By Ryan McGreal
Published July 27, 2011
Like many people who are calling for the Board of Education building to be torn down - or who at least don't see a need to preserve it - I look at the BOE building and I don't see a beautiful example of architecture I personally want to preserve.
However, I also deeply mistrust my particular aesthetic sense with respect to architecture from mid-century - to the extent that I believe I am wholly unqualified to decide what is a worthwhile mid-century design that is "deserving" of preservation.
Let me explain.
Architecture from any given period tends to follow a common trajectory of public support in the decades after it is built: at first people like it, and then it starts to look 'dated' and people stop liking it, and then it gets neglected and starts to look like an eyesore and people really start to hate it...
And at this point, many such buildings are torn down. Those that survive what we might call the Trough of Public Appreciation eventually get old enough that they start to look charming rather than dated, and someone decides that it is financially viable to invest in restoring the building and adaptively reusing it for a new purpose.
By that time, the public is generally grateful for the foresight of those people who decided not to demolish it and regard it as an architectural gem and a valuable public heirloom of the time in which it was built. They shake their heads in incredulity that anyone would have looked upon it and thought it not worth preserving.
Go back and read what people had to say about late 19th century buildings in Hamilton in the mid-20th. They were vulgar, ugly eyesores, grotesque ornamental atrocities, "Victorian rot" that needed to be "cut out" of the city's built fabric.
Indeed, many of the buildings we hold in contempt today were built on the sites of earlier buildings which the people of the time also held in contempt.
So I humbly submit that the aesthetic problem with buildings like City Hall and the Board of Education building is not that they're intrinsically ugly, but rather that they're passing through the most unfashionable stage of their history.
People like Matt Jelly have the foresight to recognize that future generations will appreciate these buildings even if we don't, in the same way that we appreciate the 19th century buildings that survived the mid-20th century even if people living in the mid-20th century didn't.
Consider the Birks Building, which Oscar Wilde called "the most beautiful building in North America" but which the Hamilton leaders of the early 1970s couldn't rip down fast enough.
I don't mean to suggest that the BOE is the most beautiful mid-century building in North America, but rather that the contempt in which we hold the BOE is similar to the contempt in which a previous generation held the Birks, as well as a depressing number of other buildings from the same period.