My favourite building in London has to be the Dominion Building. In a town with so much provincial architecture it is an Art Deco(I think) beauty. There are other examples in London of amazing buildings from various eras. But let us not fool ourselves London, even the Dominion building, London LIfe building, Cathedrals et cetera are copies. Copies of those same blueprints were sent across North America, many of them were rip offs of European buildings or knock offs of great American buildings. An example of what I’m getting at; compare the Adelaide St Baptist Church building to the Egerton St Baptist Church building, yup the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec had the same set of blueprints, with a few modifications, for all churches built in that era.
So when I hear of complaints about a building being knocked down, such as this one, I have to wonder why. That is the concrete block, throw it up quick, get the product moving building of the time. There are better examples of that cookie cutter 1900s building within a few dozen meters. Not to mention similar buildings in Old East Village, Cambridge, Hamilton, Toronto…well let’s face it all over North America. Build it out of scrap timber and throw a saloon sign up and it could be a New Mexico building built in the 1870s. It isn’t an unique example of architecture, nor was it built to a building standard that would last like the Pyramids of Giza.
The other site recently in the news is the Cedars, a nice house but again there is nothing unique about it architecturally. This one though should be saved for its history and its location. If the city was intelligent it would buy this place, renovate it to its original clubhouse setup and use it for educational, recreational and tourism purposes. That money would be better spent than the plan to buy productive farmland to convert into industrial wasteland.
By fighting to preserve every old building in the city we stretch scarce resources to thin to save or preserve our most important buildings. If all old buildings had to be kept the city would be even less inviting for new investors as it already is. All cities need renewal and that means preserving the best of the past and replacing the rest with new. London needs to protect its heritage as investment in its future, the knee jerk preserve or bulldoze everything extremes need to be brought to a middle way or London fails.
People have lived in this area in villages for at least a thousand years, with agriculture the prime means to sustain the villages. With cash crop prices high it would be foolish to destroy more farmland to sprawl the city outwards. The future, like the past, is more agricultural support and mixed development not the Mr Peas can’t touch Mr Potatoes approach of the last 70 or so years. As shown in the last blog post areas that are just commercial or industrial or residential are being left for the transit friendly mixed neighbourhoods.
Part of London and all of Ontario’s problem is the lack of public awareness of heritage and the associated sites. Researching this topic was difficult with few websites that explained the process of designating or what resources were available to owners. London’s website leads to more questions than answers, the list of sites is a PDF from eight years ago. Ontario’s website is little better with needed information buried in PDFs only found after multiple clicks, none of which gives you a picture of a site worth visiting. To find any information on resources available to owners I had to find a third party site. Even the Heritage Trust website is difficult to navigate.
London and Ontario could learn a lot from the United Kingdom which takes its heritage far more seriously. The National Trust is a charity that preserves natural and historic sites for future generations. Its website is easy to navigate and there is a searchable database of sites to visit and learn about. There sites make money from being in films or TV. English Heritage, a government agency, also protects sites and is given the resources to attract tourists and film/tv producers. Cadw has an interactive map to find places easily, while Historic Scotland has somewhat easy access for owners to get information.
Heritage isn’t just what is left to the current generations but what is built as a legacy for the future. London and Ontario has a lack of architectural diversity, to many steel and glass towers, to many cookie cutter concrete block buildings, to many houses designed to be ill suited for our climate, and to many developers putting profit before function or aesthetics. There are few buildings in London to separate it from any other city in North America, certainly nothing iconic on the horizon that says this is London Ontario. To many of London’s commercial properties and malls would not look out of place as cattle sheds.
Resources will be needed to protect London’s heritage and private owners of sites will need community and government help to preserve them. A start would be an interactive catalogue with a map to find them easily. Getting various groups to unite or at least to stop working against each other would also be useful. Ontario needs a version of the National Trust that combines natural and historic sites as part of a single heritage. Government and charity need to coordinate efforts to draw tourism and investors to these sites to have resources to protect them for the future.
Architectural innovation isn’t just for the great cities of the world, if Buffalo can be innovative why can’t London? Here is part of a documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo. London needs an iconic architect to launch their career here and an Octavian Hill to help preserve that new heritage. As for those old buildings that aren’t worth keeping, an archaeological survey and recording should be done before the bulldozers start.