On The Case For Saving Ugly Buildings

roens/CC BY 2.0

I am rather fond of the Robarts Library in Toronto. I have happy memories of chaining myself to its doors when it opened, in our successful campaign for undergrad stack access. Vines have grown to cover the lower levels, softening it a bit. I like the juxtaposition of it and the classic Newman house in the foreground.

Buildings are like that; our perceptions of them change as they become part of the background of our communities. We associate memories with them, they are part of our lives. Like the buttons on suits or the hemlines on dresses, they go in and out of fashion, but if they are well cared for, they last long enough to be loved again.

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones doesn't like the Robarts, and writes in the Atlantic that it is " an oppressive, stone Transformer with little access to sunlight." He uses it and other Brutalist buildings to try and explain that "even horrendously ugly and soulless abominations are part of our architectural heritage and need to be preserved for future generations." I will be honest and say that I have trouble understanding the point that he is trying to make; he appears to be in favour of architectural preservation and unhappy that it casts such a wide net.

That standard of irreplaceability is a common element for a majority of historic preservation law. Buildings aren't preserved based on relative maintenance costs or aesthetics but on the merits of originality and historic interest. Whether it be a pre-historic pueblo, Colonial-era slave quarters, World War II Quonset hut, or a Brutalist tower is irrelevant, as long as it fits the designation of being unique and historically relevant.

He appears appalled that heritage preservation rules mean that all these horrible buildings will be preserved just for the sake of preservation.

The tragic irony being that preservation law, which wasn't enacted in time to save so many irreplaceable buildings of the past, is now in place to save the least loved outputs of High Modernism and urban renewal.

It is hard to know where to start; certainly not with the comments on the Atlantic which call for the demolition of them all, or that preservation rules are invasions of property rights. But I will try:

1. I don't usually use the embodied energy argument, but these buildings have a serious load of concrete in them, take a huge amount of energy to demolish, and create an enormous pile of unrecyclable waste. They can be upgraded and preserved, like the Robarts Library has been constantly. Nobody builds like this anymore; it is too expensive. So why take down something that is built like a brick sh*thouse to replace it with some thin-skinned glass box? To quote Carl Elefante, the greenest building is the one already standing.

2. Who you calling ugly? Tastes change. Mr. Hinkes-Jones acknowledges that when he laments the losses of all those googie streamlined buildings and the great art deco theatres. These buildings will come around again.

Mr. Hinkes-Jones mentions the battle over Washington's Third Church of Christ, Scientist, which " pitted historic preservationists against the church's congregation, who were uninterested in staying in a poorly lit, decaying concrete block that was costly to maintain. " I wrote about it at the time:

We say there is almost no building that cannot be repurposed and restored, put to an imaginative new use, and that demolition is a crime. (Or in the case of a church, a sin.)

That's where heritage preservation is going. It's not about cute or ugly, it is about making use of what we have instead of just throwing everything away because somebody is tired of it. In that light, the Robarts Library looks more beautiful every day.

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Tags: Architecture | Ban Demolition | Preservation | Toronto | Washington DC

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