Architectural Heritage and the Trough of Public Appreciation

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:15:20

Good thoughts. And if I'm not mistake, many of the current greatest hits buildings downtown replaced buildings that were around 50 years old. It's an Oedipal tic of the Ambitious City.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 14:16:28

A pretty complicated issue (with tons of subjectivity and emotion...and apathy...), one made all the moreso by the fact that we so often look back and demonize those who 'tore down', missing the context of the times and injecting our own revisionism.

It's really easy being an armchair, Monday-morning quarterback...

(For the record, the building in question isn't generating much sympathy or enthusiasm within me. Nothing about it resonates...whereas I'd trade it in a second for the old Capitol or Palace cinemas...)

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 14:17:26

not to mention, downtown Hamilton has AMPLE development land. IE -

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By mattjelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 15:11:17

Interesting piece Ryan, thanks. I understand that not everyone looks at a building like the Board of Education and sees what I see. Everyone has personal tastes, and there are plenty of buildings that I wouldn't necessarily find attractive either. 60's era modernist architecture isn't my favorite period. I find buildings like the Connaught, the Pigott and the Lister more attractive than the Board of Education building. If this were an "either-or" proposition, and I was asked whether we should restore the Connaught or the Board of Ed building, make no mistake, I would pick the Connaught in a heartbeat.

I need to explain, because I appreciate that not everyone is with me on this. This isn't just about architecture or heritage to me; it's also about materials and energy. The Board of Education building, while it needs work, is still in good shape, and still houses employees on a daily basis. I visited the other day. The building shouldn't just stay as it is, it does need to be adapted and renovated somewhat for modern use, as well as asbestos abatement. But that doesn't mean it should be demolished.

Every time we demolish a structure and rebuild, we're not only putting most of a building worth of materials into landfills, we're also using new materials and energy to build a new building. In the specific case of the Board of Education building, we're taking a building that could be adaptively reused and we're simply discarding it. If we want a truly green building, we should at least see some exploration of whether this structure can be reused in some way. It doesn't seem like a sustainable process to spend public dollars building civic architecture that lasts less than 50 years. As your article points out, appreciation for this piece of architecture will increase over time. In 1968, the Lister too was only 44 years old.

I'm not a heritage purist- I don't expect Mac to restore this building to make it look like it did the day it opened. I'd respect and appreciate any attempt to reuse this structure in any way- if it needs to be altered to suit a development, so be it. I just don't understand the idea of throwing entire buildings in the trash, when they still have many years of life left in them. It makes our individual efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle seem pointless, in the grand scheme of things.

Every time I advocate for saving an old building, the obvious point is raised: these things cost money. Of course they do. It doesn't make sense for the public to shell out money to save buildings when there are more cost-effective options available. However, it always seems to be the case that we go along with demolition and building new as a default, and never want to even explore the options, get all the information, and figure out whether adaptive reuse can work. We tend to throw our hands up from the start, assuming that restoration will just be too complicated and costly, when we actually don't know whether that's the case.

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By Richard Florida (anonymous) | Posted July 31, 2011 at 17:53:35 in reply to Comment 66988

insult spam deleted

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-08-02 07:14:19

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By SaraC (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 16:05:17

Good points about the cyclical nature of public opinion in regards to architecture--probably an art form that's most vulnerable to the changing tides of fashion, since everyone interacts with architecture in one way or another. We can choose not to listen to music, or look at paintings, but with few exceptions, we all have to look at or use buildings.

Hamilton has several examples of decent modern architecture that don't exactly fit with current aesthetics tastes right now--I'm thinking Hamilton Place (a good example of Brutalism, and an important point in architect Trevor Garwood-Jones' body of work), the whole Jackson Square complex, the YWCA (another Garwood-Jones creation). I'm not a heritage purist either, but I do think we have an obligation to preserve these buildings as best we can--they're examples of the architectural innovation Hamilton experienced during the '60s and '70s, and monuments to a bygone philosophy of urban planning that's now more historically interesting than relevant.

I DO love the BOE building and City Hall, but I have a fondness for mid-century modern that I recognize not everyone shares.

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By PaulV (registered) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 16:28:18

Ryan, the BOE building is worthy of preservation for its architectural value. If you disagree, you'd agree its illogical to tear down a building that could both be reused and is adjacent to multiple parking lots, right?

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By Laura Cattari (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 17:04:53

I am not emotionally engaged enough on this issue to this building to fight on it. I am a huge proponent of adaptive reuse when it makes sense and the figures don't outweigh the alternative ie tearing it down. Beyond asking them to consider this, which they have heard by now, I am not going to push further.
What I find disturbing about the issue is the random relocation of the complex by people commenting. Over 45,000 people visiting next to a major transport hub (current and future), next to a dying mall that could use a daily influx of people passing by and a public health department directly across from city hall.
Studies show these types of developments can be successfully leveraged to revitalize a downtown core all on their own.
Taken to an extreme, isn't this another form of NIMBYism that so many complain about with other issues in this city?

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 17:30:32 in reply to Comment 66992

Not quite- I don't think anyone here is arguing against the Downtown Health Campus. Personally, I'm asking that they build it on the exact same site, reusing the structure that exists now. I'm saying "Yes in my backyard, just don't trample the flowers". But YIMBYJDTTF just doesn't have the same ring to it.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted July 28, 2011 at 11:54:57 in reply to Comment 66993

YIMBYJDTTF lol best abr. yet.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 17:32:20

Why is the Board even leaving the building? I mean, they have a building built with taxpayer dollars that is branded from head to toe in educational imagery. Any "adaptive reuse" of this building seems slightly silly. Imho, any kind of architectural committment implies a sort of "it was custom made for you, now it's your responsibility" situation. If the Hamilton BoE needs more space, there's reams of surface-parking that could be made into a second building... including the BoE's own parking lot.

Will their new building be another baroque artifact of sculpture and special-purpose rooms that can't be re-sold as office space when they get bored with it?

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 18:15:07 in reply to Comment 66994

The Board considered several options- one of them included renovation of the building, as well as adding an additional building to the site, and underground parking, all for $65 Million. This option was rejected. The board has 7 administrative buildings scattered around the City, and the purpose of renovating or relocating would be to consolidate those offices all under one roof.

I'm looking for the report that contained the option to restore and add-on to the property. I'd like to see a breakdown of costs- how much of the $65 Million was supposed to be for renovating the building, how much for the additional structure and underground parking?

What it tells me is that a renovation of the Board of Ed may be cheaper than we think, when you subtract the cost of underground parking.

You're right- it's a shame the Board decided not to stay in this building and add to it- it was built for them, and the City gave them the land for free in the first place.

About a week or two ago, I asked Ward 11+12 Trustee Alex Johnstone what she thought about it. Here was her response:

"My take is that I think the building is beautiful, historical and has a fantastic location being right down town. That said, HWDSB is in the business of education - not preserving historical sites - that's the city's role. With finite resources and funding from the province, we have to make decisions that will save us money so that we can make up for underfunding and offer Hamilton's student's the best possible programming."

So basically, they can't afford to redevelop the building at 100 Main Street West. It's really too bad- although I'm sure the chain stores at Limeridge Mall will enjoy the influx of new workers to their neighbourhood.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 17:43:19

Our ability to make sense of architecture is dependent on our ability to develop meaning.

In an age when life itself has become fleeting and meaningless, we develop an apathetic value system with our surroundings. We lose our sense of meaning in this memory vortex of transience.

Vernacular architecture - an architecture born of an impulse to build – and not design, offers us an escape from this memory vortex. We regain our sense of balance in the universe upon confronting vernacular built-form. We even regain our ability to read architecture across cultural and stylistic boundaries of time.

Vernacular built-form does not call out for attention to its origin, its designer, its premise to build. Its transcendental qualities grip us and pull us out of the memory vortex. In attempts to capture this emotional rush, we ascribe to this experience, words such as: historical, heritage, or even the indescribable - beautiful.

Some of us even strip the plaster from the walls of such buildings, to expose the bricks - a manifestation of our desire to reconnect with the vernacular – that faceless, nameless brick-layer.

This is what gives us that sense of meaning, that sense of timelessness. A polar opposite of that sense of meaninglessness which we carry in contemporary times.

The genius of most older buildings built prior to the advent of styles and mannerisms, and even those neatly cataloged under early modernism, art nouveau or the art-deco categories – is in their ability to facilitate transcendence of built-form.

Architecture exists only in that transcendence, hence its temporality. The rest is about design, styles, stones, bricks and mortar and aesthetic positions.

Our contemporary buildings are premised on design, and a programmed impulse to call attention to itself and its design intent. Conceived as an object, it remains an object awaiting the passage of time in the hope for meaning to evolve.

In most cases the wait is futile, as no such meaning will ever evolve over time, as these designs are trapped in the circularity of their style, and aesthetic cracks and faults begin to appear way before time in its infinite mercy is able to shroud the original lack of premise, with an aura of age.

We destroyed much of our vernacular built-form, so our anxiousness to save anything and everything is understandable. But what often remains is just begging time to give it a meaning.

Like the well designed colorful advertisements in magazines from the seventies which appear dated and yellowed awaiting knighthood, many of our modern buildings are caught in a memory vortex.

For those who seek to preserve such buildings, a radical solution for the BOE building paradox would be to have the Board of Ed dismantle it in its entirety, and have it rebuild at their new location. But given the nature of its structure, that may not be entirely possible.

A not so radical solution would be to have them salvage all the design elements that are removable, and have it integrated into their new building. A kind of memory shakedown that would force the Board of Education to be connected with its past in perpetuity – a reminder that you can run away from history, but you can never hide from it.

A more worthwhile cause would be to rally the already funded New School of Liberal Arts out of its bubble in suburbia to its rightful place in the heart of a "Creative City" – adjacent to the AGH and the Theatre complex, to finally complete the cultural transformation of a plaza that has been in the making for 40 years. This would heal our core much faster than 400 doctors attempting to resuscitate it.

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-07-27 17:55:50

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 20:07:01 in reply to Comment 66996

OK. So where would you see the Medical Complex going?

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 20:54:33

Our community health service planners need to create real innovations in service delivery. They need to outgrow their dependency on expensive, un-strategically located, static buildings, and adopt a more nimble and responsive approach to delivery - not by cuts and consolidations, but by evolving the very nature of it to a more humane level that befits a developed nation.

What Hamilton needs are twelve state-of-art, bus size mobile health-clinics, that move and operate within our diverse communities. This new health delivery model could be managed from a unique central facility on the lands west and north of Hamilton General.

This new facility could have a central structure for administration, in-facility service and intern-learning requirements, with pods like an airport, into which mobile clinics can dock – giving it an entirely new dimension of imagery, flexibility, operability and scalability.

By taking family health practice into the heart of communities that are aging fast and who can ill-afford traveling by cars or buses, would drastically alleviate the trauma and anxiety that seniors associate with coming to the inhospitable and often inhumane environment via the parking trap, that mega-health complexes spawn around its facilities.

Cladding such buildings in glass or placing token green walls in lobbies does little to tone down the inherent harshness such large footprints generate. Whereas electric engines powering mobile clinics would generate less of an impact on our environment than any Leed certified mega-medical buildings ever could.

Residents could easily walk on their own, or be escorted/driven much shorter distances to these mobile clinic locations within familiar environments of their neighbourhoods, on predetermined schedules.

In the event of major calamities, the central hub design would be able to rapidly allocate resources to affected areas – while it would also be directly accessible by the active GO/Via rail corridor with a simple platform, which could be made operational in emergencies – thereby enhancing this strategic hub into a true regional facility.

We already have some form of mobile clinics in our community. We just have to expand on this concept and give it the legitimacy it deserves.

The form and connectivity of this new building/model could well generate an entirely new paradigm in family practice. It could also open up possibilities of bringing back that charm and healing comfort of a house visit by your family doctor.

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-07-27 21:03:22

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By TnT (registered) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 23:06:05

Read a great link from Nick Westolls tweet. Could something like this fly in Hamilton: Interesting initiative out of Detroit: "Want to get paid to live downtown? Move to Detroit" via @TorontoStar

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2011 at 08:20:04 in reply to Comment 67003

In May, The Dylan Ratigan show had a piece on the city of Washington D.C.'s Office of Planning's Rosalynn's Hughey and the department's efforts to 'Pay People To Live' in certain areas of the city, to live near work or close to public transportation.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 29, 2011 at 08:49:45

Get ready for the Downtown Renaissance thrill ride!

"It is not adequate to advocate against taking old buildings down without also providing practical ideas for adaptation and preservation and, perhaps more importantly, some concrete ideas of where the money will come from to adapt and preserve."

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