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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

HEADSPACE: Architect Michael McClelland discusses Heritage Preservation

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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



  1. Nice article.
    Part of the problem in Toronto is that people don’t think we have any worthwhile heritage buildings.
    As a City we need new tools to protect our stock of historically significant buildings. We need to move away from piecemeal preservation to a more encompassing model. Can we not just say ‘All buildings by EJ Lennox or Peter Dickinson are to be considered designated heritage buildings’ and work from there. Developers would then need to argue why it’s not important instead of HPS arguing it is.

  2. “What are the most significant losses in terms of historical Toronto architecture?”

    I’ll offer some other suggestions because there were so many great loses: Bank of Toronto head office (and much of the grand old Financial District),the General Post Office at the head of Toronto street, Chorley Park, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, the Board of Trade Building, the city’s heritage of brick streets and also stone streets like the southern part of Yonge, Front Street, and The Esplanade.

    The postmodern era has also seen its share of loses even as the heritage movement became more robust like Walnut Hall, Bata headquarters, the Union Carbide Building, the wholesale destruction of the Stock Yards district.

    When it comes to preservation, it’s definitely important to preserve interesting and attractive buildings to give a city a sense of permanence, so that people can become attached to it, associate positive emotions, and maintain evidence of cultural accomplishment. Heritage buildings were built to provide a certain function and reuse is typically possible. When we demolish our heritage, we belittle our impressions of our history, so that today, many people think that Toronto was a provincial frontier town in 1899. (Which was definitely the case in 1799, but not 1899). So many great landmarks and streetscapes showing our sophistication are gone that our identity and achievements are devalued. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    One discussion we should be having is whether rebuilding what was lost is desirable since it has been undertaken around Europe. Sometimes there’s a park or parking lot where a gem once stood, or a property owner decides to redevelop an unremarkable building standing on the site of a fine lost heritage building. The opportunities come up, and historicism has developed to be very precise in recreating lost landmarks in Europe, true revivals. The New Modernist architects in Toronto are probably hesitant about that given their aesthetic preference, but it’s something for the critics and anyone passionate about building a great city to ponder.

  3. The trouble I have with heritage preservation in Toronto is that the number of really distinctive and notable buildings in Toronto is quite small. We are not Europe, we don’t have anything like the number of nice old buildings that European cities do. Buildings like the Hearn Generating Station are simply old buildings, they are functional buildings not works of art or anything. Unless it is actually economical to reuse that building (i.e. a viable proposal is made to reuse that building and it is less costly to renovate than build new) then the Hearn Generating Station should be torn down. Also, most old buildings are generally not built as well as new buildings – they typically lack insulation and thus waste energy, have asbestos, knob and tube wiring, lack proper fire protection systems, etc. I have class in University College some days at UofT, and this is a building that definitely is a distinctive building that SHOULD be preserved, and the heating system is very inefficient, the heating system heats the classroom too much and the windows need to be opened to let heat escape. Renovating old buildings to make them energy efficient and structually sound is very costly, and is really only worthwhile for the most well known buildings. “Older buildings, such as those in downtown Toronto, provide fairly inexpensive rental space allowing for cultural communities to flourish.” – this is a bad reason to preserve old buildings, if buildings are full of scuzzy low end businesses and student housing, they are probably run down and possibly fire hazards, most such buildings aren’t worth preserving and should be torn down. The purpose of heritage preservation is to preserve old buildings that are especially distinctive, not just to preserve buildings because they are old.

  4. Though when it comes to European-style “recreation of lost landmarks”, keep in mind what more often than not spurred such rebuilding: war destruction. A bit of a more historically, culturally, and symbolically “loaded” thing than conventional demolition. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being an empty, overwrought gesture, in which case it may be best to let sleeping lost-heritage dogs lie, and concentrate on preventing whatever remains from being lost or disfigured in the first place…

  5. Andrew: At their core, heritage buildings are supposed to be functional buildings, not works of art. Otherwise, you’d have a museum, not a city. Function allows buildings to be preserved: people can live and work in them, or they can be used for cultural purposes. You’re wrong to assume that the construction of older buildings is necessarily inferior. The brick and stone masonry that went up in Toronto’s first century was built to last and can be restored. The number of heritage buildings we have is huge, and we demolished a lot of our own landmarks in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, the city’s heritage seems to have been diminished. See how that works?

    But heritage buildings aren’t just grand landmarks, but the functional and often beautiful buildings all along the streets. Queen Street, for instance, is a fantastic street of block after block of great heritage Victorian structures, albeit some that have had their architectural details stripped or neglected. (That’s a more subtle way our heritage is being eroded.) The buildings that aren’t landmarks can be equally vital to a city with a sense of history and permanence, one that can be beautiful and loved. I’m thinking of our avenues, but also heritage residential neighbourhoods like Cabbagetown, with rows of Victorian Bay and Gables and other fine houses and apartments in different styles.

    You bring up Hearn. Industrial heritage is a unique kind of heritage. It’s about preserving a history of production, which often also has a social history to it, one of the working class. A stripped-down aesthetic is to be expected in the architecture of industrial heritage, like how the Gooderham and Worts Distillery buildings obviously don’t look as exquisite as the Victorian residences of the time. But the economic and social history is there, and industrial heritage buildings can still be fascinating despite more sparse designs. Any good European or American city is preserving this kind of history too, and it adds to the appeal.

    Old buildings may have old insulation or wiring. So what? Renovations can be done over time, fully modernizing the structure. Renovations are a normal part of newer and older buildings.

    Adam: War is definitely more loaded, but whether it was war, fire, greed, the heritage no longer exists and the effect of that absence is the same. But it can be recreated to keep the architecture in existence and preserve cultural accomplishments. Look at how people still get angry or frustrated when they look at the landmarks which we’ve lost; the architecture may have been lost decades ago, but it’s still meaningful to people generations apart.

  6. NIce words MIchael. There were many fine, beautifully crafted buildings torn down over the life of Toronto. In particular I remember a beautiful Florentine palazzo at Yonge and Queen that was replaced by a parking lot, a developer violence that was unnecessary, but made the land “more” valuable so that a large and fairly forgettable office building could be dropped there a couple years later. It’s hard to believe that Toronto was once known as the Paris of the Great Lakes, since most of the Second Empire beauty that earned that moniker was erased in the 50s and 60s. Everything old isn’t great, well made, well designed. But what is good should at least get a second thought before it is destroyed. It does give our city identity that we can bank on, and in this city of banks that is worth something.