Editorial: Building Tension

From left to right, host Paul Kennedy moderates a CBC Ideas panel with Julia Gersovitz, Elsa Lam, Brian MacKay-Lyons and Jean Carroon
From left to right, host Paul Kennedy moderates a CBC Ideas panel with Julia Gersovitz, Elsa Lam, Brian MacKay-Lyons and Jean Carroon

In the public imagination, heritage and contemporary architecture are at perpetual loggerheads. It’s a familiar battle: old versus new, preservationists versus bulldozers, Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses. And it’s seen in the title of a CBC Ideas panel that I participated in, recorded during the ICOMOS Canada conference in Halifax last May. The panel—”Building Tension: Preserving the Past and Constructing the Future”—implies an opposition of past versus future. Which one will win out?

As practitioners in the built environment know, things are rarely so straightforward. Buildings are complex, and so are their contexts: urban, economic, societal, and otherwise. Pure preservation is at times warranted, as is complete demolition of older structures. But more often than not, there are other options that merit consideration—solutions that include some elements of both the past and future.

These attitudes are exemplified in the work of the panelists on the Ideas panel. Jean Carroon, principal at Goody Clancy, is among America’s premier heritage architects. Among other projects, she’s known for her ongoing work at Boston’s Trinity Church. The multi-stage renewal has prioritized the conservation and restoration of H.H. Richardson’s masterwork. But in the process, it’s also underpinned the basement to create a suite of new gathering areas and classrooms, upgraded mechanical systems, added a geothermal heat exchange field, and integrated new life-safety solutions—renovations that ensure the churchÕs longevity and help it better serve present-day congregants.

Julia Gersovitz, FRAIC, principal of Montreal-based EVOQ (formerly FGMDA), started her career working on the Maison Alcan with ARCOP. Her work focused on preserving a set of historic buildings that were linked to a new aluminum-clad tower by a common atrium. The strategy marked a new approach to architectural heritage in Montreal. Currently, Gersovitz is working on the rehabilitation of Parliament Hill’s West Block—a complex project that includes inserting a contemporary, skylit interim House of Commons into the buildingÕs large central courtyard.

As a contemporary architect, Brian MacKay-Lyons, FRAIC retains many ties to the past. His houses embody the “critical regionalism” championed by architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, an approach that draws on a regional vernacular and reinterprets it in contemporary form. In McKay-Lyons’ work, this means looking to use local materials, siting strategies, and craft techniques. The resulting work has a timeless quality: it is very much of the present as well as being grounded in the past.

While Canada is a relatively young country, our stock of older buildings is increasingly coming up against contemporary realities of maintenance costs, societal changes, and development pressures. Each site has its own story. The broader our toolkit for dealing with older buildings, the greater the chance we will have for finding solutions, in each case, that accommodate both the heritage past and the changing future.

Listen to the CBC Ideas episode here.


As this issue goes to press, I am preparing to go on maternity leave. The magazine will be in good hands: Adele Weder, Hon. MRAIC will be taking my position as editor of Canadian Architect for the duration of my leave.

Weder has been a long-time contributor to Canadian Architect, and is the magazine’s regional correspondent representing Vancouver. Trained in journalism and architecture, her experience in the field goes back to being editor for Insite: Architecture + Design magazine. She has been a contributor to numerous publications including the Globe and Mail, Architectural Record, The Walrus, Canadian Art, and many more. Weder is the co-author of books on B.C. Binning, Selwyn Pullan, and Ron Thom. She has a forthcoming book on the Copp House with UBC Press and a monograph in the works on Ron Thom. She recently curated the exhibition Ron Thom and the Allied Arts, which toured venues across Canada.

Weder and I have been working closely to transition editorial responsibilities and processes, and she will be leading the magazine starting with the September issue.