Lister Block

Draining the Blister

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 12, 2006

There's no question that the Lister Block is a tired, crumbling old shitheap that should probably be torn down.

But there's a reason so many people, me included, would rather see it repaired than replaced: we've lost faith in the ability of architects and developers to construct a new building that's nearly as good as, let alone better than, the old building.

Hi-Rise Group, which LIUNA brought in as a partner to redevelop Lister, seems particularly incapable of recognizing, let along constructing, quality. Warren Green of Hi-Rise alarmed Lister supporters last year with his dismissive statement, "There's nothing historic about bricks."

Their recent signature building, the federal office slab on Bay St. and Market St., is a compositional mess. Its scale and detailing are too hulking and oversized to communicate with people on the street or neighbouring buildings.

With that looming porch-esque structure curving out the front, the building looks like a cinematic trick of forced perspective when people stand in front of it, their profiles tiny against its mass.

If the people who designed that building are allowed to design the Lister replacement, it will probably be just as bad.

Look, we're not asking for the Parthenon here. We're just asking for a building we can care about, the way we care about Lister - not because it's historic, but because it's elegant and beautiful.

The ornaments on Lister aren't merely decorative or, God help us, fashionable. They're units of architectural vocabulary that communicate meaning about the building's scale, its accessibility, its relationship with the street and with other buildings.

Standing beside it, you don't feel like a mouse about to get stepped on, even though it's nearly the same height as the federal building and is even closer to the street.

That's because the ornament (last seen in Art Deco buildings, of which Lister is an excellent example), using a classical vocabulary that evolved over two millenia, breaks the facade into human-sized, digestible pieces that are proportionate to each other and combine to form an aesthetically pleasing whole.

You can still see that today, despite the boards, smashed windows, overlapping posters, graffiti, and years of caked on guano.

Some time after the 1920s, architects decided to throw away their vocabulary books and begin constructing plain, unadorned boxes that lurched out of the earth. They called it "modernism" and justified it as a rejection of elitism and hereditary power.

What a tragic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater! By associating the fundamental principles of classical, human-scaled design with Victorian excesses and despotism, architects rendered themselves mute and rendered their buildings cold and robotic.

Gradually, ornament found its way back into architects' repertoires, but in their struggle to reinvent a language of architecture from scratch, they foolishly concluded that the entire building should be the unit of ornament.

An ornament to what? Ego? Sheer novelty? Certainly not to its human uses.

Design originally communicated valuable information to observers. Now it just makes noise. An artistic genius can make interesting, exciting noises - like scat singing in jazz - but in the hands of a mere mortal, the product is more likely to be a visual cacaphony.

At its very skibibbity bibbity bop! best, postmodern architecture is entertaining but not informative. To switch metaphors, it's the TV news of building. It's distracting for awhile but ultimately not worth caring about.

If I thought the building to replace Lister had a chance of possessing as much elegance and coherence as the old building, I'd offer to help tear down the old one myself. As it is, I fear the replacement will just be unfriendly box.

If LIUNA and the Hi-Rise Group could understand this, the fate of Lister Block wouldn't be such an ordeal.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Beatle4 (registered) | Posted January 18, 2006 at 12:25:51

I personally would hate to see the Lister Block torn down, not because of it's historical value to the city or its ornate architecural look but because part of that building has a family tie to me. When the plastering was being done inside the Lister Block back in the '20's, it was my Grandfather and his crew who did all the work. To see it torn down now would feel like I've lost yet another connection to my family.

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By davidcohen (registered) | Posted January 18, 2006 at 10:32:53

Ryan's dismissal of achectectual modernism is a bit too sweeping. Hamilton has some excellent modernist buildings, both old and new. TH&B (now GO) station and the City Hall are both oustanding as is Brian McKibbin's stunning new Robert David Men's Store on Locke. I could go on. These days, what is to be deplored is the neo-traditionalist dreck (sometimes called "new urbanism") being built in our tonier suburbs and as infill in our older neighbourhoods. As for the Lister Block, I share Ryan's skepticism about its present owners' interest in good architecture. But that doesn't mean that a good, modernist solution can't be found for this eyesore. All that is needed is the right architect with a strong, clear mandate.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 01, 2006 at 02:48:32

Hi David,

Perhaps I overreached somewhat rhetorically, but I maintain that modernism did a terrible disservice to people by throwing out the good (buildings designed for humans) with the bad (the unfortunate association of classical design with fascism).

I actually like the Men's Store on Locke. It contrasts nicely with its surroundings without breaking the consistency of the streetwall. However, I think I would hate a whole street full of such rakish, metallic buildings; right now it works because it stands out from an overwhelmingly classic design.

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