Comment 16566

By statius (registered) | Posted January 02, 2008 at 20:45:40

Regarding Ryan's thoughtful comments above, I think I should offer some response.

Firstly, you write "I don't support new ideas or methods merely because they're new: they have to be better that existing ideas or methods. "

How could anyone sanely disagree with this? I embrace the statement wholeheartedly, and would refer to my comments above to dispell any suggestion to the contrary. Of course where we must disagree - although I'm not necessarily sure that we must disagree - is on the topic of what constitutes the "better" as opposed to simply the new.

As for some of your other remarks, I find them a little more difficult to stomach.

You write of the Urbis building in Manchester: "It offers no sense of scale to the pedestrian - just a smooth steel-and-glass facade that offers curves and diagonals for their own sake and squanders a wedge-shaped slice of land beside it that is overshadowed and fails to operate as a public space. At a similar scale of height, Haussman's Paris is much more convivial. "

Your remarks on the building's lack of "scale" are typical architectural conservancy anti-modernist rhetoric. Such rhetoric is problematic because there is often a general lack of agreement on what constitutes an appropriate "sense of scale" for any given city. Haussman's Paris, as you note, is often cited as an example of liveable scale, but we forget that in the 19th and early 20th century, before Parisians became completely acclimated to the comprehensive redesign of their city, the "street walls" and unnecessarily broad boulevards imposed by Haussman were commonly thought to be inhuman and imposing. To that end, it is no surprise that Paris, in high Modernist art and literature, often figures as a faceless, grinding machine city alongside London, Berlin, New York, Chicago, etc. The truly humanly-scaled Paris was pre-Haussman. Further, it is worth noting that urban North Americans (particularly New Yorkers) are often decidedly disappointed with the "groundscraping" architectural scale of Paris. Manhattanites, despite living in an urban environment which Gallic snobs (and their sycophants) would decry as inhumanly scaled, have managed nevertheless to forge the most vital and successful urbanism in the history of Western civilization (at least arguably). I would thus humbly suggest that the conservative fetishization of scale is largely fallacious.

I would raise similar points about the Beetham tower. It is not sufficient simply to say, when a building is "out of scale" with its surrounding neighbourhood, that it lacks a "sense of scale" altogether. I think scale was very much contemplated by the architects of the Beetham. Their intention was to create a juxtaposition with the two and three story brick and masonry shops in the vicinity. They wanted something visibly and indisputably to rise above the tired, downtrodden old Manchester and I think they succeeded without causing too much offense (really, I think without causing any offense at all). In other words, a more moderate, tasteful incarnation of the Dubai effect. As for your remarks about the building causing alarm amongst pedestrians because of its unconventional design, the cantilevered upper half of the tower does not hang out over the street as you suggest. Nor does it cast any sort of imposing shadow, etc. In fact, while I tend to agree with you that it is not "great" architecture per se, the building is decidedly elegant and does not in any way look chintzy or disposable (at 150 million pounds to build, how could it?).

At any rate, I think your aesthetic critique of these two buildings, while undoubtedly valid in some respects, largely misses the point. These buildings were proferred not as examples of "great" architecture qua architecture but rather as proof of the ability of a midsized regional industrial city to break out of the bonds of its stereotypes and embrace a new urban identity and aesthetic. Just think, Manchester, twenty years ago, was a city far worse off than Hamilton, plagued by rampant unemployment, decaying infrastructure (to an almost third world scale), and depressingly mediocre architecture. Today, the city's economy is characterized more by graphic design and financial services firms than the textile works of yore. Young professionals flock to the city and its environs, even though condo flats regularly sell for well in excess of a million pounds. Much of this rebirth is credited to the architectural renaissance which occurred in the city's core following a major IRA bombing in 1996 (I wouldn't be so daft as to suggest that this was the only factor, but it certainly was one). I dearly hope Hamilton doesn't have to wait for someone to set off a bomb in the core before we start building too.

The fact of the matter is that young, educated people want to live amongst current, interesting architecture (as a young educated person, I can attest to this fact). They want to feel as though they are part of something more important than a blue collar regional city and new, thoughtfully designed buildings are a very eloquent way of communicating to them that indeed they are.

Hamilton is clearly no longer a manufacturing town either. It's future, like Manchester's, lies in education, research, health care, and hopefully the creative and professional industries as well. Naturally, the city certainly oughtn't to eschew its heritage altogether; but it mustn't be allowed to wallow in its past glory and prosperity either. Some buildings are important, still relevant windows onto Hamilton's past. Others are not. I know that for myself, and - I would conjecture - for many others of my generation, the Lister Block barely speaks at all. Having been more or less abandoned for so long, and being of such unremarkable architectural merits, it stands more as a blight than a valuable bequest from an earlier generation. While I do not harbour any particluar dislike for the building, I maintain that it would be an injustice if its preservation in any way hampered or compromised the regeneration (and, I might as well say it, gentrifaction) of the core.

I would thus suggest that your sustainability argument is not really apropos given the almost complete lack of development in Hamilton's core over the last quarter century, the almost complete lack of fashionable architecture in the city, the almost complete lack of anything suggesting a rich and faddish society in this city. The sustainability argument is a standard knee-jerk reaction of conservative urbanists and I'm not surprised to find it here. But it just isn't relevant, not yet at least. If the doctrine of sustainability strangles the society its ultimately supposed to protect, then it's really self-defeating. Suggesting that a city like Hamilton (finally reversing a long trend of decline) ought to be held to the same standards of sustainability in its urban development as cities like Toronto, New York, London, etc. is like suggesting that India and China should be held to the same environmental standards as the first world: it is untimely, inequitable and unfair.

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