Editorial: Young Heritage

The City of Toronto's designation of recently completed projects as heritage properties helps the city identify and protect the cultural value of its built assets.

Craven Road Studio is the most recent contemporary architecture project designated as a heritage property by the City of Toronto. Photo by Bob Gundu

For many, the term “heritage” applies exclusively to older buildings. Most municipalities in Canada will only consider properties that are at least 40 years old for heritage designation. But the Ontario Heritage Act sees it differently, allowing for “potential and existing properties of cultural heritage value or interest,” regardless of their age, to be identified, designated, and protected from character-damaging changes.

The City of Toronto has long, if quietly, embraced the possibilities of the province’s open definition. Recently, it gave a heritage designation to Shim-Sutcliffe’s Craven Road House and Studio, buildings completed in 1996 and 2005 respectively. In 2004, it designated Taylor Hariri Pontarini’s McKinsey & Company Headquarters—only five years after its completion. Trillium Park, designed by West 8 and LANDinc and opened in 2017, was included when Ontario Place was added to the City’s Heritage Register in 2019.

In the case of the Craven Road property, the designation was instigated by owner Robert G. Hill, an architect at KPMB and the creator of the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950. The designation concludes that the house and studio hold cultural value based on the awards they have received, their association with both Robert G. Hill and Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, and their adept handling of urban context.

According to the city’s study, “the buildings are particularly remarkable for the innovation and high standards achieved on a restricted budget, demonstrating that great architecture can be cost-effective and also show leadership in addressing the needs of the ‘missing middle’ and the densification and improvement of city neighbourhoods.”

The designation allows Hill to apply for a Heritage Easement Agreement, which will protect the property’s façade and relationship to Craven Road from alterations, while maintaining the possibility for future interior renovations and for a rear expansion of the structures. The city’s study of Ontario Place was completed under higher-stakes conditions, as the provincial government opened a call for Expressions of Interest, inviting proposals by private sector operators for the development of the property. This put the future of Eberhard Zeidler’s iconic Pods and Cinesphere—and the pioneering landscape design by Michael Hough—at risk.

Although the property was already recognized by the Province of Ontario as a cultural heritage landscape of provincial significance, the Province had removed the property’s Statement of Cultural Value from its website, replacing it with information on the site’s proposed redevelopment. While the Ontario Heritage Act does not allow municipalities to designate provincially owned properties, by including it on the City’s Heritage Register, the City of Toronto has asserted its longstanding interest in the significance and future of Ontario Place.

Trillium Park was completed after the 2014 provincial heritage evaluation, on the site of a former staff parking lot. Including it in the City’s study affirms how contemporary design can be executed in a manner sensitive to the intentions of a cultural heritage property. “Trillium Park has high design value as an ecological urban park based upon principles of sustainability which are evident in its design to prevent flooding contributing to Toronto’s resiliency,” reads the Statement of Significance, in part. “The design is also valued as it contributes to the original purpose of Ontario Place, which was to be a showcase of the province, through its representation of typical Ontario geological landscape features, ravines, moraine bluffs, drumlins as well cultural heritage landscape features which acknowledge the long historic presence of Indigenous people through Moccasin Identifier carvings, marker trees, sassafras and other plants which had traditional use and a floating dock for arrival by canoe.”

The cases of both Craven Road and Trillium Park show that “heritage” is more than a mere word. When applied through municipal legislation, it’s a powerful tool that can help cities identify and protect the cultural value of their built assets. It’s a tool that significant places—both old and new—deserve to benefit from.