Viewpoint (June 01, 2007)

This is the time of year when communities across Canada throw open their doors to the public, inviting architecture aficionados to celebrate an historic portico or visit a rarely seen wood-lined inner sanctum of some forgotten local captain of industry. In this celebration of local heritage–often a grab bag of world-class architecture and folksy local history–the program known as Doors Open has managed to capture the hearts of thousands of Canadians in a very short time. However, there can be a problem with celebrating the wrong kind of heritage for the wrong reason.

The Doors Open program has enabled the viewing of buildings of architectural and historical significance free of charge for a few days or over the course of a weekend, many of which are not normally accessible to the public. Originating in Glasgow in 1990 as Doors Open Days, the program quickly spread across Europe. By 1998, 19 million people had visited some 28,000 sites in 44 countries. Under the guidance of Heritage Toronto and the City’s Culture Division, Doors Open Toronto was launched in 2000–the first of its kind in North America. In 2002, 17 communities across Ontario organized their own Doors Open events, spawning a renaissance of interest in local architecture and history. By 2007, Doors Open Toronto had grown to include over 150 buildings, with 150,000 eager architecture buffs queuing up to view local favourites. Being aware of our built heritage allows all of us to realize that the Town Hall on Gore Street in Perth, Ontario is just as important as any Miesian tower in Toronto.

The incredible popularity of Doors Open has successfully tapped into the general public’s appreciation of the links between architecture and local history. Heritage buildings often represent a palimpsest for a local community, or a catalyst for change. While the ultimate success of Doors Open depends upon the enthusiasm of local volunteer organizations, building owners and municipalities, the Doors Open program deserves special mention in fostering debate on the merits of buildings that have formed and continue to form the backbone of even the smallest communities across the country.

Of course, the flip side to this auspicious celebration of mostly heritage buildings is that there are few incentives and scarce funding to finance renovations and preservation strategies for many heritage properties across the country. As Christopher Hume, the indefatigable architecture critic for the Toronto Star recently remarked, “The problem isn’t that Toronto tears down so many buildings, but that it tears down the wrong buildings.” This statement can be repeated in communities throughout Canada, and explains the reason why Toronto recently demolished the Inn on the Park by Peter Dickinson (to build a car dealership) and Walnut Hall, the last remaining row of authentic Georgian townhouses in the city that was levelled out of benign neglect.

Then there is the issue of peddling heritage, where legitimate histories or identities of communities are sold or destroyed for short-term real-estate gains. In Calgary, the south-of-the-tracks community known as the Beltline is an example of saccharine efforts at blind historicism attempting to redefine this neighbourhood’s identity through a particular brand of New Urbanism that, as evidenced by some recent developments, alludes to a red-brick vernacular lacking in any architectural rigour. The Beltline district is one of the city’s most historic–and includes two of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods as well as the city’s Stampede Grounds. But with the destruction of the 1911 Mount Royal Block which was replaced with a simulacra of heritage, or the presence of the Arriva, a 58-storey residential project sprouting from a Disneyesque podium of invented Calgary history complete with fake arches and applied pediments, the Beltline is becoming increasingly sanitized with a neo-historical character that would undoubtedly find difficulty appearing on any legitimate Doors Open Calgary itinerary. We must always be on guard to separate the good buildings from the bad, and continue to celebrate the authentic aspects of our architectural heritage.