Opinion

Sushi to Go, Please

If we observe more and shout less - we can see the first blush of spring in many dark corners of our urban empire.

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published October 06, 2009

This has been a losing position these past 40 years, and the media - like pollsters and political consultants - tend to look in the rear-view mirror and pretend to see the future.

-- Joe Klein, May 2008, Time Magazine

In our haste to wash off the sins of over two decades of 'shared apathy', Hamiltonians often fail to observe that cities, downtowns or suburbs do not just happen from a vision - these archetypes evolve from an economic rationale. They do not just falter or decay - they welter from lack of an economic rationale.

Attempting to understand an ethos trapped within its geographic limitation can be a challenge. While we cannot deny that much work needs to be done to arrive at a state of 'shared satisfaction' amongst Hamiltonians - much has already been sown collectively, and much has already started to grow.

Sure, there are sights, sounds and smells that we only wish would disappear. But then again are these not the very facets of a rich urban-mix that make great cities tick?

Micro-Managing the City

Cities, buildings and streets are organic in nature - they all grow, live and die, and often just stand tired for years or petrify. They all are a part of the grand opera we call life.

When this cycle of life is diluted with visions - they all fail to grow well. Not all of us know how to talk to plants or how much to water them, nor when to weed and when to step back from them. Not all of us are skilled gardeners.

Sound economic rationales, much like credible stories, are the underpinning of most urban epiphanies. But like B movies that fail to tell a credible story, our urban experience leaves us lock-jawed at moments of high expectations. In our well-meaning quest to force epiphanies in our city - we, the denizens of the 'Hamilton Empire' often dive in and start to direct the grand opera itself. We scream with high pitched directorial flair - "The next thing that needs to happen is..."

Instead of quietly engaging - by observing and celebrating the spectacular opera that we are so privileged to watch daily, we go through our days much like the audience of a B movie - constantly talking-over, interrupting, micro-managing, bickering, disengaging and often rashly suggesting methods and processes in a desperate hope to resolve the tensions unresolved in the original script.

In so doing, we end up hurting ourselves profoundly. We fail to bring home every night to our personal lives - the enchanting powers of observation - that arcane stuff which makes for a good audience, a good gardener.

Empowered by our cacophony, we start to believe that policies, procedures, codes and plans are what drive the amazing cycle of life, and in turn come to transpose on to our politicians and bureaucrats some mythical powers to do our bidding.

When they fail as they are destined to, we wait in the sidelines and jeer, throw eggs and sometimes even waffle irons at them, and angrily make resolute decisions to be more vigilant the next time elections roll into town.

Delusions of Rejuvenation

Beautiful cities, when they do manage to grow, are never an end product of good intent, made for instant gratification and consumption. Beautiful cities are nothing more than a constantly evolving personal experience of the good, bad and the ugly of life - an experience to be enjoyed and savored. And in rare cases a destination left behind as a legacy of wiser times.

Like unsatisfied souls fighting organic ageing with Botox, every attempt to force rejuvenation onto a struggling city through visions, results in short-term fixes and long-term pains - with usually the consultants making out like bandits.

Our Empire thrives on delusions of rejuvenation from the most recent $50,000 Mission Impossible to the not so recent $400,000 Downtown Partnership, and the $500,000 Rise & Shine lets Re-brand campaign to the infamous Gore Fountain Musical Chair and the Jackson Square Bunker from decades ago.

Our most recent search for an epiphany recently led us to envision a gargantuan tower which would have once and for all fulfilled our deep craving for rejuvenation. This mythical form would have led us to an economic rationale missing from our city - we hoped optimistically, as did the Babylonians.

Anticipating communion - instead excited and scared in the same breath - we ended up witnessing the fated confusion of tongues valiantly attempting to define material rejuvenation for our Empire.

Cities are an accurate reflection of the collective will of its people - their joy of life, or their predisposition for perpetual sorrow. Our collective wisdom once developed a stunning 20/20 Vision of the future. On hindsight in 2020 - did we grow from our joy of life or our grandiose passions for sorrow?

Architectural Mercy-Killings

Recently there had been a spate of opinions in the press regarding the state of buildings and urban life in the Hamilton Empire. Notwithstanding Susan Clairmont's unfortunately timed 'Alphaville-ish' journalistic noir on the state of our core, last year - which unwittingly did great disservice to the many property owners, residents, spirited individuals, including many city staff and services that are working daily to breathe life into the ailing urban core - there has been a general feeling among many downtown proponents that "buildings are literally falling down around us with no respect for their historical significance".

This sharp tenor is echoed in similar viewpoints projected by the media and many private groups. These laments, like Susan's noir, have the same potential as that of many self-fulfilling prophecies that have plagued the Hamilton Empire in recent times.

Sure, a few buildings most recently have fallen down, or were possibly assisted in some form of macabre ritualistic mercy-killing, as the unofficial report goes. And yet another wheeled into the chamber of horrors. And a few more are surely to follow as we grow numb to this form of killing.

But surely buildings are not falling down all around us - not on their own volition nor because they are tired and can no longer stand the mockery of our times. Sure, many more in the past have been brought down to create large parking pastures in anticipation of the arrival of kings, and many architectural disconnects have been erected by a few eager property owners with the able help of a few clueless but willing architects and consultants.

But this should not be reason for a lament for our downtown. No! We should be glad that at least our buildings are not being brought down by the brute force of deviant political or religious viewpoints as they are in many distant war torn lands.

In our case it is only simple greed, intermingled with a deep collective misunderstanding of the nature and role of cities and architecture, that has helped shape the rationale for these mercy-killings. Surely this form of disconnect is permissible in a society with credible pretensions of capitalism!

No Time to Lament

What is not permissible in this decadent scenario is a lament. We do, after all, have children to raise in this limiting ethos - lest our constant lamenting makes the spirits of entrepreneurship and innovation pack up and leave town.

These spirits that gave rise to the likes of history-begetting Pigott buildings of the past still indeed hover around our downtown, quietly waiting for a breach in our mindset. They silently hope to one day rebuild our downtown wisely - like they once did with the truly international Pigott building - ("...with glass from Belgium, steel window frames from England ...and many other parts from across Canada and the world.")

However misguided the reasons behind the ritual killings of our buildings, and the terrible outcomes that it most often leaves in its wake - we must await our muses ("...from whose names words such as music, museum, and mosaic were once derived.") And while we wait, we must not loose focus of the unique opportunity that every felled or fallen building poses to the re-building of our community.

In spite of our best intentions we most often are unable to stop these ritual killings of our architecture and heritage - but we surely are in a position to prevent the ensuing devastation that poorly designed buildings replacing old ones inflict on our communities by posing to be Architecture.

Experienced gardeners never lament the loss of plants - they dance with the cycle of life. They patiently wait for the new season to replant well. Unfortunately, we denizens of the Hamilton Empire do indeed have a passion and flair for monoculture. In anticipation of the muses revisiting us, we do need to start publicly acknowledging our debilitating passions.

Building Banality

One can stand at the entrance of Dundas, on the west of the Hamilton Empire, with its beautiful evolving downtown growing without the crutch of the Urban Braille, where the Desjardins Canal awkwardly turns into a park, and observe the devastating impact of the heritage replacing buildings on the architectural fabric of the main entrance to a history drenched town.

What kind of living memories could possibly be evoking from these tortuous sightlines in our children's minds? While you are down there, walk to the intersection of Sydenham and King, and observe the startling handling of a majestic, identity-forming 'axis' flowing down from the escarpment, crossing the core, halting hesitantly as it passes the symbolic Memorial Square and slamming hard into an enigma born of screen memory, and in turn "...subverting any notions of historical reality." Quaint - is born from afflicted remembrance.

Stand on any corner of your choosing between King and Main on McNab in the core of the Empire, and feel the sound of living history rushing between your teeth. Is it by any chance the sound of you involuntarily crushing your teeth on meeting fait accompli face-to-face?

If you feel bold enough, venture into the Summers Lane around the corner to witness the magic of how Hamilton's most modern celebrated buildings of its time can make nature inconsequential in the face-off with style.

Or stand on the corner of York and James and observe how attempts to recreate history which did not exist, results in a dehumanizing architectural icon that has impacted the self-image of two generations of Hamiltonians who finally stopped searching for their Architecture.

Stand on Clappison's Corners at the gates of the beloved but beleaguered Flamborough community and observe how the banal, inward-looking centre of innovation from our past is being slowly consumed in front of our eyes by the surpassing banalities of new enterprise.

A tour of many more sites within short distance of each other in our Empire where history, culture and any allusions to heritage or innovation disappear - can be quite reveling. These tours are a must, if we are to attempt an understanding of our living dilemma.

We will be remembered for what we have built, and not for what we managed or failed to save. Our collective living memories are consumed with these architectural excesses, these aberrations which happened while we were busy trying to save temporal memories that possibly could not have been saved given the hubris of the Hamilton Empire.

Take-Out Culture

In each and every vision-laden instance above, we failed to focus on what was being planted. Our lax vigilance and our laxer collective design sensibilities have resulted in a surreal un-alterable mute architectural cacophony - the true and only legacy we leave behind of the consuming passions of our times.

It is a great tragedy that old buildings are taken down along with a part of our history and heritage. It is a greater tragedy that we do not have architects and consultants locally who can build wisely when an opportunity poses itself in this perennial cycle of life, growth, decay and fall.

We continue to fail at building right because we fail to understand gardening. We continue to fail at creating new memories because we fail to learn from sightlines inherent in nature. We fight to save and build to consume - and amass kudos, awards and medals to harvest rancour instead of living memories.

We morph into a take-out culture. We take and run. We judge while we run. We fail to engage. We disengage because we fail to observe. We merely look. And unknowingly, we reduce our editorials into advertorials.

A leisurely tour of the motley lot of buildings new and not-so-old, littering our sprawling training campuses; the many latest refined windowless boxes of learning, fast replacing the magical memory machines of education from our childhood; or the recently proposed exuberant glass boxes - posturing organizational transparency and innovation - leaves much to be desired in the realm of history, heritage and the nurturing of collective living memories.

It is a great tragedy that old buildings are taken down along with a part of our history and heritage. It is a greater tragedy that we do not have architects and consultants locally who can build wisely when an opportunity poses itself in this perennial cycle of life, growth, decay and fall.

Diminished Architecture

Our Architectural profession has been reduced to holders of Certificates of Practice. Our Architecture so poignantly reflects this devolution. The denizens of the Hamilton Empire perpetually await an epiphany - the muses perpetually remain in-waiting.

On a bright sunny day standing underneath the brutally dark recesses of history in Summers Lane, we witness our heritage become victim twice. Unable to evoke memories of what once stood there, we stand lost, silently trying to decipher the meaning of what we build to replace history that was ours for the asking. Unable to see meaning through the misty haze of automobile exhaust trapped underneath concrete, we unknowingly join the chorus celebrating the new cultural aberrations gracelessly enveloping Summers Lane. We force history and even meaning onto these banal parking lots of culture - mere placeholders for an epiphany. We all are losers twice.

With each successive cycle of life our architectural products become worse, our history a bit more diminished: much from the fallen buildings, and even more from the newly erected.

Our children grow more clueless about our past and more bewildered about our present. The Architecture of our Empire will never be the measure of our culture - in spite of history repeatedly telling us that: to get to know the people of a place, first observe their Architecture.

Observe the many sightlines in our Empire, observe the way we handle the silhouette of our constructs. Feel the carelessness with which we shadow our only Modern building worthy of being Architecture in spite of its fatalistic entrance, with the new unarticulated innovation of green glass - at a potent juncture where our academia meets the realities of the world. Bereft of olive groves, we have become what we loathe.

Learn to Garden

Let us not lament about our city or our downtown anymore. We are hurting ourselves deeply with each lament. Instead, let us resolve to simply stop expecting more from our architects and consultants. Let us resolve to stop throwing projectiles at our politicians and bureaucrats. Let us resolve to build our community knowledge-base to mitigate the impact of the latest new and fancy, to collectively arrive at a state of 'shared satisfaction' concerning our city and the life it already offers us.

Let us rebuild our corners of the Empire on the foundation of this new state we arrive at - in simple, sustainable ways that organically evolve into small thriving communities, coexisting within the Empire.

We are alone in this endeavor. Thankfully, we have no budgets for architects and consultants. But we are responsible for our children, and we alone are responsible for their living memories. Let us learn to garden our corner well. Let us learn to tell credible stories in spite of the pervasive corruption of our mind, spirit and taste.

The Empire always needs struggling communities for its rationale; struggling communities rarely can afford the grace of the Empire. What struggling communities need are a handful of hard-nosed individuals to regain their sense of purpose and rapidly act in ways that creates living-wage work for many where they matter - within the heart of struggling communities. The flowers, music and entrepreneurs of the year awards will most certainly follow.

Celebrating Life for What it Is

Recently, I bought a wonderful three hundred page hardcover book titled The Making of English Towns - 2000 years of Evolution by David W. Lloyd, for only two dollars at the Hamilton public library sale. Stamped sadly on the inside cover was one word in bold caps - 'DISCARD'.

In my opinion it had at least a thousand years more of wise consulting service left inside its noble intact spine.

The ease and authority of the cold, harsh rubber stamped imprint inside its cover reveals a lot about how far behind the Hamilton Empire is in achieving a collective knowledge-base of architecture and a deeper understanding of the role of cities in our lives.

There is a town in north of Belgium called Brugge, which can help us discover what it means to live in a state of 'shared-satisfaction' in complex contemporary times. The people of Brugge too had their share of greed and an impulse to self-destruct from time to time through their progression in history - just like every other city on this planet.

But somewhere in their cycle of life they learned to celebrate life for what it is. They did not settle for festivals to celebrate life, instead their propensity to celebrate life resulted in festivals, and in the process they developed an open heart and a warm, infectious, penetrating smile that radiated into their buildings. Their buildings are known to smile at people as they pass by on their daily chores. Modestly they refer to their buildings as Architecture.

Can anyone venture as to how many consultants it took to flower Brugge? Or how many self-regulated professionally licensed gardeners there are in Brugge?

For that matter, can anyone venture as to how many of those unwittingly enlisted in the Creative Class Club that was formed in the wake of a highly successful publication - eventually leave disillusioned and broken from full blooming downtowns and cities in North America - once dogma induced gentrification is underway?

Engineered Social Order vs. Organic Micro-Enterprise

We are extremely lucky to have Ottawa Street and Locke Street as great organic examples of what can spring up - when the cycle of life is left alone long enough for micro-enterprise and non-institutionalized innovation to set roots.

The Empire unfortunately has never been in the business of nurturing micro-enterprise and non institutionalized innovation. So often the wait for spring appears to be painfully long in struggling communities.

But if we observe more and shout less - we can see the first blush of spring in many dark corners of our Empire. One only has to visit the tired Chocolate Factory of Hamilton and look around for signs of spring in a landscape that got tired of waiting for a good gardener. If one observes quietly - one can begin to believe again, as one slowly sees many small homes lining the tired streets smiling faintly back at you.

Engineering or re-engineering social order was a failed ideology long before it was imported into Hamilton. Now that it is here, let us find ways to embrace its victims and not use their presence to create employment for our trained class. There are plenty of victims we find on our walks downtown - let us not paint them as Susan inadvertently did with such fineness. She meant well. She was not observing. She was looking.

Painting victims on a faux-impressionist style canvas portends dystopia. Let us weave all stereotypes into our urban mosaic and the garden will bloom again. Plants never need social activism to grow - they just grow from an economic rationale.

Unlike Pleasantville, there is a place for all in a thriving Empire - greed, avarice, decaying buildings, falling building, felled buildings, new buildings, ugly buildings, obscenely tall buildings, bicycles, automobiles, rapid transit, suburbia and downtowns, sprawling training campuses, unsustainable thoughts, bellowing factories, foreign faces, scared faces, angry faces, befuddled faces and all the new green-stuff; and if our muses decide to revisit - possibly even education, enterprise, innovation and architecture.

Expedient sushi take-outs from our downtown on late evening runs to the prophylactic refuge of Pleasantville, are a wish for a monoculture - and not a radiant, pulsating city that floats lightly on living memory, where 'irasshaimase' is the norm, and 'Gochisosama deshita' an involuntary response to the grand opera we call life.

Mahesh P. Butani is a non-architect, and a developer by default. He is involved in re-developing properties in downtown Hamilton; and has an MA in Arts Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC (1986), and bachelors in Architecture from Bombay, India (1982). Currently he is not an architect in Ontario on account of not having enough Canadian Experience; and does not qualify to teach as he carries too much baggage to fit into the Canadian education system. He refuses to be re-trained to fit in, on a matter of principle, and is a passionate disbeliever of icons and self-regulation of professions in Canada - but still maintains his belief in collective self-organizing behavior; and feels that the large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario are far more harmful to the economy than the brownfields left over from deindustrialization - and in response has set up a social network called Metropolitan Hamilton. http://metrohamilton.ning.com/

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By T.L. DeArr (anonymous) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 11:57:45

I know what you mean. It seems like nobody has the time to read 3,400-word treatises anymore!

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 12:19:38

at least this is shorter than his blog comments. LOL.

Good piece Mahesh. Your thoughts make a lot more sense when given proper context like this.

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By Mahesh P. Butani -- http://www.metroHami (anonymous) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 15:23:13

Thanks Jason, glad I have started making sense finally :-))
Now if only I can learn the "tl;dr method of communication" ...it would save so much of everyone's time!!

But hey, I am a fast learner and have quickly found the meaning of this tl;dr thing!! - with its economical and elegant means of summing up bottled up sentiments in a few quick alphabets.

However, I must confess that I do suffer from an abundance of time and that pesky generation gap, which prevents me from thinking lucidly in abbreviated form. But it is a very cool form of communicating!!

Now that I have found the "Urban Dictionary" - I am very excited at the thought of indulging in this rapid form of expression! The number 4 post on "tl;dr" here: (www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tl%3Bdr), is quite hilarious :-)) and does really define our world as it has come to be!

And yet ...we fight to slow down the traffic in our downtown core ;-)

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 16:12:53

"Now if only I can learn the "tl;dr method of communication" ...it would save so much of everyone's time!! "

LOL Mahesh, I don't think you need to go quite as far as posting in hyper-abbreviated 1337-speak, but keep in mind some of us are reading/posting as a short break from work and often aren't able to fully read through your verbose posts and comments uninterrupted.

As far as your piece above goes, I did (eventually) get through it and I thought it was well written bit of prose. I call it prose rather than an article only because opinion articles here very rarely use phrases like "We scream with high pitched directorial flair... " or "Experienced gardeners never lament the loss of plants - they dance with the cycle of life.". ;-)

You thoughts on the "micro-management" of neighbourhoods is also interesting. In business I've always believed that micro-management was the result of mistrust between the supervisor and the supervised; in some cases it's justified, in others, not so much. And I can see the connection between that type of mistrust and the mistrust our civic leaders apparently have for us, since they'd rather hire consultants to tell us what we want our city to be rather than just asking us.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted October 06, 2009 at 17:57:59

I just got through readin... and would agree it's well-written prose as well.

this part is interesting especially: "What struggling communities need are a handful of hard-nosed individuals to regain their sense of purpose and rapidly act in ways that creates living-wage work for many where they matter - within the heart of struggling communities. The flowers, music and entrepreneurs of the year awards will most certainly follow."

It's somewhat silly to expect one, enormous "vision" to take the city somewhere... but I'm a firm believer that it takes individuals with vision to take this city anywhere. the ability to see what can be, money where their mouth is, and a backbone of steel to see it through. That's the kind of vision that I believe we need far more of in this city, and it will inevitably attract others...

and at certain levels, we need a larger vision to accomplish things like allowing us to rezone properties to different uses, or focus on particular industries so that people with vision will even know what potential exists for them to latch onto and build anew.

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted October 09, 2009 at 12:30:45

As someone who has gone through the whole Ontario Association of Architects examination process I agree that collective self-organizing behavior is the way to go. A top-down, self-regulating profession is probably in the same category as a police force functioning without civilian oversight.

Canada needs more people like Mahesh. Getting down and dirty in the 'large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario' is what we don't do nearly enough around here. It will make Hamilton feel more like Brixton, Hackney or the grimier parts of the Lower East Side in NYC -- where the political debate is cranked up a notch and verbosity is rewarded, not politely dismissed.

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By Mahesh P. Butani -- http://www.metroHami (anonymous) | Posted October 09, 2009 at 19:48:25

Appreciate your kind words, Michael!! And am really glad to hear another voice in our city that recognizes the need to engage with the many issues of intellectual brownfields in our midst.

The 1337/LEET speak which is more a result than a response - has much in common with the staccato, bullet-point riddled corporate speak. Both share their passions for stripping 'imagery' from words - that crucial element required for ushering in change and prosperity.

It took billions of dollars of research and frantic motion on the edge of technology to invent a 'language' that has ended up looking like this:

A=4 /- @ ^ /
B=8 ]3 ]8 |3 |8
C=( {
D=) } |) |} |> >
E=3
F*=# |=
G=6 9 (_>
H=# |-| (-) )-( }{ {-} /-/ -
I=1 ! |
J**=_| j
K=|
Q=0,
R=|2 |? |-
S=5
T=7 + ']'
U=(_) |_| \_ /_/
V=/
W=// |/|

Is it any wonder that our questioning have become so elliptical, our solutions for change so obtuse, our means so expensive, our ends so far!!

'Polite dismissal' of language that attempts to (re)invoke imagery in our times - is just a glaring symptom of our intellectual brownfields.

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By Dr. No (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2009 at 21:59:34

"Let us not lament about our city or our downtown anymore. We are hurting ourselves deeply with each lament."

Funny because that is exactly how I would discribe this article - as a very lengthy lament.

Constantly hammering at the mistakes of the past only serves to hold us in stasis - a common Hamiltonian Ailment! We need to be forward moving!

"Like unsatisfied souls fighting organic ageing with Botox, every attempt to force rejuvenation onto a struggling city through visions, results in short-term fixes and long-term pains"

Look around the core of the city and take note of the great things the downtown renewal programs have been doing.

Sorth term gains? That depends on when one began watching?

I have seen many changes over the past 10 - 15 years! And this has accelerated in the past 5 years. I do not believe they will reverse, quite the contrary.

What we do too much of in Hamilton is focus on what is wrong - ad nauseum.

Too much lament and not enough inspiration will not help to move us forward.



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By The Sage (registered) - website | Posted October 12, 2009 at 12:49:28

What is Dr No talking about? ...Dunno! Downtown renewal the way it has been organized and delivered is a joke and considering the heavy expenditures of over the past 5 years there is very little to show for it. The entire renewal exercise must be given over to a community/business partnership agency. I found Mr Butani's article one of the most erudite and insightful pieces in RTH in a long time and I hope more urban thinkers come out and challenge the prevailing viewpoints.

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By cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted October 27, 2009 at 17:31:17

I read all of Mahesh's article & found it delightful & accurate.
(Funny, I'm working poor & yet I Can Read?) :D

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