There are many reasons why old buildings are such an important part of the fabric of our cities. One reason I keep writing about is that they support all kinds of businesses; Jane Jacobs noted that cities need “a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.” That’s where the rents are lower and where the tattoo parlour or record store can survive. Fighting to preserve old buildings is not about being a nostalgist or NIMBY, as it is often claimed these days; It is about preserving a walkable, vibrant streetscape where people want to be.
In Toronto, there is an interesting experiment going on, where the front 30 feet of existing old buildings are preserved (so it is much more than just facadism) and new condos are built behind and above, in an attempt to preserve the streetscape. But does it work?
Writing in Toronto’s NOW magazine, landscape architect, planner and architect (yes, he is all three) Robert Allsopp of DTAH writes that while we may be saving bits of our old buildings, we are losing the true character of the street. He calls it Urban Taxidermy.
My definition of urban taxidermy: the art of preserving, stuffing and mounting buildings for lifelike effect to simulate an intrinsic social, cultural or commercial vitality.
Urban taxidermy seems to be the most popular current compromise between complete heritage preservation and massive, wholesale redevelopment. Instead of facades, we are keeping large pieces of a building's fabric, but what remains gives only the illusion of a vital, fully functioning, street-related structure. What once sustained street life is being replaced by inert material.
Collectively, these "dead" buildings offer a streetscape diorama. They show well on Google Street View but have little capacity to generate the social interaction of street life when the only access is through the mall. Like a diorama, they require suspension of disbelief.
Is it worth keeping these buildings? Yes, of course, but do we have to kill, stuff and mount them for them to survive? They are more than historical artifacts, bricks-and-mortar facades with finely detailed sills and cornices. They are part of an economic, social and cultural ecology that cannot be disassembled.
This is such a hard one. On the one hand, it is a clear demonstration to those market urbanists who despise heritage preservation as an impediment to development that you can have both; on the other hand, what are we actually preserving? Bricks and mortar or the things that make the street interesting and vibrant?
Perhaps in a few years when all the condos built on top are fully occupied, they will have the population density to support more interesting uses than just banks or drug stores. Something lively, like a Red Lobster.