Our Modernist Heritage

By Jason Leach
Published April 30, 2007

Today's Toronto Star has a great piece by Christopher Hume on Modernist architecture.

Like many cities, Toronto has set about systemically to destroy its Modernist heritage. The list of victims is long; it includes everything from Terminal One at Pearson Airport ... and the Inn on the Park to the Shell Tower at Exhibition Place and the Union Carbide Building on Eglinton Ave.

Certainly, Modernism has its faults; worst of all, it lent itself much too easily to the cookie-cutter mentality of low-end highrise developers. Is it any wonder the cities of the world look the same?

Though the backlash may be understandable, it doesn't make it any less painful to see the city lose so many marvellous buildings. The saddest thing is that if these structures could just survive another two or three decades, they'd become obvious heritage sites, historical even, and much loved.

Of particular interest to Hamiltonians is Hume's desire to see these buildings survive another 20 years in order to help lend to their credibility as heritage sites.

Here in Hamilton we may be ahead of the curve. City Hall was built in the late '50s, yet many citizens and architects continue to fight for its reconstruction and preservation because we clearly see today, in 2007, that is undoubtedly a heritage site.

We don't need 20 more years to open our eyes.

Let's continue to show others how important and dazzling our City Hall is. Once it's gone, it's gone ­ and we've got no other comparable building to hang our hats on as the showpiece for that time period and style.

City Hall is it. Let's preserve it.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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By jason (registered) | Posted April 30, 2007 at 10:09:26

plus, you know full well what "something good" means today - see federal building and stucco big boxes that surround us. Even if you hate modernism you're better off fighting for it's preservation if for nothing else than to spare us the agony of more new buildings.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 30, 2007 at 12:31:52

Relax, Ryan. There's modernism and then there's Modernism. You seem to be using the term 'modernism' as a kind of catch-all for all mid-century architecture, good and bad. The Modernism, aka International Style, Dave rightfully defends is embodied in our City Hall. I'm no expert, but I wouldn't be surprised if City Hall is one of the finest surviving International Style buildings in the country. I would not refer to Jackson Square as Modernist, by any stretch of the imagination (armchair architects, feel free to discuss!), it's just non-descript and would be no loss to the fabric of this city. There is good and bad 'modern' architecture just as there was good and bad Victorian architecture. The trick is to know which is which, and preserve the good.

For another International Style gem check out Stan Roscoe's old Health Department building on Hunter, kitty corner from the train station. Gorgeous! It floats! Just like City Hall. Jackson Square comes nowhere near these buildings, as I'm sure you'll agree.

That said, watch that loose talk about Brutalist fortresses! I've got a soft spot for them. I'll be lying down in front of the bull dozers when they come for Hamilton Place.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 30, 2007 at 12:36:43

Sorry, should also have credited Jason with defending City Hall.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 30, 2007 at 15:13:22

have you seen the reno plans for the old public health building on Hunter? from what I can tell it's basically a 4-storey stucco building. see the back page of the Doors Open insert in saturday's Spec...or better yet, just walk to the corner of Hunter and James. They have a big sign with a picture of the rendering.

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By transit rider (anonymous) | Posted April 30, 2007 at 15:31:58

We don't need a new city hall, we need a new city council!

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By trey (registered) | Posted May 02, 2007 at 09:52:55

read this Et Tu, Brutalism?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 03, 2007 at 12:22:21

Thanks for the link to that article, Trey. I hadn't seen it before. I wasn't sad to see the AGH 'redone', but I hope they can keep they're hands off Hamilton Place. It's unfortunate the way it turns its back on Main, but it is built very much on a human scale. I find concrete to be a very warm, human material with a sculptural, 'handmade' quality to it. And of course the acoustics are second to none. I'd hate to see it all slicked up with steel and glass. And yeah, I like Robarts too. Spent many an hour haunting the stacks in "Fort Book". The Thomas Fisher is a beautiful space. Like Hamilton Place, it is a good example of Brutalism's warmer, human side.

That's very unfortunate about the old Health Department building. I haven't seen the renderings, but it sounds tragic.

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By Bumpy Ride (anonymous) | Posted May 10, 2007 at 20:15:05

And at the same time our new mayor is angling to knock city hall down in favour of a new something deemed architecturally significant. Maybe like the new city hall in Toronto, which helped that city advance form its "Toronto the good" heritage into a new travel destination. But then, they didn't knock down the old city hall either. It's still a courthouse and popular spot for movie shoots.

Okay, we're not TO, and we could stand to make an architectural statment to herald the new Hammer. But the old hall ain't so bad as far as that goes. I was around when it opened and recall how the council chambers were positioned out front, floating above the surrounding plaza as a symbol of access and openness to the citizens, who could be addressed directly by their representatives from a balcony. Pity that message was appreciated more by the citizens than our elected reps, but a valuable statement nonetheless.

And the surrounding plaza has turned out to be quite an attractive collection of open and surprisingly delightful small spaces, if you include the gaps around the Football Hall of Fame, the McQueston gardens, the Family courthouse and the injured workers memorial. Only the back parkinglot and garage seem cramped and utilitarian.

But wait, that garage was originally built as the foundation for a future expansion of city hall. Why not renovate the existing building and expand where intended. Maybe not expand with another mid-century modernist building, but with something more up to date and architecturally significant, bridging along a covered walk to the newly renovated old city hall. Today's architecture seems to be more frivolous and fun, making use of the structural qualities of new materials to bring surprising delight to the eye.

I'm thinking here of something like the Pencil Box addition to OCAD in Toronto. Wouldn't that be a kick, to see somthing like that floating behind the old CH, with a second major entrance facing Hunter St. and a short stroll to the GO station further east.

Not exactly that, of course, but something like it. Something like, well, that's what architects are for, but my question is, why do we have to throw away something significantly old in order to accomplish something significantly new?

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