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The only Canadian example the book is Will Alsop’s Sharp Centre for Design. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
The only Canadian example the book is Will Alsop’s Sharp Centre for Design. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Architect offers a new take on preserving the old Add to ...

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.”

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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.

When it comes to saving and renewing our architectural inheritance, Toronto can do better than this. How much better we can do is one thing I learned from the entertaining and engaging new book from Monacelli Press called Old Buildings, New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations.

The creation of Françoise Astorg Bollack, a preservation architect and educator based in New York City, this portfolio features 28 projects illustrating things that have happened when contemporary design imagination encountered and transfigured old buildings in (mostly) the United States and Europe. (There is one Canadian example here, British architect Will Alsop’s Sharp Centre for Design, in Toronto.)

By Ms. Bollack’s count, the architects who interest her have created five different kinds of new-old objects, each providing her with a chapter title and a framework for examples. They are: insertions, parasites (her word), wraps, juxtapositions and weavings. Each term is to be taken as a clear, literal description of a strategy developed to address a specific problem posed by an old building worth sparing.

Mr. Alsop’s Sharp Centre, for example – a parasite – had to fly high in order to preserve the views of Grange Park from nearby apartment windows, but it also (like a proper parasite) had to interact with the aesthetically pedestrian headquarters (1956, 1962) of the Ontario College of Art and Design University, its host organism. Hoisted aloft on giant toothpicks, connected to the main building below by a bright red chute, the Sharp pavilion celebrates both the collision of the old and new, and their institutional symbiosis.

That said, I wonder if the Will Alsop building might have been more comfortably situated in Ms. Bollack’s especially suggestive section devoted to juxtapositions. That’s where she has put examples that emphasize stark differences between old and new. “The projects in this chapter,” she explains, “relate to the original building they are expanding by standing aside [literally] and offering a contrast that enhances the older building.” They encourage artistic boldness when making additions – a character trait too often lacking in house expansions in Toronto.

The construction of Empty Nest (2002), a residential ensemble presented in this chapter, started with a simple, symmetrical, pitched-roofed and otherwise traditional house in a Boston suburb. The owners asked the Brooklyn architectural firm of Della Valle + Bernheimer to fashion an extension.

The office’s response is a tiny masterpiece, a house (as Ms. Bollack points out) that a child might draw, a diagram of houseness. The addition’s form is a radically simplified riff off the older dwelling, but is distinguished from it by the cladding of walls and pitched roof with zinc sheets. Several homely grace-notes connect it to the old house it’s attached to – the windows in the zinc walls are framed with warm wood, for example. “These small modifiers take the chill out of the diagram,” Ms. Bollack writes, “and add subtle domestic touches that give the building a fascinating poetic complexity.”

Unlike complex Empty Nest, the organization of this book is straightforward, plain. The text is uncomplicated – though reading the introduction will be eased by an acquaintance with modern and post-modern trends in the visual arts – and it is deeply felt. The author has a message about the architecture of new-meets-old that she passionately wants to share with us. It’s a message we should attend to, if only to learn about the new, expanded meanings that talented architects are currently giving to the old idea of preservation.

 

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