Wednesday, September 08, 2004

"If building is butt-ugly, tear it down"

An interesting article from the New York Times, reprinted in the Star (at least the online version, anyway). Turns out Britain has three levels of heritage structures for preservation, and is looking to add a fourth category, Grade X, to "be attributed to buildings that deserve to be torn down."

Many of the Grade X designations were expected to go towards hastily-designed and -constructed buildings from the war reconstruction period, buildings that were designed in a different aesthetic and that now are pretty much considered, well, "butt-ugly".

Two thoughts come to my mind:

1) I'll bet a lot of North American (and GTA) construction would merit a Grade X...

2) Although it's an appealing idea at first read, the troubling aspect is that Grade X seems to be defined primarily aesthetically — based on a subjective view. While I think it is fairly safe to agree that "in every town there are three or four buildings that are universally disliked," the fact that the buildings even exist is some sort of indication that aesthetic taste in architecture goes through cycles. For example, many American cities have recently demolished stadiums built just 20 to 40 years ago in the era of utilitarian, cookie-cutter stadium design — yet when they were constructed, those stadiums must have been considered examples of attractive design or at least must have been felt to have some aesthetic merit.

Closer to home, let's consider our very own SkyDome, built in the late 80's. When it opened in 1989, it was totally cool, modern, attractive, a striking addition to Toronto's skyline — and now it's considered a bit of a white elephant, a substandard venue for most sports and entertainment productions (aside from perhaps the climate control for winter events), and I dare say many would consider it to be ugly. Likely these will worsen over the years as the facility ages. Assuming Toronto had the "Grade X" system, would the SkyDome fall under that category? Or would design features such as the domed roof, and historical significance (e.g. the Blue Jays' second World Series win) render it a structure worth saving?

John Sewell's 1994 book, The Shape of the City, offers the opposite perspective: what was generally considered not worth saving (in Toronto and in North America in general) back in the 1960's and 1970's — streetcars, old downtown neighbourhoods like Cabbagetown, major downtown landmarks like Old City Hall and Union Station — have come full circle and today are a major part of what makes Toronto great. Will the 1960's-70's urban and architectural aesthetic similarly come around in another 50 years or so, only for its major examples to have been obliterated as "Grade X" structures?

I guess I'm taking this a bit too far — for example, I'm sure it would be safe to say that the Regent Park redevelopment would be considered a good example of replacing a Grade X development, even on architectural and urban design merits alone and ignoring social issues. However, no matter which way you look at it, it does offer some interesting food for thought. One final quote from the article that struck me in particular (and substitute "Toronto" for "Asia"):

"Ferguson's proposal also offers food for thought to cities, above all in Asia, that are engaged in wild construction booms. The skyline of the future is being drawn now. So will skyscrapers heralded today deserve an X rating tomorrow? Will today's daring designs look dated tomorrow?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that you bring up Regent Park--because there's a perfect demonstration of the perils of "Grade X" judgment. I know more than a few architects and fellow travellers who'd violently disagree with the arbitrary Grade-Xing of the Peter Dickinson highrises--and to be honest, the recent Doors-Opening of RP has (inadvertently?) helped to "humanize" impressions of Regent Park, so that it's no longer so obviously the Fort Apache no-go zone it once might have seemed.

Ironically, this "Grade X" attitude backhandedly affirms a lot of of the obsolete prima donna architectural attitudes it's meant to rebuke--without properly accounting for the fact that architectural and urbanistic judgment is, in fact, quite fluid and subjective. (And don't forget what would have been at the top of many so-called experts' Grade X pile a few years ago: the World Trade Center...)

...Adam Sobolak

September 13, 2004 at 8:23 a.m.  
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UW 1A Planning

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