” (“Château Laurier architect defends modernist addition,” CBC, June 11, 2018). Actually, it is not that change is feared, but that we do not want poor change – also known as a mistake.

Rationalizing beauty is always a red flag, and this is what the architects are desperately trying to do after unveiling their fourth version of the design. Not only is the work now truly a decorated box, there is a paucity of beauty.

Both Peter Clewes and Michael McLelland have at expert committees and City-controlled public consultations, explained their design as a modernist interpretation of the Picturesque and associational values of the Château Laurier. They have used poor examples (including the Louvre addition, Foster’s Reichstag and the urbanist addition to the Glasgow School of Art) as justifications for their decorated box. But all miss the fundamental flaws of their design: its lack of symbolic language; its massing relationship; its intellectual language; its ethical expression.

The debate over the design is not one of ancients versus moderns – as Clewes (who is ‘award-winning’ – what architectural firm is not these days?) and their team have tried to frame the debate. It is, in fact, a debate about poetry and ethical poesis (or the ethics of creating). The morality and ethics of the architects’ imagination in understanding the cultural expression of early 20th century Canada, in all its complexity, is what should drive the design of the addition to the Chateau Laurier.

Instead, what we have is an architect who is wishing to defend his design within a simplistic framework of modernist-versus-postmodernist world. Meaning, Clewes’ modernism is a counterpoint to the aesthetic superficiality of post-modern designs (or a 20th-century historicism that he likely abhorred in the 1980s). His argument does not truly respond to the public debate. The real debate is about the ethics of architecture and why the wealthy owners cannot resolve to listen to public and professional opinion on what is most appropriate for an addition.

Clewes’ arguments for defending the design morphed as each iteration of the design was unveiled. His arguments have included: positioning the addition as contemporary while also respecting the Château Laurier’s heritage; that the addition is not an addition to the Château, but an object now related to the urban landscape of the park; that the glass block is a silhouette or shadow – or even the opposite, a “luminous palette” that does not compete or “overwhelm the heritage features” of the Château. A confident intelligent design does not constantly shift in justification to suit taste and fashion, whether it be for the general public or for the approval process.

Earlier attempts at the addition were intended to be an abstraction of the Château’s architecture. Now, in the latest design, we have an abstraction that has lost its essence due to Clewes and his team’s desperate search for material ornament to appease those critical of the design (more specifically, the City of Ottawa’s Urban Design Review Panel). I suspect they will ultimately succeed since the City’s planning department will capitulate to almost any powerful landowner.

Obviously, architecture is experienced in different ways than an artwork, but the concept of a work that is an object of beauty can be achieved. Additions are challenging, especially when the previous addition, (designed in 1928 by John S. Archibald with John Schofield) was a subtle, distinguishable wing that was praised and that the public enjoyed when unveiled. It used ornament to extend the language of the original building. Indeed, when the original owners were not satisfied with the first version of the Château Laurier in 1908, they fired the architect!

An example recently sent to me was the insertion by Ptolemy Dean Architects at Westminster Abbey. An internal stair would have damaged the building’s historic fabric. In response, the Gothic abbey opted to create an external staircase to access the exhibition rooms. Though a small insertion to the site, the “steampunk” Neo-Gothic element is contemporary as well as historicist. It certainly would comply with the Standard 11 of the Standard & Guidelines.

Weston Tower, Westminster Abbey, London, UK (Ptolemy Dean, architects, 2018)

At this exasperating stage of the process, I would even entertain out of desperation a reproduction as an option (see Robert Stern’s Pauli Murray & Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University, 2017).

Design can be symbolic and express its function. Clewes’ design is now frantically adding decoration – not ornament, in hopes of finally acquiring that precious building permit. This version of the addition still does not express the symbolism that is the Chateau Laurier. It is why it continues to fail as an addition and should not be built.

The Château Laurier may be in private hands, but there is a public function to the building that must be understood in this debate. For a building type – the grand railway hotel – it is young, only a little more than a century old. But the significance of its expression is as equal to the cathedral-like qualities of the Parliament buildings.

Attempts to build decorated boxes within the Parliamentary precinct have been proposed before. Can this neo-modernist box, now fully decorated and facing Majors Hill Park, become part of the narrative of our identity? I doubt it.

In 2030, some of us will pine for the Château Laurier’s dignified qualities before the addition. We will be embarrassed to tell a younger generation of the addition’s failure to incite excitement and create a sense of place. We will need to explain to our visitors why it was a mistake. We will explain who the architects were and how Council at the time decided to allow this to happen, without understanding its design flaws.

On the other hand, there is an election this year and perhaps Council will wish not to be remembered for a poor decision with major consequences for us all.

The preferred option of an open, transparent, national competition, with public engagement which would lead to citizens embracing Larco’s participatory vision for one of their most beloved landmarks, could still occur if they simply halted this process.

A Pillar of Conservation: Barbara Humphreys (1919-2017)

Barbara’s encouragement and support was an inspiration to me over the past fifty years. (Stuart Lazear)

We had wonderful and exciting years working together on the Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings. (Meredith Sykes)

She was a consummate professional, a gentle mentor and a friend. (Christina Cameron)

In recent years, we have sadly lost several pioneering heritage conservationists in Canada. Last week, Barb Humphreys, who was one of the pillars of heritage conservation in Canada, passed away at 97. An important figure from the first wave of Canadian conservation, she laid the foundation for future work on protecting Canada’s built heritage.

Her career began as one of the first female registered architects in Canada, graduating from the University of Manitoba when modernism was in ascent. She first worked for Defence Construction Ltd. designing for military bases, moving to the Department of Public Works and then to private practice. She understood architecture: her Manotick home, built in 1953, reflected her exceptional facility for design.

“Architect wife of Dr. Humphreys” The Ottawa Journal, November 28, 1959

Surrounded by historic buildings along the Rideau Canal, Barbara was drawn to the emerging field of heritage conservation. Her first foray into the field was to document historic sites along the Rideau Canal in 1967. In turn, this work led her back into public service, where she spearheaded the creation of the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building (CIHB).

In the wake of centennial celebrations, the federal government acknowledged that there was a poor understanding of the country’s built heritage. With only one architectural historian on staff at Parks Canada, a larger team was required.

Barbara’s survey work on the Rideau Canal corridor gained her invaluable experience in understanding historic structures. Her work brought her to the attention of Jack Richardson, who hired Barbara, along with Ann Faulkner and recent Columbia graduate Meredith Sykes to develop the CIHB. As Christina Cameron remembers, “they were the triumvirate of women who led the innovative Canadian Inventory of Historic Building programme.”

Barbara had a central role in designing and implementing CIHB at a time when Parks Canada was at the forefront of research on Canada’s built environment and protection of historic sites. Along with Peter Stokes, Hazen Sise and Jim Acland, she and her colleagues created the world’s first computerized database of historic buildings. It contained over 150,000 buildings and remains an accessible resource in the Documentation Centre at Parks Canada.

Its success spread around the world, and it was eventually used by New York City and at UNESCO. Barbara’s work on CIHB resonates well with today’s sustainable heritage – shifting away from monumental architecture to the streets of every town in Canada.

Barbara fostered the second wave of heritage conservationists in Canada – the ones who would create the framework, policies and legislation for heritage conservation in the 1970s and 1980s. Early on, she hired students to assist her. Stuart Lazear helped with documentation on the Rideau Canal and would later be a recorder for CIHB. Students hired as heritage recorders fanned out across the country to document buildings. The work brought a new awareness to the variety and complexity of Canada’s vernacular architecture and created a broader appreciation of what was of value. As Christina Cameron recalls, “Barbara and I toured the Île d’Orléans together [in 1970], scouting out 17th and 18th century farm houses and sharing a picnic lunch along the way. With her experienced architectural eye, she helped me to see the similarities and differences between the typical maison française and British stone houses along the Rideau Canal.”

More a seasoned practitioner than a self-promoter, Barbara brought architectural history to the public. As she said, “buildings around us reflect what we were, how wealthy we were, how we lived and [our] cultural influences.” She developed a training module called “Architecture as Living History” in association with the National Film Board; she prepared “The Buildings of Canada,” a style guide published by Reader’s Digest. Reaching out beyond academia and her profession, Barbara was a true public historian.

After retirement from Parks Canada in 1981, she remained involved in many organizations and continued to teach architectural history at Carleton University. As a founder of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, the first organization in Canada to study the history of the built environment, she remained involved and recognized for her early role. In later years, she worked to protect her beloved Watson’s Mill in Manotick, and published Legacy in Stone: The Rideau Corridor (1999).

Aside from her many recognitions, including the Gabrielle Léger Medal and Queen Elizabeth’s silver and golden jubilee medals, it was her inspiration and role in Canada’s conservation movement that is fondly remembered by us. She had many protégés who went on to work in the field of conservation across Canada, but her legacy stretches to all generations. I once had the privilege to spend an afternoon with her recounting stories when I was the Canadian Registrar. She was, for me, a living legacy of what began as a national project in the 1960s and continued with the creation of the Canadian Register of Historic Places. Her foundational and visionary work will always play a central part of the story of heritage conservation in Canada.

 

Incentive for Historic Places

Years have passed since there has been attention to federal legislation for historic places in Canada. As Canada marks its 150th year, it may be the year to make a difference that would bring Canada to an equal footing with most G20 countries.

A new private members bill has been tabled by Parliament: Bill C-323, an act to amend the Income Tax Act (rehabilitation of historic property) . Introduced by York-Simcoe MP Peter Van Loan, he stated in the House:

Mr. Speaker, this bill creates a tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings in Canada. It is designed to help those who invest in our cultural heritage.

It is a meaningful measure to strengthen heritage infrastructure. By maintaining historic buildings and undertaking costly heritage renovations, citizens undertake a considerable private burden from which we all benefit through the preservation of our past and the places that have made our country. This bill seeks, in a small way, to provide some support for them for the considerable investment they make on behalf of all of us.

With the 150th anniversary of Confederation nearing, this bill is an opportunity for all members of the House to show their support for preserving Canada’s built heritage. These changes will help save our most important historical structures for our children and grandchildren to enjoy for generations to come.

This bill introduces:

  • a 20% tax credit on eligible costs for rehabilitation work done to designated historic places (commercial & owner-occupied residential); and
  • an accelerated Capital Cost Allowance (25%/50%/25%) for eligible capitalized costs incurred under the same conditions of the tax credit (commercial only).

It would apply to private and non-profit historic places, but not to federally owned sites since the government does not tax itself.

Recently I was told that few countries actually have legislation in place at the federal level – a surprise to me. If we were to compare apples to apples, our legislative environment is on par with continental Europe, the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and perhaps Singapore. Most of these countries have comprehensive legislation that is more than commemorative in nature. In the case of the USA, their tax incentives have created billions of financial wealth while retaining many of their historic places.

In Canada, national historic sites are governed by the Historic Sites and Monuments Act (updated in 1985), the National Parks Act and the Parks Canada Agency Act. The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change may:

(a) by means of plaques or other signs or in any other suitable manner mark or otherwise commemorate historic places;

(b) make agreements with any persons for marking or commemorating historic places pursuant to this Act and for the care and preservation of any places so marked or commemorated;

(c) with the approval of the Governor in Council, establish historic museums;

(d) with the approval of the Treasury Board, acquire on behalf of Her Majesty in right of Canada any historic places, or lands for historic museums, or any interest therein, by purchase, lease or otherwise; and 

(e) provide for the administration, preservation and maintenance of any historic places acquired or historic museums established pursuant to this Act.

The weakness of this process is that it is commemorative in nature and does not protect or create an incentive to save a historic place beyond mounting a plaque. An all too common pattern was to demolish the place and then erect a plaque to mark what once was there. As in this case, it is clear that Canada remains behind much of the world in terms of understanding and protecting its historic places at the federal level.

There is strength at the provincial and municipal levels, but they too have their own obstacles to overcome.

In 1999, the federal Liberal government of the day developed the Historic Places Initiative (HPI). It would build a national register of historic places, create national standards for conservation of historic places, develop a tax incentive, and propose new legislation which would create in law protection of historic places at the federal level (rather than commemorative and administrative protection). Only parts of this initiative were fulfilled.

The passage of a private members bill can be challenging. All-party support is a must, committee reviews need to be collaborative, readings require good amendments and a non-partisan Senate review is best. Finally, the bill may pass royal ascent. It is a long and arduous process.

The passing of Bill C-323 is the beginning of a return to the Historic Places Initiative – which oddly was not supported by the Harper Government yet this bill is supported by two members of the former government’s cabinet!

The other initiative (a separate Historic Places Act) may be the next step. For now, Bill C-323 is a start.

For more information:

RAIC support for Bill C-323

National Trust’s Financial Arguments for Bill C-323

Heritage & Loneliness

The theme of loneliness in a digital world keeps coming up in various articles I have recently read. Last weekend’s Globe & Mail article by Elizabeth Renzetti profiled various people who are isolated in the Global Village. While the article was somewhat unscientific and selective in choosing her stories, it seems that the modern condition of the 21st century is not the alienation of the industrial capitalism of the last 150 years, it is now about our lack of sociability in a digital age. The irony of this post-modern condition is not lost on any of us, however she did refer to the design of our cities as a consequence of our loss of community. Increasing developments of intensified city cores: the Vancouver model was noted. Renzetti writes:

Research has shown that a varied streetscape will cause people to slow down, and perhaps even exchange a smile or flirtatious glance, and that even a brief exposure to nature – cutting through a park – makes us feel more generous, and more social.

Charles Montgomery has recently examined this view of cities. The issue of varied human-scaled cities has preoccupied architects for the past 40 years, especially in Canada by architect Jack Diamond and others who came to urban design in the 1960s.

Can protecting heritage encourage sociability and reduce the unwanted loneliness felt in many highly developed nations? Perhaps. If interesting streetscapes, visual variety, dense yet low-rise buildings, meaningful historic places, roots in communities and cultural diversity are aspects of heritage, then the discussion on countering loneliness must include heritage values. The notion that social media frames people within isolated worlds may be better framed when you imagine the coffee shop in a historic building. True, the people there may be working in their own head space, but their social space is within that cafe. There may be less ennui, less sense of displacement or placelessness felt in that adaptively reused coffee shop than in many contemporary environments.

Many ‘Millenials’ live in a mediated world, determined by their links through various on-line platforms. Are they any lonelier than other generations in human history? Probably not. Are they less engaged with interpreting the world, maybe…

Heritage matters to us because of its Gestalt effect. It engages the whole, yet can focus on the particular. The challenge is to convey the importance of its effect. Loneliness in the 21st century could be a symptom of many conditions, whether the digital age, the condofication of our cores, the impact of suburban planning (though this may be debated). Faith Popcorn’s coining of the word ‘cocooning’ in the 1990s has returned now that social media is our obsession. Yet, we remain social and where best to meet but in places that are meaningful to us. It may be in a suburban plaza, a rehabilitated historic warehouse district, a large mall, a restored community centre or even as ancient as Stonehenge. All these gathering places are heritage to whoever is brought out of their cocoon and into a community.

To alleviate loneliness one need only to visit a historic place. History is identity and heritage is social.

Facadism Redux?

For about 20-30 years, facadism has been a compromise between two competing views within architectural conservation. Facadism seems appropriate sometimes, at other times it appears as a false skin or veneer that hides the ‘dirty’ work of a redevelopment and destroys the place’s value. Where is facadism found? On urban streets and on campuses. Rarely is it an issue with major landmarks or monuments.

Naturally, facadism is a compromise between heritage values and the competing interests of larger floor plates, higher number of stories, modern amenities and health and safety requirements. Sometimes, facadism works well, but most of the time it fails.

Perhaps the debate on facadism is too binary – too dialectical. What are the degrees of facadism? Do you save one bay? Two? There are degrees of facadist interventions, from piecemeal saving of parts of buildings, to infilling a building and preserving most of its massing. There are projects which give the illusion that the buildings remain intact through step backs. There are other projects which dismantle the facades and rebuild them later into the new structure.

What are the tools available today to manage facadism? For a time, it was heresy to suggest that we could only keep a facade, yet as more and more projects are being proposed as urban infill and intensification,  there are increasing pressures on intact historic streetscapes. What could be the compromise for facadism to enjoy the protection of heritage character and value while integrating new use into the project?

Perhaps it is in a contextual architecture or a discreet architecture that we can find balance between facadism and protecting places holistically. There should be an integrated solution, which shifts the debate away from whether to save the facade or not. In relative terms, a facade of certain types of buildings, which were concerned about their skin over the frame or interior. In other cases, the mass is more significant than the facade. I continue to search for successful projects where there is a balance of change, preservation and sustainability.

 

 

Entropy & Heritage

Detroit Decays, Peter Van Den Bossche, Flickr, 2010.
Detroit Decays, Peter Van Den Bossche, Flickr, 2010.

The everyday struggle in heritage conservation is the dynamic between entropy and conservation.

The former is dynamic and the later is static, and yet  this seems to be an inadequate explanation. Old-school conservation was about consciously preventing entropy or decay – whether natural or cultural.

Heritage was conceived within the modernist project as preventing a return to equilibrium. An historic building was required to be conserved so as to mitigate decay, preventing the building to descend into a natural state of equilibrium between energy stored and energy spent. It was to be rigorously and meticulously maintained, even rebuilt, for the benefit of society. From the mid-19th century to today, there has been the luxury of restoration – we have enjoyed the fruits of their labour when visiting historic places.

Is heritage conservation about preventing entropic states or is it about finding equilibrium?

News services were reporting on bankrupted Detroit, Michigan. Once a producer, the city has gradually decayed over recent decades as economies shift  elsewhere. The city’s preservationist’s met the challenge head on:

Preservation Detroit is Detroit’s oldest, largest, and most accomplished historic preservation organization. As the first Detroit recipient of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Honor Award, we have been working to preserve and revitalize Detroit’s rich architectural and cultural heritage since 1975. (source)

Was Detroit successful in preserving its heritage? Was it able to restore or revitalize the city?

In parts, yes. And yet, it begs the question whether Detroit has prevented an entropic state in light of news that the tax base has dried up. In the 2000s, Kenny Greenberg consulted with the city to resuscitate the city’s vibrancy. Perhaps his attempts weren’t strong enough to revive a dying city. Detroit illustrates best the dynamic between entropy and conservation. Preserving a past is a conscious act by humans to prevent a return to equilibrium.

How then does heritage conservationists address entropy in the modern age? How does a conservationist attempt to address entropy in the everyday world?

Entropy takes energy to arrange and rearrange. The state of conservation work is similar. It is not about resorting the present world into a past order, but to bring an equilibrium to the present state. Which means that, at best, conservation allows for a better equilibrium than, for example, demolition. Demolition is false equilibrium. It takes energy to create a so-called equilibrium. So often in society, demolition is raised as a way to begin again. Will Detroit rise again or will it continue to implode with the faint hope that a preservationist will come along and say that the only way to remain vibrant is to preserve the heritage?

Unfortunately, this approach has failed. A more realistic approach is to use conservation to create states that manage entropy. This would be especially useful for industrial landscapes and complexes.