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How honest do buildings really need to be?

What is the right way to do heritage preservation? How should you approach an addition to an existing building? I was reminded of this topic this week, which then reminded me of a post I wrote last summer when this issued flared up in Ottawa because of the “Chateau Laurier battle.” The takeaway from last year’s post was this: “We cannot recreate the past, only parody it.” Indeed, the Province of Ontario maintains that “legibility” is an important principle in the conservation of built heritage properties. People should be able to distinguish the new from the old. Don’t blur the distinction.

I will also say that in architecture school they instil in you the ideas that buildings should be honest, they should reflect the current milieu, and that materials should be truthful. What this loosely means is that you want to use materials where they are most appropriate and you want to reveal their true nature. Don’t pretend that things are something they are not. i.e. Don’t be fake. At the same time, I very early on learned that most people don’t give a shit about the kind of nuanced and theoretical discussions that happen within architecture schools. They like what they like.

And there’s a big segment of the market that wants buildings to look as they did a long time ago. They want tradition. They want historic. Or they at least want some sort of “transitional” style that sits somewhere between old and kind of new. They want architects like Robert A.M. Stern and Richard Wengle, both of which are extremely popular and talented. So really, who am I to judge? As most of you will know, I’m a modernist. I am more interested in the future than I am in the past. But I recognize that the past is important and should not be forgotten. How best to do that is up for debate.

1 Comment so far

  1. Judith Martin

    The philosophy of the modernists couldn’t be faulted – clean out the old slums, the dirt and disease, bring in light and air and health – but it didn’t always work out like that. I’m writing from the UK so this is roughly a European perspective (no rude Brexit smirking, please, it wasn’t my fault). The UK imported a lot of the ideas of Le Corbusier and the other pioneering modernists but failed to keep an eye either on construction standards or the weather. It’s easy to design for the rich – think of the Villa Savoie built around its turning circle for the limousine parking. But most people housed according to modernist principles turn out to be less well off. Flat roofs and large panel buildings don’t do well in a damp climate, so instead of healthy living the poor get black mould and respiratory problems. Also far too many public projects failed to maintain properly, so lifts don’t work, and most recently there have been appalling losses by fire: Lakanal House, Grenfell House – I expect these are known across the Atlantic.
    The past is indeed important. Part of the reason the big projects didn’t work is that people were yanked out of their surroundings and told where they would live. They lost connection with their history. A deracinated population is not often a happy one. Sticking a Philip Johnson style pediment on a tall office building may be great fun and games for a mega corporation but fancy cladding or a fake roofline doesn’t do anything for the resident population. In fact it was the cladding on Grenfell and many other blocks that turned out to be lethal. If people are reassured by replica or transitional architecture it’s more likely because they got to choose it, it’s low rise, and it looks safely familiar.
    So I guess it’s less about style than about politics, economics and agency. Treat people like pawns or herd them like cattle and they will be unhappy anywhere. Provide decent building standards, good maintenance, a sense of community and fairness, and they will be happy. The architectural style is just the icing on the cake, as that arch-modernist Lubetkin more or less said.

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