Revitalization

We Need to Do Better Than Cargo Cult Urban Design

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 18, 2011

The rendering of a renovated Connaught currently making the rounds doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt as an early design subject to change before completion.

Connaught rendering (Image Credit: Hamilton Spectator)
Connaught rendering (Image Credit: Hamilton Spectator)

The rendering isn't just 'early' or 'provisional': it's hideous. It's incoherent, oppressive and inexcusable.

I thought the point of preserving the facade of an old building was to preserve the integrity and aesthetics of the traditional streetwall that the facade defined. Yet in this rendering, a flat, blank, featureless wall (let's be charitable and assume it's meant to be made of glass) hunkers out from just behind the build-to line and runs along the sidewalk until it hits an ugly, balcony-jutting apartment building that looks like it was designed in 1982.

Not only this, but the tower is for some reason placed beside the Connaught facade, making for a lopsided, bulky structure that looms over the street. Instead, we could adapt Vancouver's 'Tower and Podium' model and locate a tall, slender tower behind the traditional building, which after all is structurally sound and already has a height compatible with its surroundings.

The Royal Connaught (RTH file photo)
The Royal Connaught (RTH file photo)

For an idea of how this could work, consider 1 King West in Toronto, in which an elegant modern tower rises from behind the restored historic corner facade of the old Dominion Bank Building - built in 1914, the same year as the Royal Connaught Hotel - and integrates nicely with it at street level:

1 King West (RTH file photo)
1 King West (RTH file photo)

The tower, in turn, is slender and attractive and does not loom over the street - though it does command the skyline.

1 King West tower, view from Front Street (RTH file photo)
1 King West tower, view from Front Street (RTH file photo)

The Connaught building is already L-shaped. A tower would fit nicely in the lee of the L, leaving open the possibility of restoring a human-scaled streetwall along King to the corner of Catharine Street, where Yet Another Surface Parking Lot currently sits.

As James Howard Kunstler put it in his famous TED talk, the "pattern of building downtown blocks all over the world is fairly universal. It's not that complicated." Yet again, in Hamilton we manage to take the straightforward principles of urban design and mess them up.

The Connaught rendering is cargo cult urbanism at its worst: we go through the motions of design without understanding the most basic principles of how cities work, and the inevitable result is incoherent, uncoordinated and ill-fitting.

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 jason (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 14:21:53

1KW is deadly. My fave TO building. FWIW, 1KW doesn't use the Vancouver podium but it still integrates with the historic building beautifully. I'm not certain, but I think the glass/balcony portion of this tower is nicer than it looks here. For example, here are two renderings of an identical building. Note how one looks awesome, while the other looks like the Connaught rendering.

http://www.varconconstruction.com/recent...

http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost...

I'd be totally cool if the Connaught glass portion was like this.
The blank tower in the middle is kind of strange though. Reminds me of Boston City Hall:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/co...

Comment edited by jason on 2011-08-18 14:23:01

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By SpaceMonkee (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 14:36:18

Yeah... I agree it looks horrible. Reminds me of an ugly 1970s apartment building.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 14:51:53

I'm ever-so tired of these glass/concrete tower monstrosities. As one can see from downtown's existing stock of apartment towers, they don't actually yield a very high population density once the setbacks and vacant first floors are taken into account. What's so hard about a streetwall?

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By 2130king (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 15:19:51

you've all seen the kinds of things valeri builds right? ugly and unimaginative.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 15:59:55

It is indeed a very uninviting drawing that is for sure. Not a big fan of that 1 King W one either. Looks like a take on the Vince Lombardy Trophy or something? Also, I am not keen on that Mississauga tower displayed in another article today. Looks like something out of a men's deodorant commercial?

But that's just me as someone who would rather not live, work, or stay in these towering glass monstrosities - or as others have pointed out, some bad for the 70's design and I love retro! Even when visiting a place like say Myrtle Beach, I like the Beachcomber type places. Two or three floors with outside walkway's, or something a little less towering, or something with lot's of history like the Connaught itself, Chateau Frontinac in old Quebec City, or even something much smaller/likely more modern like the Bullfinch Hotel in the north end of Boston in which I stayed. It was very affordable, yet very classy inside and close walking distance to almost anything and a cheap cab ride to Fenway Park. When going to Boston, I highly recommend it.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 16:41:17

Hilarious Editorial Cartoon for tomorrow. I think we should all design something for fun and start a page to post our designs. :) You could just as easily cut, paste, scan if you aren't artistically inclined.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-08-18 16:42:46

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 23:32:59 in reply to Comment 68223

Here are my contributions to the informal Royal Con. Redesign Contest http://goo.gl/Gcouc

The Royal Stinson Twinsons http://goo.gl/TkuW4

The Connaughtwins (too soon?) http://goo.gl/11n61

Comment edited by misterque on 2011-08-18 23:33:52

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 17:04:46

How about building the first two floors to the existing streetwall, second floor patio/restaurant, remaining floors up to the height of the existing Connaught at that new slightly further back level (or maybe even angled so that they meet the street level at the connaught, and taper further back to the east...) and then the remaining mega-tower set partially behind the existing building and partially over the current surface lot?

What's this going to look like from Main Street? I think we have to keep that in mind too.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 17:12:06

What's this going to look like from Main Street?

Whatever a 28 storey tower looks like out of the corner of your eye at 65km:)

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By SpaceMonkee (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 17:23:57 in reply to Comment 68226

Troll comment..not biting

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 23:47:30 in reply to Comment 68228

Wonder what a troll looks like at 65km away?

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By JM (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 08:44:04 in reply to Comment 68265

...i think he meant 65km/h

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By Grom (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 17:28:24

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 18:00:53 in reply to Comment 68229

Grom has a point, however insultingly he puts it.

When it takes a 20-40 storey skyscraper full of luxury suites to make 10 floors of standing structure conceivable, then there's something wrong. Why is it so hard to simply affordable housing or establishments in existing buildings?

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By geoff's two cents (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 18:15:48

It is indeed difficult to understand how a hole-in-the-wall like Surrey, B.C. (where I grew up) has someone like Bing Thom working for them, while many of the recent designs I've seen proposed for Hamilton (an infinitely nicer city) look like they were - relatively speaking - conceived by a grade-schooler. This one takes the cake as being among the worst, however.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 18:33:10

The Royal Cannot?

The fact that the owners are prepared to move ahead with the project gets 100 out of 100.

The proposed design gets 0 out of 100. It's junk. Facadism at its worst. Clumsy. Embarrassing. Juvenile.

There is no reason a private lane could not be built between the original Royal Connaught and the new tower. Cars could turn in from Main and from King. The lobby can be entered from the east side, just like it was when the building opened originally.

Leave the east facade intact and uncovered. While I realize it's a conceptual drawing, when you start off this badly where might you go from here?

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By George (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 23:46:04 in reply to Comment 68236

There is no reason a private lane could not be built between the original Royal Connaught and the new tower. Cars could turn in from Main and from King. The lobby can be entered from the east side, just like it was when the building opened originally.

Leave the east facade intact and uncovered.

I absolutely love this idea!

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By Realitycheck (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 20:25:16

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted August 19, 2011 at 21:54:56 in reply to Comment 68241

So who leaked this prematurely? Unfortunately release of an ugly preliminary working drawing (that I would hope the developers were using as a book mark) has a very public effect. This is causing the developers to back-peddle. Someone jumped the gun.

http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/...

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By Grom (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 21:11:09 in reply to Comment 68241

insult spam deleted

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted August 20, 2011 at 18:20:10 in reply to Comment 68290

Dear Mr. Anonymous, If Brian McHattie had suggested this design I would have the image tattooed on my butt.

Afterwhich I would show it to you repeatedly. This would allow you to experience an idea in the only way you can understand: Presented by an ass.

Cheeky, no?

Comment edited by misterque on 2011-08-20 18:20:47

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By George (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 20:56:15 in reply to Comment 68241

Of course we are only commenting on the fuzzy photo, since, as you pointed out, there is no other information on which to base comments.

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By Lipsitz (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 20:58:01

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 21:08:41 in reply to Comment 68244

don't release crappy, fuzzy photos.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 20:59:07

Even more city bureaucracy madness. Harry Stinson's Hamilton Grand is on hold after the city told him he would need a 2.4 m setback "in case Main St. needs to be widened in the future." His financers have put the project on hold.

Do we need any more proof that City Hall is what's holding Hamilton back?

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 00:33:46 in reply to Comment 68245

Are there not buildings, both east and west of that site, which abut the sidewalk and would prevent a widening of Main on that side anyway? I'm thinking about Landmark Place, the Gowlings (former Bank of Montreal) building, the Hamilton Club, and the BDC building. There are probably more.

The city's planning bylaws don't seem to be very context sensitive.

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 15:45:56 in reply to Comment 68268

Actually Landmark Place does have a setback. They have that pickup/dropoff lane in front of the building which would be the setback.

The rest of the buildings mentioned were grandfathered when the official plan was developed. If they were to tear down any of those buildings then a setback would be required. If you look at the Gowlings building the new addition is setback off the street.

When they developed the official plan someone obviously wasn't thinking straight. It was a stupid thing to do.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 08:00:23 in reply to Comment 68268

But when they knock those buildings down, they'll be able to widen Main to a six lane two way highway.

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By Malex (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 23:18:32 in reply to Comment 68245

Not true at all...they redesigned the building to take the setback into account and rec'd approval from the city - whatever is holding it back, it ain't the city!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 21:58:53 in reply to Comment 68245

I thought they had worked through that. Is it still an issue?

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 23:00:41 in reply to Comment 68253

According to Andrew Dreschel's column, they were negotiating a potential compromise with the city, but Stinson's financers are reluctant to move forward.

"But his main financial backer was so ticked by the bureaucratic red tape, he put the project on hold."

http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/580555--better-an-ugly-than-derelict-connaught

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 21:21:19

Unreal, no Gore Park pedestrianization before Pan Am (yes, 4 years from now). http://www.thespec.com/news/local/articl...

These guys are completely undoing all the good work council started last term.
By 2015, let's be sure to get an article written musing about how Hamilton could have looked by then with LRT, two-way conversions, waterfront development in the West Harbour and Gore Park pedestrian piazza. Instead we're getting half a stadium and a velodrome.
The more things change......

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By rednic (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 08:52:39 in reply to Comment 68249

Are 'we' getting a velodrome ? That i'm afraid has been lost in the shuffle .

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 10:35:00 in reply to Comment 68273

Mohawk College, apparently.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 22:13:57 in reply to Comment 68249

The only thing slower than recovery in this city is City Hall's attempts to aid said recovery...

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 10:15:10

Looking for clarification on the '3 phases' of the Connaught project. If I understand the mayors interview yesterday it sounds like condos in the 'new' portion of the Connaught (the tower adjacent to John St), then phase 2 is a hotel in the older building, and then phase 3 is the 28 storey condo tower and (as the mayor put it) 'connecting the old hotel with concrete'.
Let's hope phase 3 is adjusted while the first 2 are happening.

Anyone know if I'm missing something, or does this sound right?
If so, this is a great plan. The only real negative I'm hearing is the 28 stories of concrete.

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By George (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:44:47 in reply to Comment 68275

I agree, sounds like a great plan, especially if the older section gets worked on soon. And if so, then why wouldn't the city start with its Gore Park pedestrianization now, so that it could be ready for the Pan Am games instead of waiting for years after.

I'm hopeful that the 28 storey "addition" will morph into something quite nice. The Royal Connaught, former jewel of the city of Hamilton, deserves no less.

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By Pshaw (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 10:41:38

Stinson is full of excuses for his lack of success. First it was that rich guy in toronto, then it was his friend died, then it was the real estate guy from out of town wasn't forthright, then it was the economy, then the hamilton investors are not bullish on downtown, now it's the city....when is it ever Harry? This is about as fictional a developer as Harry Potter.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 10:46:19

This new Staybridges is actually better than I expected. Restaurant patio facing George and entrance off Caroline, which will now be two-way. 6 stories ain't bad consdering nothing else around there is higher than 3 (other than the fed building at 7).

http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost...

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By George (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:46:28 in reply to Comment 68278

And with the west wing of the federal building being saved (along with the friezes), and confirmation of the asbestos abatement, things are starting to look a lot better.

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By Synxer (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:20:15

I almost thought for a second that Rockstar was making a Grand Theft Auto: Steel City and that they were already photoshopping the screens for their packages. Sadly, the giveaway was that this actually looks worse than video game renderings.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:26:05

Downtown BIA Update (Vol. 4 Issue 17, August 19, 2011):

“Mayor Bob Bratina reports that discussions were held recently with developers and owners Ted Valeri and Rudi Spallacci of the Connaught Hotel and it looks like work will commence on the Grand old Lady in the next few weeks. The Mayor states that the project will be concentrating on the existing structure to create condominiums. It will also include the restoration of the older section back to its hotel roots. The hotel was purchased in 2005 for $4.5 million by a consortium called Grand Connaught Development Group but was forced into bankruptcy in May 2010. Let's hope we see a sales office opening soon.”

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By George (registered) | Posted August 20, 2011 at 02:19:21

Connaught drawings ‘very premature’

“That was very preliminary … kind of like a blank slate visual of what could possibly go there,” explained Paul Valeri, speaking on behalf of his father Ted while he is out of the country on a personal matter.

“That drawing was very premature,” he added.

The statement also noted the newness of the process: “It is important to note that the redevelopment is in the planning stages only and that there are many variables and issues still to be addressed.”

http://www.thespec.com/news/local/articl...

Comment edited by George on 2011-08-20 02:19:51

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By Art Brut (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2011 at 11:05:23 in reply to Comment 68295

I like that they've thrown some heavy pixellation onto the rendering now. Emphasizes the FPO nature of The 2343526 Ontario Inc. Tower.

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