New Shoes for Batawa

TEXT Sheryl Boyle

An image is a powerful tool. Imagination is more powerful.

Originally founded in 1939 by the late Thomas J. Bata, the small Ontario town of Batawa lies just north of Trenton along Highway 401. Bata imagined creating a small community out of a piece of land along the Trent River that would support his family’s global shoe enterprise as it expanded into Canada.

Situated among maple and basswood trees, the town was populated and built with the hands of 100 bright young Bata engineering minds and their families from Holland and the former Czechoslovakia. All buildings were conceived and built by Bata, from the Bauhaus-inspired factory building to the village housing and the local ski hill. Surrounded by nature, the town was an idyllic location for work and play–and it prospered. In 1989 the factory employed nearly 2,000 people in shoemaking and other industries, but by 1999 it had closed. Batawa has since become a bedroom community for Toronto and other larger cities along the St. Lawrence.

Today, Thomas’s wife Sonja is once again tapping the potential of imagination to recreate Batawa. Challenging 26 Carleton University students to be “audacious” and yet attentive to the goals of creating a sustainable new Batawa built upon the old, Sonja served as client for the project. She brought the entire town around the discussion table to reinvent itself–including its factory, housing and ski hill, along with the events and businesses that define Batawa.

In a sense, it was history repeating itself: bright, young educated minds gathering in Batawa to reinvent a town. But this time, the tools for the visioning process had changed. After two weeks of working and camping in situ, a newly imagined Batawa was unveiled using leading-edge visualization techniques overseen by Dr. Stephen Fai, professor and director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio.

Merging traditional techniques of architectural drawing and modelling with high-resolution immersive environments, the students presented their hybrid representations of the town and factory to Sonja during a series of recently held events. Some students even presented full-scale constructions. The vertical stairwell of the factory served as a gallery of ideas culminating in the upper floor, where virtual models were projected onto fabric panels adjacent to actual views out of windows overlooking the town, as it exists today. At the end of the six-week-long project, light projections and fireworks were held during the annual Batawa summer solstice celebration. This reimagining of the town will continue at Carleton through the years to come, with the goal of Batawa becoming a model for how small towns can reimagine their future. CA

Sheryl Boyle is the acting director for the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University.