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.
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