Architect offers a new take on preserving the old

By John Bentley Mays 
Special to The Globe and Mail, May 01 2014

To some degree or another, every right-thinking Torontonian is an architectural preservationist nowadays.

We revere our city’s Victorian and Edwardian fabric, and we circulate petitions when a splinter or brick of it is endangered. Public resistance routinely breaks out when a developer proposes the demolition of something city hall has dubbed a “heritage property.” Rather than replace a house or commercial building that’s outlived its usefulness, we tend to gut, remodel, re-purpose, and modernize its interior, shore up its antique exterior, then congratulate ourselves on having done our bit to save Toronto’s historic “character.”

We should be glad that developers have spared many sturdy buildings put up in the age of steam and gaslights, and found new careers for them as condominium stacks, office blocks and such. Old houses, and the streetscapes they generate, have also been beneficiaries of the benevolent attitudes toward the past that have taken root in Toronto during the past 50 years.

But few of these acts of conservation have demanded much more from local architects than a certain knack for taxidermy. Taxidermy, of course, is not the worst thing that can happen to an elderly building people want to rescue. Becoming a zombie is. At its least interesting, preservationism promotes the presence of the living dead among us – facades wrapped around completely disjunct interiors, or surviving only as random fragments or souvenirs recycled into contemporary structures, perfunctory nods to “history,” without weight or life. More…

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