Editorial: The Revitalization of Heritage

In the summer of 2004, I curated a small exhibition at Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery that coincided with the 40th anniversary of its construction. Character and Controversy sought to tell a story about Saskatchewan’s modernist architecture and introduce the idea that these buildings could be appreciated for their heritage value. Now, more than a dozen years later, the understanding and reception of modern heritage is still an uphill struggle. However, as a conservation architect, I am hopeful for the future and see a younger generation looking at these buildings—even Brutalism—with fresh eyes, less baggage and sometimes even with a sketchbook in hand. There are also hopeful signs from two of our universities: Trent University has reached out to the conservation community to better understand and take care of Ron Thom’s masterpiece campus, and the University of Saskatchewan has created a heritage register for its Gothic-inspired campus–which includes buildings as late as 1987. All this provides some reassurance that the 1964 Mendel building, which has now been supplanted as the city’s flagship art gallery by the newly completed Remai Modern, will be treated respectfully as it takes on a new life as the Children’s Discovery museum.

heritage conservation, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon
The 1964 Mendel Art Gallery, a modernist masterpiece in Saskatoon. Photo courtesy of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections. By Henry Kalen.

What’s clear is that heritage conservation is expanding outside of its traditional confines.  I’ve recently had the pleasure of visiting several heritage-related projects in Ottawa, Toronto, Regina and Vancouver that illustrate this expansion of heritage thinking—from the copper roofing replacement on the dome of the Saskatchewan Legislative building, to the new home for my alma mater, the University of  Toronto’s architecture school (Canadian Architect, October 2017) to the transformation of the Brutalist 1960s National Arts Centre (CA, July 2017). As well, I’ve seen projects in Toronto and Vancouver that add significant, and sometimes startling, density to heritage sites, with huge contemporary additions  to modest heritage structures conjuring up the image of Godzilla attacking Bambi; let’s just call this “GaB,” for short.

One such “GaB” project is the QRC West development in Toronto. Designed by Sweeny & Co., it incorporates two historic brick warehouses and adds 13 storeys, supported on elegant delta-frames. This project does many things with integrity, such as separating the new addition from the historic building. While purists may be critical of the Godzilla architecture now looming over the modest century-old warehouses, this project illustrates how cities can densify without completely wiping away the historic streetscape. Here and elsewhere, the architects have created something quiet and elegant, though the now-ubiquitous giant glass box still leaves me yearning for a more sophisticated approach to thermal resistance and management of moisture and natural light. As Carl Elefante, conservation architect and incoming American Institute of Architects president has warned: Beware the false paradigm of the glass sustainable building. 

With conservation and sustainability issues growing in importance in the public mind, we can imagine a convergence of heritage and contemporary innovation. So architects of all genres should review the Standards & Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada and develop a design concept that is visually quiet, durable, reparable and technically efficient. And it doesn’t have to be boring: Godzilla needs a stylish new skin.