Thu, Mar 31, 2011
Your corner trim is too wide. Please play again.
For many homeowners, spring time is renovation time. But if you live in the downtown area—in a ‘heritage’ designated area—working on your property isn’t always enjoyable. Building regulations for the heritage area, which determine what you can and can’t do to your house, can be difficult, convoluted, and creatively stifling.
Recently, a friend recounted to me her experience of building in a ‘Heritage 3’ area. Her vision for her property was for a modern saltbox. She found that the contemporary detailing she wanted wasn’t allowed, and instead the city requires certain window types, trim widths, and eave placement, all specified with particular dimensions and colours. No casement windows, no cove style siding, no architectural panelling, no face-nailed members, no awning windows, and on and on. The guidelines for house constructions are incredibly specific in dimensions also. Listening to her, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why does it have to look like this? And where do all these details come from, anyways?
Enforcing certain architectural features to keep things looking historic is a questionable practice. How do you choose what era of the past defines future architecture? How do you pinpoint a window of time and decide that we will collectively remake our city in this fashion? There’s no doubt that our historians have identified many important historical buildings and houses and, for residential buildings in heritage areas, the St. John’s Victorian townhouse seems to be the city’s vision. But what if we looked at other times in the city’s history to use as an homage to the past?
If the city chose the 1700’s as their hallmark heritage era, we’d all be maintaining rough, unpainted spruce sheds. It would be pretty silly if, in the name of historical continuity, we weren’t allowed to paint our houses. It seems equally silly to me that a city inspector is paid to make sure your corner trim is exactly six inches wide and not a fraction more.
The fact is, heritage regulations can’t possibly outline a perfect historical house. The idea of reproducing a Victorian past is there, but this architecture we enforce is affected by the construction industry, the National Building Code and, of course, availability of supplies. It’s as much a product of our time as it is a revival. It’s a compromise, made up of 1890s window and trim styles, bright 20th century paint colors, synthetic building materials and contemporary building proportions. New heritage style buildings would probably look pretty alien if placed back in the time they are supposed to be from.
With the start of this new construction season, I expect to see more of the gaps in the downtown streetscapes seamlessly filled in with clapboard and trim. This can be a good thing, as it further establishes the present look of our city, but these heritage regulations can be really limiting for creative home owners, and it’s hard to understand the rationale behind some of the very strict and seemingly arbitrary rules. Is it a hidden truth that the Heritage Advisory Board is more like an arbiter of taste than a guardian of heritage? It might be more honest to refer to it as the ‘present architectural zeitgeist’ of St. John’s, rather than its ‘architectural heritage.’ After all, it’s not entirely historically accurate. It’s hard for people not to ask why things are the way they are, especially when they own their property and they are paying their bills.
Tue, Mar 1, 2011
What’s the connection between Bond villains and Modernist architecture?
Out on the Red Cliff path near the end of the trail, one can see all the way down to Logy Bay, where the Marine Lab is. And from this vantage point, you can get a great view of this really interesting modern building. The thought has occurred to me before that the Marine Lab (also known as the Ocean Sciences Centre) looks like it could be the home-base of some kind of eccentric super-villain.
I wonder about this apparent connection between Modernism and villainy that I have subconsciously made. Modernism and its philosophy is often criticised by New Urbanists and contemporary architecture critics. They consider the buildings to be culturally sterile. Void of identity.
Super-villains, on the other hand—who generally seem to have the most impeccable taste in architecture and design—appear to be great fans of Modernism. The Modernist dwellings of Bond villains are a case-in-point. Maybe it was just the era in which the films emerged that made for such great architecture, but there was something about the huge scale, stylishness, and sheer improbability of the cold-war-era villain dwelling that propelled it to archetypal status. Many of these set designs were heavily inspired by prominent Modernist architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van de Rohe and Walter Gropius. Some exemplary pieces of Modernist architecture were even used as sets, like the Elrod House by John Lautner. The villian’s lair always had most exquisite materials: marble, exotic hardwoods, precious metals. It would be nestled into a mountainside or other spectacular location with panoramic glass walls, vast open rooms with spaces divided by sculptural ceilings and in-floor water features.
Film and architecture critics have noted before now that the Bond villain and the Modernist architect are, in many ways, one in the same. Radical schemes to change the world for an indeterminable good or bad have been common themes amongst architects. Modernists like Le Corbusier dreamt of eradicating the existing chaos of our planet – having a clean slate upon which to build an idealized, rationalized utopian world. Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) himself was the perfect template for Ian Fleming’s villains. He gave himself a new name, he ruthlessly castigated his adversaries, and he had a mission that sounded eerily like world domination.
While Modernist architects probably weren’t seeking actual global domination, the result of their work did produce a kind of global style. The work of famous Modernist architects like Mies Van de Rohe was defined partially by a desire to transcend regional and national identity, and to speak the material language of international business and politics. This philosophy translated into buildings that rejected local characteristics, but celebrated the essence of materials and structural functions. The absence of any contextualizing feature makes it such that the building belongs nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Even though frequently seen as outsiders—especially in places like Newfoundland—Modernist buildings can be picked up and placed in any location and still make sense.
In fact, recently I learned that the Arts and Culture Centre in Grand Falls Windsor started its life as the Czech Pavilion at the ‘67 expo in Montreal. The building, designed by Czech architects Repa and Pycha, was purchased from the Czechoslovakian government by Smallwood in 1967 for 230,000 Czech crowns. The pavilion was actually brought over in pieces and reassembled in Grand Falls. This was easy, as it was a prefabricated modular building, designed specifically for assembly and reassembly. It houses a 400-seat theatre, an art gallery and a public library. It’s a truly fascinating building and I was surprised that its story is not as celebrated as it could be.
I wonder what this relationship between high Modernism and villainy says about Modernism in reality. Is there perhaps a Bond-villain effect that taints our perception of Modernist design? Examples of Modernism in Newfoundland are sparse, and our collective definition of important historical architecture is selective and excludes the instances of great Modernist buildings that we do have. Even though these buildings might be a part of something bigger, something other than our regional architectural identity, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t fit in somehow and be a rich cultural contribution that makes this island interesting.
Fri, Feb 4, 2011
We’re creative enough to avoid franchise businesses, says Taryn Sheppard.
A new proposal was recently submitted to the city for a two-restaurant building next to The Keg on the waterfront. The developers are attempting to get franchise licenses for the new restaurants and there is a possibility for one to be a local business, failing acquisition of the franchise license.
Boston Pizza, The Keg, Montana’s, Don Cherry’s—we’ve seen these hugely popular franchise restaurants pop up all around the city, offering a generally reliable product. Indeed, I’m sure there are a lot of people who would be happy to see two more sit-down chain restaurants gracing the waterfront with their semi-glamorous presence, especially the people fed up with waiting an hour for a table at The Keg. In the future, they might be able to hop down the street to Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Hooters, or whatever chain is targeted for this new development.
Myself, I am generally grossed out by this idea, for aesthetic reasons, and out of concern for the local economy. One reader’s comment at The Telegram brought up another aspect of chain restaurants that hadn’t occurred to me before: This reader’s point was that, given the franchises’ tight control over the menus and even the ingredients, the creative expression of the chef is greatly diminished, maybe even to the point of being non-existent. The comment went on to say that there are a number of extremely talented chefs in our city, and they need venues to work in, free of creative limitations. Franchise menus are like paint-by-numbers—you might end up with a recognizable painting, but a large amount of the effort and creativity needed to produce the painting was negated. It could have been painted by a robot.
When it comes to the buildings these franchises occupy, it’s a similar situation. Franchise owners usually need an architect to help them build their restaurant, but only for technical matters. There are almost always strict guidelines and company standards to align with. Much like the chef, the local architect will only be assembling the imported, predetermined ingredients. In practice, these jobs are just known as ‘bread and butter.’ The preliminary rendering put forth by developers for this proposal is at first glance conservative and non-controversial, generic and adaptable. But, no doubt once the chain restaurant is built, every aspect will be identifiable as Global Brand X, down to the last wall sconce.
Have local businesspeople not proven their ability to produce successful, thriving and busy mid-to-high end restaurants? Moreover, haven’t they proven their concern for local architectural distinction? If the answer is yes, then why is such a prominent location being given over to development that would make our waterfront indistinguishable—taste-wise, and building-wise—from, say, Niagara Falls? Sure, if we didn’t have the creative capacity in our local population to come up with a great restaurant, then I could understand, but that’s certainly not the case. Let’s not underestimate the ability of local restauranteurs and local designers.
Mon, Nov 22, 2010
The last couple of months I’ve been looking for an apartment to rent in St. John’s, and I found there’s really very little for rent in the city. So I started to consider the available options which include either renting a condo downtown for upwards of 2000 dollars a month (?!), or living in a basement apartment somewhere far away from work and getting a car. Neither of these seemed very appealing to me, and I bet there are a lot of people in a similar situation. In fact I know there are, just from the amount of ‘apartment wanted’ ads in local media like Kijiji. To the chagrin of would-be downtown renters, it looks like the place to live in St. John’s right now is the suburbs.
The suburbs are no longer housing-only areas, where inhabitants commute to and from the downtown core every day. They are transforming to become small, self-contained satellite cities on the edge of a larger city. There’s a school, a salon, a family-friendly restaurant, a sports bar, and maybe even the office building in which you work. In theory, you never really have to leave your neighbourhood. Many suburbs around St. John’s are starting to look like this, or already do. And it’s attractive for many people who find living downtown just too noisy, congested, crime-ridden, and expensive in comparison.
On the other hand, we all know the negative effects of suburban sprawl. The obliteration of our forests, property tax hikes for everyone, and generic architecture. The American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion, have both stated that there is a significant connection between sprawl, obesity, and hypertension.
But my biggest beef is that there’s nowhere to go, besides the Costco parking lot, to be around people in a public space. There’s no place to hang out that isn’t centered around buying stuff.
One might say a suburban lifestyle is more individualistic, if you compare it to living in an apartment building where many of the domestic services are shared. Things like laundry, garbage collection and recycling, parking, heat and hot water, a gym. I once lived in a building that had three parking spaces reserved for a car-share service, which was outrageously convenient and economical. The services become part of a ‘public life,’ and you become a part of public life. The sacrifice you make is the abundance of privacy and space.
Why should we worry about this now? Our city is growing—and needs to be growing in a more thoughtful manner. Last year our population grew by 0.5 per cent, the largest increase since 1983. And by the end of 2010, another increase of 0.5 per cent is expected, translating into several thousand people migrating to Newfoundland. New housing ‘starts’ are expected to increase 1.5 per cent, to 3102 houses, and almost two thirds of these new houses are located in St. John’s. At the same time, rental vacancy rates in St. John’s are at an historic low of 0.9 per cent, and there is little or no development of new rental spaces.
Limiting subdivision development might not be a bad idea. It would help preserve the natural areas we still have on the Avalon, and I believe it would be in our collective social and economic best interests. While some Canadian municipalities have successfully adopted ‘urban growth boundaries’ to limit the sprawl, there would naturally be debate about how much of a role our governments should have in determining whether we choose to live a communal lifestyle in the core of the city, or in an unattached house in the quiet suburbs.
The bigger question, perhaps, is how can we stop developers from making irresponsible subdivisions? How can we ensure new developments reflect Newfoundland culture through architecture? And, as a city, how much do we prioritize public space, places where you can go to be with people? Flattening a forest to make a clean slate for a subdivision is easy. The alternative—working on already developed areas—requires designers, planners, impact studies, a lot of time and a lot of careful consideration.
But it might just be worth it.
Fri, Aug 6, 2010
I spend a large amount of time off the island, so I‘m frequently homesick for St. John’s. But recently, I’ve found a way to remedy this: Google Earth Street View tourism. I can take a fractured, low-resolution stroll through the streets of downtown, check out the harbour, and look around at all my favorite places. There’s a kind of poetic beauty to those images, warped by the inverted-ﬁshbowl lens of the Google car camera. They’re actually somewhat analogous to my memory of the city, as reconstructed by the lens of my own mind’s eye; distorted and blurred, exaggerated and pieced together.
While it’s amazing to see the full city in a navigable 3-D model, the Google Street View experience highlights the shortcomings of the medium itself—its inability to express the richness of the architectural character of St. John’s that I know so well. I can’t help but think about all the things behind the facades along the streets, and how they are far more complex, and way less regular, than what Street View is showing me. If I had to show this to a friend who was not from the city, I wouldn’t think it to be a sufﬁciently descriptive tool. Which makes me wonder what it would be like to construct a Google Earth St. John’s from my memory. What would be included? What would be forgotten about? Are there vast spaces of nothingness between all the memorable buildings? Perhaps the roads are more narrow, the hills are much steeper, and Signal Hill is much higher. Maybe the stone peak of the Anglican Cathedral is sharper and the sky between the narrows is a vivid, electric purple miasma. Maybe MUN is a massive, bleak concrete terrain with a knotted circuitry of tunnels weaving through the ground like incandescent worms, and the Battery is a pixelated wall of psychedelic color sparkling in the sun. These are the deﬁnitive architectural moments of our city, as unique as the memories and imaginations of each individual citizen, yet somehow still holding a common thread for all of us.
It can be said that our emotional experiences frame our memory of space, but there are other external factors inﬂuencing our memory of space, too. Take for instance the tourism industry, and its model of our city as a quaint, quirky seaside town, buoyed by imagery of articulated Victorian row houses and bed linens in the wind. This idea has been digested by us and then regurgitated into new buildings like the Stella Burry Housing Centre at Rawlins Cross, or all around the city in the reﬁnishing of 50’s era suburban-style housing with heritage-color vinyl siding.
Is the present wave of new heritage-style buildings a reﬂection of a real tradition, or a revival of only one moment in the city’s long history of architecture that includes such movements as modernism, brutalism, neo-gothic, post-modernism, critical regionalism, and art deco, amongst others? Are we generating an architectural mythology of our city? Is that bad? As there is an accelerated pace of development in the city right now, it is essential for the public to engage in the discussion of the architectural character of the city, so that we may help direct those things—meetings, agendas, and decisions—that often seem beyond the public inﬂuence. It is important to consider what shapes your idea of the architectural identity of our city.
There is an urgency in this changing city to create an alertness to the possibility and potential of design that is present here. This new column will be a venue for investigations into issues surrounding the growing design culture and practice in St. John’s.
Talk to you again soon.