Viewpoint (September 01, 2008)

While it does not face the threat of imminent demolition, in Fort Langley, British Columbia, the battle continues to preserve a historic fort that was established as a small trading post, which eventually led to the creation of British Columbia. Fort Langley is an officially designated heritage site, one of 7,200 in Canada. Often requiring complex maintenance and expensive upkeep, these heritage properties are in constant danger of being demolished. Both the UK and the US have effective broad-based programs for preserving built heritage properties through tax-incentive programs for developers or communities who choose to preserve these properties. Canada lacks such programs. However, Conservative MP Mark Warwara, whose riding encompasses Fort Langley, is attempting to develop Canada’s own National Heritage Trust, a mechanism to facilitate the raising of capital to restore or maintain endangered heritage properties.

Until recently, Canada had a financial incentive program designed to safeguard heritage properties from the wrecking ball. Established in 2003 with a $30-million cash injection, the Canadian Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund once offered money for revitalizing buildings, which helped to preserve 52 buildings in nine provinces. Killed by the current government, it remains to be seen whether Warwara can convince his party to restart the program or morph it into a new national trust. Canada has lost 20 percent of its pre-1920 buildings over the past 30 years, but nothing compares to the transformation of Beijing where the costs associated with erasing cultural history are strikingly apparent.

For the sake of presenting China as a progressive nation, several beautiful and iconic examples of contemporary architecture resulted from the 2008 Beijing Olympics: Herzog & de Meuron’s National Stadium, PTW Architects’ National Aquatic Centre and Studio Pei-Zhu’s Digital Beijing, to name a few. The gargantuan efforts to create the Olympics have caused considerable destruction to China’s heritage. Two recently published books, The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer and Thomas J. Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon discuss the issue of heritage and its destruction in the name of progress.

China is a country that excels in destroying its national heritage, performing a ritualized cleansing of its own culture at least twice in the last 60 years–in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Living as the only Westerner in a Beijing hutong–the rapidly disappearing traditional lanes of linked courtyard houses–Meyer witnessed and documented the daily demolition of these characterful buildings, from which residents and businesses were being evicted, often with only a few weeks’ notice. Neglected by the state for decades and lacking adequate plumbing or heat, the conditions of these hutongs worsened, eventually leading to their destruction.

For Campanella, the story is less nostalgic. Surging economic growth has created a construction boom unlike anything the planet has ever seen. China is demolishing buildings by the billions of square feet every year, many of which hold tremendous cultural or heritage value. Sprawling into the Chinese landscape, gigantic Western-inspired housing developments and high-rises are being built alongside superhighways studded with big-box retail outlets like Ikea and Wal-Mart.

It is unfair to compare the rate at which Canada and China erode their heritage inventory, but it is useful to look at extreme examples to reinforce one’s value system at home. Similarly, most of us will never earn a gold medal at the Olympics, yet watching athletes compete in China inspires us to renew our interest in sports. Observing China’s drive for progress–at great social and cultural cost to its people–drives home the importance of recognizing and preserving the value of heritage as our link to the past.