What old buildings teach us about the value of architecture.

Author:Stephenson, John
Position:DESIGN-BUILD - Viewpoint essay

When you ask most people to identify a building that has impacted them, more often than not they will name an older heritage building. This is true no matter where you are. In Thunder Bay, they may point to the Whalen Building, the Tourist Pagoda or the Royal Edward Arms. In Toronto, they might point to Toronto City Hall, Queen's Park, or even the Toronto-Dominion Centre.

Why do heritage buildings capture our attention so?

I think there are many reasons. Often, the buildings that manage to survive through time are the ones we believe are significant and worthy of protection. They are usually the most impressive and timeless buildings within our communities.

Its also true that old buildings, because of their history, evoke a sense of the uniqueness of our community that resonates with us. Grand buildings of the past are time capsules in plain sight, reflecting the very particular ambitions of the people of that time for the future. In doing so, they connect us to the past through the stories they express.

Older buildings also speak to us about a time outside of our lived experience and reflect the history and traditions of an age we didn't live through. The buildings we live and work in today just are. Existing within our daily lives, they sometimes become invisible and often don't capture our attention in the same way.

What does this teach us about the value of today's architecture? What does it teach us about what we are going to communicate to future generations about who we are and what we valued as communities?

Every building reflects both the traditions of the time and the future aspirations of those that created it, even ordinary day-to-day buildings. The design of every building contains an architecture of the moment which, when viewed through the lens of the society of the future, tells a story of the past.

Newer buildings and contemporary architecture all have the potential to be the heritage architecture of the future. However, except for a very few projects, we seldom give consideration in their design to this important role, feeling limited by functional and cost constraints.

Oscar Wilde once said that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Contemporary buildings should be arranged and constructed with a fuller understanding of the value of the cultural role of architecture as the built expression of the present and future aspirations of their communities. We need to broaden...

To continue reading