This regular online series will feature interviews with fascinating and influential urban thinkers, with a focus on discussing how Toronto can become a more engaged, accessible, sustainable city.
Michael McClelland is a Toronto-based architect working for E.R.A. Architects and co-author of the book Concrete Toronto. He’s actively involved in promoting Canada’s architectural heritage and is a founding member of the Canadian Association of Professional Heritage Consultants (CAPHC). Spacing asked him to comment on some important heritage issues.
Spacing: Why are heritage buildings important?
McClelland: People tend not to have a clear classification of “heritage” but if you consider cities like Montreal and London, they each have a specific sense of place. Older buildings are an important component of that. Another concern is that you can lose much of your city’s culture if you lose what’s already been built. Older buildings, such as those in downtown Toronto, provide fairly inexpensive rental space allowing for cultural communities to flourish. If you demolish an older building and put up a new one, the tax rate changes so significantly that modest uses get priced out. You end up taking away an interesting bookstore with students living above it and replace it with a Shoppers Drug Mart or another large retailer. There is a need to retain older buildings in order to retain diversity.
Spacing: How do you evaluate Toronto’s record in terms of protecting its heritage?
McClelland: I don’t agree with most people that the record is really bad. North American cities like Detroit were ravaged by demolition between the 1940s and 1970s. Toronto was not and its slightly more impressive record over the last 30 years is what makes the relatively few losses that we do have all the more noticeable. However, the larger picture, which gets missed, is that there are buildings being demolished because they aren’t being recognized as significant or interesting. There is a very interesting divide between old Toronto having a pretty good track record on this, whereas Scarborough, Etobicoke, and North York had no track record at all. There is a huge amount of work in identifying buildings that are interesting in our inner suburbs.
Spacing: What are the most significant losses in terms of historical Toronto architecture?
McClelland: In the 50’s and 60’s, we lost the Temple Building and more recently the Bata Headquarters. Bata was a significant loss because it was designed by John C. Parkin. We’re losing large numbers of Parkin buildings and, therefore, a whole set of city memories from a certain period of time. The loss of the Walnut Hall on Shuter Street was also emblematic and unnecessary. We’re losing these buildings because our system is broken and were not doing a good job of being proactive preservationists.
Spacing: Is Toronto simply reactive and not proactive when it comes to heritage?
McClelland: Yes, but with the collapse of 335 Yonge Street it wasn’t even reactive. That’s an example where proactive intervention was necessary. The severity of the problem should have been obvious as the surrounding street was closed for nearly a year. Resources were not pulled together to address the situation. My sense is that the simple solution was for the City to expropriate the property and tell the owners: if you’re not going to look after this building then we’ll assume responsibility.
Spacing: E.R.A specializes in adaptive re-use of historic buildings. What, in your mind, are the best examples of re-use in Toronto?
McClelland: Turning the question around, let me suggest to you where I think adaptive re-use should be happening. Toronto has a large stock of churches that function, in part, like informal community centres. There’s an opportunity in relation to doing something proactive with a whole slew of buildings fated to close. We could emulate programs like Artscape, while at the same time striving to maintain many of the present functions of churches. It’s an E.R.A. project but Tower Renewal is another case. With an ideal of creating more complete communities we should be adapting tower neighbourhoods for further uses beyond this monoculture of rental housing.
Spacing: What re-use probabilities are there for a building like the Hearn Generating Station?
McClelland: The Hearn is essentially a gigantic box, which means you can do any number of things with it. The scale of the building means that you need to develop it incrementally and with multilevel government involvement. My feeling is that there would have to be an organizational structure, like Waterfront Toronto, that could take on the project.
Spacing: Is our definition of “historically significant” evolving to include many 20th century concrete structures?
McClelland: With the book Concrete Toronto, our purpose was to test people’s interest in concrete architecture. I was tired of people arbitrarily hating buildings like Robarts Library without seriously looking at them. Robarts is actually an interesting building that is both of its time and well made. Unfortunately, a lot of people have a prejudice against concrete. We issued that book to say: hold on, just look at them more and ask — are there different kinds of concrete buildings? Do they express certain things? Were the architects doing interesting things? There needs to be a rise in people’s intelligent quotient on that subject.
Spacing: What are your thoughts on the future of Ontario Place?
McClelland: Ontario Place was really an attempt to create a profile for the province. It was really silly for the province to say – we don’t know what to do with it now, so let’s just ask for a bunch of ideas. It demonstrates an incredible lack of vision. Harbour City, a related plan, included housing. That was a spectacular scheme. Ontario Place also used to have an open forum which disappeared years ago; maybe that’s something which should reappear. With heritage buildings, we need to look at the resource and reinvest in the old ideas. We should ask ourselves questions like: what was it about? What were they trying to accomplish and how do we want to modify that to make it work new?
Photo by Wyliepoon