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Is a little history worse than none? (Hume on facadism)

wyliepoon

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http://www.yourhome.ca/homes/article/546013



Is a little history worse than none?
It's easy to deride façadism. But what can we propose in its place?
November 30, 2008


Christopher Hume

URBAN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST

What do we owe the past?

The Royal Canadian Military Institute recently confronted that question and came up with an unexpected answer. The club occupies a building on University Ave. south of Dundas St. that dates from the first decade of the last century.

The owners were advised not to bother preserving the structure. In fact, don't even bother saving the façade. Better to give a contemporary architect a blank slate to design something of its time. The RCMI's response? Thanks, but no thanks. A little history, they deemed, is better than none.

Which brings us to façadism. The term describes the practice of demolishing every part of a heritage building but its exterior walls.

Every major city – Paris, Dublin, New York – does it. It's just that Toronto does it so often.

"We have a lot of façadism in Toronto," admits one of the city's leading heritage architects, Michael McClelland. "And almost no one likes it. But it's indicative of Toronto's political climate. Though it's easy to deride façadism, what do these people propose in its place? People who simply dismiss it don't understand. It's often the agreed-upon compromise."

It has also become an acceptable method of balancing civic growth and architectural history. And despite the obvious drawbacks, it's a strategy that can work.

At the Air Canada Centre, for instance, the only vestige of real architecture is found in the façades of the 1941 Postal Delivery Building. Designed by Charles Dolphin, the building tells the story of communications through a series of reliefs carved by the late Louis Temporale. The images illustrate a somewhat potted history, from Indian smoke signals to ocean liners to "aeroplanes."

As wonderful as Dolphin's building was, the interior consisted of little more than empty warehouse space; the interest, visual, architectural and civic, was all on the outside. In other words, it made sense to allow the site to be redeveloped without keeping more than the exterior walls. Indeed, Temporale's sculptures have never enjoyed such a large audience as now, as thousands show up weekly at the ACC.

One of the best examples of façadism is the east side of BCE Place, that row of restored 19th-century storefronts that extends up the west side of Yonge St. from Front to Wellington. Except for the actual entrance to the complex, every façade dates from the 1800s. Behind these faces, however, modernity takes over. There, everything is glass and light, everything, that is, save the restored 19th-century limestone building inside Santiago Calatrava's soaring Atrium. It was dismantled block-by-block and reassembled indoors where, to be honest, it looks marvellous.

But what are we to make of the Bay Adelaide Centre, under construction just up the road? This glass box sits on a site once occupied by office towers, one of which, the 1926 National Building by Chapman and Oxley, remains as a couple of walls subsumed by a much larger building. The result does no favours to either part. The monolithic quality of the architecture – a pared-down, late-modernist box – is broken by the older façade, which interrupts its perfect rhythm. As for the older piece, it looks as if it's being eaten alive. Other developers are coerced into retaining a façade or two just to keep neighbours and city officials happy. That seems to be the case with the small, yellow-brick building at King and Sherbourne. It will soon be absorbed into a glass condo tower (ironically named Bauhaus) that will loom ominously over the poor, three-storey structure. Plans call for two fronts, King and Sherbourne, to be incorporated into the new residential tower above. But already it's clear that the two elements – which come from diametrically opposed positions on the architectural spectrum – will have nothing in common but a deep-seated antipathy.

And what was accomplished by keeping the front of the 1949 University Theatre on Bloor St. W.? Except for those with first-hand memories of the impressive movie house, the façade means nothing. To those who do recall it, the best part – the interior – is long gone.

"It's a tricky question," says Rollo Myers, manager of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. "The secret is to make it look like a building, not a clip-on. In some cases, it's like skinning a trophy animal and mounting the hide on your rec-room wall. Saving a façade is only legitimate when some depth is also retained.

"What really bugs me is that people make a fuss about how clever we are at recycling the little things, yet it would never occur to us to recycle whole buildings. People merrily do away with whole buildings but feel good because they religiously recycle all the little things around the house. Recycling a building the size of Riverdale Hospital is the same as recycling 72 million pop cans."

As Christopher Borgal, of leading heritage architectural firm Goldsmith Borgal, makes clear, "You can't make every building into a museum. But I think things are shifting. Now there's a growing effort to preserve something more authentic than a façade. It's a conundrum: How do you do this ethically? How do you provide a sense of historical development?"

It was Borgal's firm that handled the National Building/Bay Adelaide Centre project, one that other companies spurned. "I took the attitude it was a done deal when I accepted the job," he says, "so why not make it look as spectacular as possible? At one level it's a stage set, a painting, a picture. The objective was to preserve some ambience of the Bay Street canyon. It's not a North Toronto Station/LCBO or a National Ballet School, but I think it'll be a good job."

The school and station to which Borgal refers are adaptive reuse projects that incorporate heritage buildings intact. These award-winning, city-changing schemes established a new standard for integrating old and new.

This, of course, is what we hope the future will look like, a seamless blend of past and present. Given our technical prowess, that is well within the realm of possibility.

Perhaps the most we can hope for in the 21st century, with its grow-or-die ethic, is that the new city will hang on to at least a shred of its past. Saving a façade or two will mean that all is not lost.

Then again, it's easy to lose a building even when the walls don't come tumbling down.
 

Mustapha

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Hume is incorrect on a minor point. The University Theatre facade is a recreation, but a good homage. The original stood for quite awhile; then was sent tumbling. I know, I walked by often enough to watch the progress of this site. The interior is a fairly good homage as well - the round atrium just inside and left when you walk in reminds well of what was lost. This place was the theatre house of choice when the old lady and I were dating.

Interesting article. I'm reluctantly 'for' it - facadism, given the alternatives.
 
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adma

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I think Hume's point may be that this sort of "good homage" is inadequate, all the same--and misses the point of the place (i.e. the theatre), to boot. Though it's better than that now barren and Mussolini-modern-looking de-Uptowned entranceway to the Uptown...
 

dt_toronto_geek

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Hume is incorrect on a minor point. The University Theatre facade is a recreation, but a good homage. The original stood for quite awhile; then was sent tumbling. I know, I walked by often enough to watch the progress of this site. The interior is a fairly good homage as well - the round atrium just inside and left when you walk in reminds well of what was lost. This place was the theatre house of choice when the old lady and I were dating.

Interesting article. I'm reluctantly 'for' it - facadism, given the alternatives.
The front of the University was never demolished. Cleaning and some modifications were made but the front of the structure always stood.
 

ShonTron

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Yeah, I remember the University Avenue facade held up with a parking lot behind it. The Pottery Barn that was eventually built behind it really respected the context, and one of the better examples out there.

Hume is right that the old postal sorting station's only real redeeming features were the art deco reliefs.

I'm a relunctant supporter of facadism, but there's some examples that give it a bad name. I don't think I like how Bay-Adelaide turned out. That seems to be the lowest rung on the facadism level.

I have liked how Maritime Life at Queen and Yonge incorporates the old bank really well, making it a distinct part of the building. The NE side of King and Sherbourne doesn't do a bad job either. BCE Place is a really interesting example of facadism.

Perhaps a hierarchy of facadism is in order - how about these basic categories:

Full Restoration (Osgoode Hall)
Gutting and repurposing (Don Jail)
Incorporation of heritage structure into new development (Good: National Ballet School, Bad: Toronto Stock Exchange)
Partial demolition - preservation of significant facade and some interior features (Red Cross). Almost facadism.
---FACADISM---
Facadism - Incorporation: Maritime Life/Bank of Montreal, BCE Place: There's some creativity, the old building keeps much of its dignity
Facadism - Standard: Princess Margaret Hospital - thought to preserve a significant facade, but often clashes with newer structure.
Facadism - Tack-on: Bay Adelaide - afterthought or token preservation.
---DEMOLITION---
 
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interchange42

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Did they do that bad a job of the Stock Exchange/Design Exchange? Or maybe you mean outside with the whole looming office tower thingy.

42
 

androiduk

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What's probably most important to the average person walking down the street is the first 2 or 3 storeys of a building. Those are the ones they can comfortably relate to. Anything above that starts to become a blur. Older buildings keep that interaction in place because of their scale and their more friendly face. It's not so inviting to come across another 50 storey building with a giant lobby encased in granite and glass and sparsely furnished. It feels like you're being swallowed up when you walk through the doors. I like the lobbys of the buildings from the 1950's where you had a coffee shop, a small convenience store, shoeshine, etc. in the lobby, it made the building much more inviting. When I walk by the Yonge St. facade of BCE Place, I don't even think of the tower, I look inside the cafes at the people enjoying their dinner and it makes me want to go inside. Maybe facadism isn't the best solution all of the time but it seems to work most of the time.
 

ShonTron

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Did they do that bad a job of the Stock Exchange/Design Exchange? Or maybe you mean outside with the whole looming office tower thingy.
There's lots to dislike about the Ernst and Young Tower - that it went against Mies' vision for the superblock, that it was built much later than the rest of the complex, that it entombed the stock exchange. However, I do like how the interior is preserved (and wonderfully re-purposed as the Design Exchange) as well as the lovely front facade.
 

Mustapha

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dt_toronto-geek, shontron,

re: the University Theatre facade...

Hi guys, I wish I had photographic proof, but I don't.

I clearly remember the facade standing for quite some time as you guys did.

Then it was demolished. Then they reconstructed a facsimile.

I'll see what I can dig up in the way of proof. I know accuracy is important in these kind of assertions and anyways I don't want to come off as just being someone who has to be right.:)
 

TKTKTK

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I'll see what I can dig up in the way of proof. I know accuracy is important in these kind of assertions and anyways I don't want to come off as just being someone who has to be right.:)
Could it have been dismantled and then re-constructed?


It's also worth pointing out that the National Building is a sticky example of facadism;the building wasn't just reconstructed, they also changed its proportions and scale. They created a new 'old' facade in the spirit of the original.
 

Mustapha

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Could it have been dismantled and then re-constructed?


It's also worth pointing out that the National Building is a sticky example of facadism;the building wasn't just reconstructed, they also changed its proportions and scale. They created a new 'old' facade in the spirit of the original.
That's possible, but I saw the rubble.

Here is another eyewitness, reliable or otherwise:
http://cinematreasures.org/theater/3090/
Scroll down to the second post.

Anyways, let me try to get some more documentation to back myself up.

If anyone has time, go have a look see around the facade, especially the old ticket window area. It's all brand spanking new building material. No patina at all on the metal or stone.

I didn't know that about the National Building. That's not cool. On the other hand, if they say it's a homage; that's alright, in my book. They just have to be upfront. All just my opinion here.
 
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dt_toronto_geek

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I walked past there every day on my way to work from the early 90's to 2003 and I have no recollection of the entire structure being taken down. Is it possible that the old brick retail facade adjoining the University to the east is what you might recall being taken down? That also stood for about a decade but was eventually demolished. Anyway, I'll admit I could be wrong, memory can be a tricky thing but it's difficult for me to believe that I wouldn't have noticed the building, and the overhanging marquees - not being there.
 

androiduk

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I don't remember it coming down either and it doesn't make sense that they would tear it down. If you remember, the wall stood by itself, supported by a steel brace for a long time (I have pix somewhere). Why build a brace only to tear it down later. The only thing I can remember being torn down and rebuilt is the doorway marked 'Pearcy House' just to the east. It was relocated just north by the entrance to 10 Bellair.
 

dt_toronto_geek

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These photos are from the late 80's or early 90's.

 

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