Many of you reading this have a favourite sweater that is older than the topic of this column. Or still drive a car from the early-1990s or mid-2000s. Some of you will shake your heads and say: “That’s when my grandchildren were born!”
While I know he doesn’t drive and I’m unsure about the grandchild situation, it’s likely architect and historian Robert Hill has a sweater tucked away that predates his 1996 home as well. But, if all goes according to plan and the City of Toronto approves the 75-page “Notice of Intention to Designate” report next month, Mr. Hill’s Craven Road residence (1993-96) and studio (2004-06), both designed by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects – will wear the full cloak of heritage protection.
“We think of buildings as firm, ensuring and durable but in reality they are very vulnerable,” Ms. Shim writes in an e-mail. “We are very pleased that Robert Hill has initiated the heritage designation of his own home.”
But before arms are throw up with declarations that “heritage” has lost all of its meaning, or accusations are bandied about that Mr. Hill must be on a vainglorious quest for immortality or looking to gain recognition for his friends, consider this: since 1979, Mr. Hill has been selflessly researching the careers of every architect practicing in Canada from 1800 to 1950; in 2009, this indispensable archive was shared with the world as the online Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada (dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org).
And Brigitte Shim and A. Howard Sutcliffe, who hung their shingle in 1994 after working for legends such as Arthur Erickson (Ms. Shim) or Ron Thom (Mr. Sutcliffe), are running out of places to store their awards, which include 15 Governor General’s Awards and Medals and an American Institute of Architects National Honor Award, among others. As the City of Toronto report states, “it’s difficult to overstate the significance of the contribution” of Shim-Sutcliffe to Canadian architecture.
So there’s that.
There’s also this: In the 1980s, twenty- and thirty-somethings began to advocate for the preservation of architecture from the 1950s and 60s. In 1987, for instance, Ms. Shim (born 1958) was part of a group that mounted an exhibition (with an accompanying catalogue) titled Toronto Modern Architecture 1945-65, after watching, in disgust, the elegant, glassy and iconic Shell/Bulova Tower fall in 1985 to make way for the Molson Indy. By 2005, with that groundwork established, folks such as myself (born 1968) were attending conferences such as “Conserving the Modern in Canada” at Trent University. So, to architecture aficionados born in the 1980s or 1990s, their “unobtainium” – a time that exists only in murky early memories – are in fact the 80s and 90s, and only through an examination of the photographs, texts and bricks-and-mortar architecture of those decades can they truly understand it.
Of course Mr. Hill wasn’t thinking of this in 1993 when he purchased a vacant 25-foot-by-93-foot lot for $65,000. Or when he challenged his colleague, Mr. Sutcliffe (both men were working at KPMB at the time) and Ms. Shim (Mr. Sutcliffe’s wife) to create something with the meagre $100,000 construction budget he could provide. And while he knew of their combined talent, he didn’t know they’d become international superstars.
“Brigitte and Howard were just opening their little office on Adelaide Street West, and they had one job at the time, and it was a bathroom renovation for [real estate developer and art collector] Murry Frum,” Mr. Hill says, laughing at the memory.
Of course by 2004, when Mr. Hill had saved up enough to purchase a portion of his south neighbour’s lot for an independent studio building, he knew he’d receive a world-class building. But when did he get the idea to turn both into heritage buildings? It was, he says, a “change in policy” at the city that gave him the idea.
“They’re now open-minded enough to allow considering of contemporary – not just midcentury modernism from the fifties – they’re now interested in looking at modern, contemporary buildings that were done in the last couple of decades … and if they are done with enough care and attention they would be willing to list them.”
As we sit in Mr. Hill’s studio, surrounded by thick architectural volumes from the 1800s and awash in soft daylight from the light scoops above our heads – the architects created deeper scoops to the north and shallow scoops with concentrated fins to filter the harsh south light – I can see that “care and attention” with my own eyes.
Reading through the 75-page report, it’s clear the authors could sense it as well. They write of Shim-Sutcliffe’s “attention to landscape, materials, structure, craft, space and light” and make comparisons to the Italian master Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978), and that Finnish colossus, Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). They discuss how Mr. Hill’s programmatic requirements were met via a loft-like second floor office-library with 12-foot ceilings and a more intimate ground floor where a 7 1/2-foot ceiling shelters a kitchen, dining room and bedroom, and how wood construction and polished concrete floors kept costs down without sacrificing tactility or beauty. The authors note the building’s recessed entry and compare it to the work of H.H. Richardson, whose work inspired Toronto’s Old City Hall and the Ontario Legislature Building.
Most importantly, the city report fulfills all three requirements for heritage designation: Design or Physical Value, Historical or Associative Value, and Contextual Value (while too much to get into here, the full report is available online).
“Robert Hill has created an important urban ensemble in the heart of Toronto demonstrating that design is important and with limited resources you can make buildings that really matter,” Ms. Shim says.
And it really doesn’t matter if those buildings are from the 1890s or 1990s.
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