That’s the issue Collingwood Council has to wrestle with, Monday: what effect will the juxtaposition of the proposed development’s size and height have on the existing, smaller buildings? Some people are afraid our existing heritage buildings will be diminished by this project.
Last week I was in Toronto. At the corner of York and Wellington Streets, I saw the Toronto Club; a beautifully preserved, late 19th-century red-brick, three-storey building. It’s in the, heart of financial district, surrounded by tall, modern skyscrapers, some 30 or more storeys high. What made this building stand out was the contrast with, not the similarity to, the buildings around it.
I later walked along Dundas Street to the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a big, modern building redesigned by architect Frank Gehry. At 21m, It is roughly the same height of the proposed Admiral building, but much longer. Across the street are typical three-storey, Toronto brick homes, many turned into galleries and businesses. Further west along Dundas Street, Chinatown is a mix of two to four-storey buildings.
The gallery dominates the visual landscape, but instead of diminishing the others, the contrast makes them stand out more.
A few decades ago, I visited Jerusalem. The Old City has 2,500 years of history visible in its walls and narrow streets. What makes the Old City so spectacular is how it contrasts against the modern city just outside its walls. The beauty of the Old City shines in the juxtaposition.
In London, England, this fall, I walked through 13th century cathedrals, and 15th-century castles where Henry VIII lived. I had a beer in an 18th century pub in the heart of the city, a small building surrounded by much taller and more modern ones.
England has some very rigid laws about heritage buildings to make sure they are preserved and maintained. But when there is nothing to preserve, they allow builders and architects to be creative. There are some stunningly modern and exciting buildings in London within a stone’s throw of well-preserved 17th and 18th century heritage sites. The contrast between them makes London vibrant.
It is contrast and the mix that makes any city dynamic, not its homogeneity.
I love the old buildings, I love the preserved cultural heritage sites I’ve had the privilege to visit.
But heritage is a sentimental concept, a romanticizing of an ideal past; it is not a technical term. In fact, it’s difficult to get people to agree on what it means. The whole history of the architecture conservation movement is not much older than our own town.
Our heritage district is not a museum of empty buildings: it is a place where people live and work. We want our heritage buildings to look old from the outside, but not inside.
No one wants outdoor privies and gas lanterns, no one wants to get water from a well or keep groceries in a cold cellar. We want all the modern conveniences the original owners never had: electricity, refrigeration, insulation, modern plumbing and air conditioning. Our heritage is skin deep: it’s just the façade that matters.
The definition of what is heritage changes with every generation. Many of the buildings in Collingwood’s heritage district would have been new in my grandfather’s youth. Some would have been new when my father was a teenager, a generation later. Both men would have thought of these buildings as modern, not as heritage sites.
A generation or two from now, our children and grandchildren may see the Admiral development as heritage, something they want to protect and preserve. They may also want to preserve the blocky modern buildings like several downtown banks, the former bingo hall and former drugstore, even the town hall annex – because they will be heritage sites in the future.
Today many here would like nothing more than to have those buildings torn down and something that looks more 19th-century erected in their place. Even though these and other modern buildings are within the heritage district, does anyone care if this proposed development diminishes those modern buildings? Of course not.
Protecting our heritage doesn’t mean we can only erect fakes that externally conform to our current sentimental ideal. We can allow contrast, we can allow change without in any way diminishing the value or appearance of our existing heritage buildings or district.
We have a duty to the community as a whole, not just to one segment. The economic wellbeing of our downtown is at stake, not merely its look.
Let’s stop agonizing over this and let it go forward.