Gudrun Will sees past a heritage false front
The last skinny vestige of the 1928 BC Electric Showroom rises three stories at the corner of Dunsmuir and Granville, a braced wall punctuated by Italianate ornamentation. Its carved-stone cornice, spandrels and the grand, brass-framed windows are pinned, bolted and clamped; they look as if they’ve undergone complicated surgery. And so they have: a façadectomy. This forlorn corner remnant with its peacock friezes was shorn from the body of one of the city’s most elegant commercial heritage buildings, and will soon be attached to a contemporary live/work tower called The Hudson.
Other examples of this scene are playing out across the city—thin shells of what were once three-dimensional heritage buildings, propped up by hefty steel I-beams angling up from the sidewalk. In most cases, only one wall or corner segment remains, facing the public thoroughfare, its fancy details intact while the rest of the structure has been gutted. The gaping emptiness behind these old façades sometimes lasts for months; and the destiny of most sites is to be filled in by new structures that bear little relation, in style or scale, to their pasted-on frontage.
This “heritage” trend seems to be sweeping through Greater
Vancouver, showing up not only in historic parts of the downtown but also
on high-traffic arterials such as Granville Street or Lonsdale Avenue. And
while façadism isn’t new—think the Scotiabank Dance Centre
at Davie and Granville, or a particularly garish residential tower mushrooming
out of the former Tudor Manor on Beach Avenue—the frequency with which
the substance of this city’s heritage stock is disappearing is beginning
to open eyes.
Certainly, there’s been no real public discussion around this trend. This could change with the visibility of developments now happening in high-profile locations. Besides the former BC Electric Showroom, there’s an unabashed façade at Granville and 15th Avenue, where the 1911 Shaughnessy Mansions have been scooped out for condos; and at the base of Lonsdale Avenue, where the 1910 Edwardian-commercial Aberdeen Block has been cored for retail space and lofts. It seems that developers are leaping on the bandwagon to benefit from the antique appeal of those frontages, and the financial perks of keeping them, while in no way investing in, or maintaining a true link to, the past.
Incidentally, the buildings being reduced to façades are invariably listed on the heritage register, a compilation of the city’s (supposedly) most valuable historic structures.
If Vancouver regularly chooses to treat its heritage stock in this way, there will soon be few credible historic buildings left. And since heritage is a non-renewable resource, this could become a major problem for current and future generations. Especially troubling is the fact that, looked at from the perspective of international standards, façadism is not up to snuff in conservation circles. It’s not even up to snuff in cultural-tourism circles. If Vancouver hopes to truly preserve any of its early history—recognizing its value even though it’s only century-and-a-bit old—we’d better make sure that we collectively take stock of what’s happening.
The question is this: Do we want to become a city full of heritage tokens with little meaning, or do we want to cherish what came before for cultural, educational, and long-term economic reasons? No one is saying that we have to love the narrow colonial mindset that came along with these often-striking structures (after all, the culture that built them all but obliterated Native culture). Reducing our urban history to decorative façades, however, is nothing but a contemporary kind of narrow-mindedness.
* * *
I encountered my first freestanding heritage façade about three years ago. My partner and I were ambling away from an outdoor jazz-fest concert in Gassy Jack square, and Water Street had been blocked off to car traffic. As we sauntered down the middle of the street, we gained a better perspective than usual of the turn-of-the-last-century streetscape. I noticed light incongruously streaming through the bay windows of the Terminus Hotel, and the big beams holding up the frontage. It was the first time I’d consciously seen such a thing, and it struck me as wrong—although I later found out that fire had caused the damage. I remember thinking: What a perfect symbol of this town’s general negligence towards heritage.
Inspired by that sight, my partner took a photo of the next major example of façadism we encountered—the BC Electric Showroom—and turned it into a cheeky contribution to the 2003 Georgia Straight “Best of Vancouver” issue. It ran with the caption “Best excuse for heritage preservation.” More recently, an image of façadism turned up in the May 9 edition of The Vancouver Courier. Staff photographer Dan Toulgoet’s snap of the isolated Granville & 15th Shaughnessy Mansions frontage ran as, essentially, a standalone photo. It was accompanied by some slapdash text about the developer’s intentions, but there was no story.
So what about the real story? A bit of it played out five years ago around the controversial redevelopment of the 1929 Bank of Nova Scotia branch at Granville and Davie—an Art Deco “temple bank” designed by prominent early architects Sharp and Thompson—into the Scotiabank Dance Centre. The pros and cons show up in a 1999 document titled “Heritage Issues Raised by Dance Centre Proposal” on the City of Vancouver website. It was a particularly interesting case, because not only was the bank interior one of the city’s most intact vintage spaces—down to the cage elevator, furniture, clock, and upstairs mahogany panelling—but the new building was to benefit a needy and deserving group, the city’s dance community. On top of that, no less than Arthur Erickson was designing the new structure.
Financial considerations won out; only the Granville Street frontage was saved, the interior treasures disappeared, and the dance community got a functionally elegant, seven-storey stack of studios and offices. On today’s Granville Street, the remaining two-storey façade looks rather blocky and gray, its subtle ornamentation overshadowed by the whitish wave of glass rising above it. In this case, the cultural value of the dance centre may have helped to balance the cultural loss of the historic building (although alternate locations for the dance centre were on the table, and in an ideal world, one cultural interest shouldn’t have to win out over another). But it is curious that no significant discussion about façadism emerged as a result.
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“It’s an absolute disaster,” says local heritage consultant Donald Luxton about the city-wide façadism trend. “This is taxidermy, this is not heritage conservation. It’s just, literally, a show—putting a face on something. Someone else called it ‘putting the parsley on the developer’s plate.’ It indicates to me that there’s an inadequate heritage response to the very hot development cycle going on right now. Everything is getting crunched by this massive wave of development that is quite unprecedented. I mean, we haven’t seen anything like this since about 1912.”
Luxton is a staunch heritage advocate who nevertheless sees issues from both sides in his line of work. He spoke about the situation in his office, located in the intact 1911 Rogers Block at Granville and Pender. Having worked on near-façadism projects such as the Wosk Centre for Dialogue, another former temple bank, he understands the social and economic pressures at work. But his feelings also reflect his expertise in, and love for, the province’s early architecture, knowledge that was formulated into last year’s award-winning book, Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia.
Since the city is clearly green-lighting one façadism project after another, I had to ask: How and why is this happening? It turns out the answer has much to do with economic and development realities unique to Vancouver. According to Luxton, major factors are extremely high land values; huge development pressures; seismic and building codes; time-consuming city processes; rising construction costs; and the need for underground parking in new residential developments. Not that these are, in any way, valid excuses.
One of the most surprising victims of this current wave is Shaughnessy Mansions. It’s a watershed because, from a conservation perspective, the two apartment buildings seemed to have everything going for them. Besides being on the city’s heritage register, the handsome brick complex consisted of relatively big buildings with dense site coverage, a good rental stream, and lovely interior features including original floors and mouldings. The density could have been shifted to the adjacent property to the north, but residents of nearby Hycroft Towers opposed extra height to save their mountain views.
Because of this, the “Granville Rise” neighbourhood has lost one of its landmarks. I once saw the interior at a party in 1997, when my friend, freelance writer Jennifer Van Evra, lived there. “I remember the first time I walked in,” she recently remembered. “It was one of those rare places in Vancouver that reminded me of apartments in Montreal. It had broad hardwood floors, a deep almost-cherry colour. The window, which must have been five by eight feet, opened over Granville Street on a swivel that ran through the middle. It had big, high ceilings that were at least 12 feet. The bathroom was the best part, with a big old clawfoot tub and a beautiful multicoloured tile pattern on the floor-mostly off-white with burgundy and green. It just oozed character, and it just had such warmth. It was a great, great building.”
Its evisceration was a case, Luxton says, of neighbourhood concerns overriding heritage concerns, another worrisome new trend. He’s seeing a similar thing happen in another upcoming project, the renovation of the 1940 tan-brick Moderne YMCA on Burrard near Nelson. “The Y wants a much more open image that’s completely at odds with the closed-down side and front façades, which are kind of fortress-like,” Luxton explains. “So basically, they’re taking out all the side walls, just keeping the little decorative front part on Burrard Street, and that’s it.”
Given the predictability of these kinds of pressures, the crux of the problem should be recognized as inadequate protection for historic buildings at the civic, or any other, level. To this day, the City of Vancouver has never officially adopted heritage standards or design guidelines. Its heritage planners may have policies, but these are applied informally as part of the review process, and are in no way binding. Obviously, their influence is minimal. “The heritage department knows it’s losing on many fronts,” says Luxton. “It had some successes, but generally the projects are all compromised—they’re just not that good.”
Things may be looking up, however, with new initiatives launched this year by the federal government, which include heritage standards, design guidelines, and conservation incentives. They’re still in draft form and can, at this point, be found only via the Historic Places website. While the text doesn’t specifically decry façadism, it looks promising in its broader take on “heritage value”; it emphasizes “character-defining elements,” which are “the materials, forms, location, spatial configurations, uses, and cultural associations or meanings that contribute to the heritage value of a historic place, and which must be retained to preserve its heritage value.”
Luxton sees the input of the national government in these matters as a “last hope,” given the ineffectiveness of other levels of government. It’s also high time: “We are lagging so far in this field, it’s laughable,” he adds. “We’re a very late starter—the last of the G8 countries to have heritage programs and incentives at the federal level.” Then he adds with a laugh: “And if we have Prime Minister Harper in a couple of weeks, we might not have any.”
Given that these new rules exist, Luxton finds it doubly frustrating to watch the façadism fad spreading through Vancouver. How is it, he wonders, that the new federal incentives, and the city’s existing special incentives for Gastown, Chinatown and Hastings Street, plus other tax incentives and density bonuses and transfers meant to be granted in exchange for heritage preservation, just don’t seem to be working? “We’ve got all these tools to preserve buildings, and we’re preserving the front six inches of them.”
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Perhaps global standards are the most convincing argument for change—or at least a means of shaming our city into a more sophisticated take on conservation. Vancouver, of course, is not the only city ever to have been beset by façadism. A Google search brings up examples from all over the world, including the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. In January of 1999, the International Council on Monuments and Sites even held a symposium to discuss the matter in Paris. The consensus among heritage experts from around the world is clear: Façadism should only be considered as a last-ditch option, when nothing else of value remains.
Here’s a typical statement published by the Australian government: “Façadism is generally not accepted as suitable conservation practice. Façadism is not in accord with the principles of the Burra Charter [national guidelines to assess heritage development applications], which focuses on maintaining the significance of a place by retaining and conserving all elements that make up that significance. Façadism is seen as tokenism, as only presenting one side of a place’s history. Buildings are conceived in three dimensions and so they should normally be retained in three dimensions.”
“We ought not to settle for this Halloween preservation—saving the mask and throwing away the building,” writes Washington DC consultant Donovan Rypkema, a specialist in preservation economics, in the spring 2001 issue of Forum magazine. He also takes a big-picture look, pointing out the conditions that encourage façadism. “First, there must be a strong enough market that a case can be made for façadomy, because it is ludicrously expensive. Second, there has to be enough surface interest in preservation for someone to recommend this solution. Third, the community’s preservation ethic cannot be strong enough to demand a true rehabilitation project.”
(On behalf of my city, I say, touché.)
Another heritage advocate (and third-generation Vancouverite) concerned about our city’s dangerous slide towards preserving only the veneer of its history is John Stuart, the curator of collections for the North Vancouver Museum and Archives. Recently, he lent me his big binder of Google printouts on façadism (saving me the trouble and the paper), liberally annotated with Post-It Notes. During an interview in his cluttered warehouse office near the North Vancouver waterfront, he also shared thoughts, such as the fact that short-term economic arguments should not be dictating the fate of heritage buildings—historical, social, cultural, legal and technological considerations should also play strong roles.
An art historian, he appreciates the architectural beauty of façades, yet recognizes that they’re only a small part of any site’s story. An antique building, he adds, is as much about the people who inhabited it, and the time and context in which it was built. If we destroy everything but the exterior, he continues, not only is there a disconnection between it and the new interior, we lose any link to, or further insight into, the past. Stuart recalls seeing extreme conservation examples in Germany, where the dirt of industrial sites had literally been preserved on the walls. While nobody is saying that’s always realistic—or that plumbing shouldn’t be updated or buildings not be made earthquake-proof—limiting conservation to façades removes almost all relevant aspects of the cultural fabric.
And then there’s the huge, untapped potential of cultural tourism in our one-time frontier town. Both Luxton and Stuart referred to studies showing the growing, newly recognized value of that sector. As the Baby Boomers age, Stuart notes, large numbers of moneyed, healthy and restless travellers will be roaming the world, looking for authentic, historical experiences—including here in Vancouver. Façadism, it seems, favours the quick buck while ignoring the long-term economic benefits of what could be a collective local cultural asset.
“I think that the future of heritage conservation is in exploitation—although I’m reluctant to use that word—in the tourism business,” says Stuart. “I think that’s what people would come to Vancouver to see, based upon what I see when I go to Europe. I’m telling you, as informed tourists, people are not going to come to see a streetscape of façades. If the interior is completely divorced from the exterior, the tourists are going to say, ‘This is just a movie set, this is phony.’ Our credibility will be wiped out and the people are going to say, ‘well, there’s nothing there.’”
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In the meantime, shaky precedents are being set. Developers are clearly counting on being allowed to façade more or less any heritage building they choose. In fact, Luxton points out, they may actually be targeting heritage properties because of inherent benefits: fast-tracking of development permits at City Hall; those popular density bonuses; and avoiding rezoning costs by getting a heritage revitalization agreement. Essentially, they are being rewarded for destroying the actual heritage integrity of the sites they develop. Even more ironically, Luxton points out, the remaining façades frequently get heritage protection after the fact.
The absurdities of the local heritage situation will look even more bizarre a century from now. Not only are we not maintaining heritage, but architects are also being forced into designing strangely compromised new buildings that don’t do the past or present any favours. Luxton also wonders whether anyone will bother with the upkeep of those out-of-context façades when they need attention a few decades from now. And, even more importantly, “Are we going to look back in 100 years and say, what where those idiots thinking? Didn’t they have any respect?”
The lack of respect appears especially dire when you read developer bumff, such as the pamphlet for The Hudson. It reads: “Live the contemporary lifestyle in the heart of Vancouver’s urban pulse. Where the architecture respects its exuberant heritage setting.” Say what? And this is the website text on the (sold out) Shaughnessy Mansions: “A rare example of heritage preservation of original residences in our city. A thoughtful and artistic revival retaining such distinctive features as the original brick façade, while refashioning the interiors with contemporary sophistication.”
While demolition is forever, not all façadism is bad, of course. In the case of buildings from the late 19th century, made of unreinforced masonry, it’s better to shore up the façade and replace the rest than lose the whole thing to the first tremor. Façadism can also be seen as a postmodern middle way between real preservation and modernist demolition. It certainly is preferable to losing buildings entirely, especially when the scale of the buildings and the feel of streetscape can be preserved—take a look at the success of Yaletown. But there’s no doubt that façadism will always be the least desirable heritage option.
So, what are the answers to the current situation? Luxton suggests that Vancouver’s heritage policies and incentive handouts be changed to match the actual level of conservation—with façade projects counting for little—and that the city and its advisory bodies take a deeper, harder look at each building and situation. A bit of political will wouldn’t hurt either. Perhaps someone in charge could actually champion the idea that the past is important, and that façadism is akin to substituting the dust jacket of a book for its actual contents.
“I think we’re taking steps towards conservation but unfortunately we haven’t got out of the development mentality, and the lack of assigning cultural value and actual economic value to our heritage buildings,” Luxton sums up. “And once a building is fragmented, there ends up being very little value to it. People are starting to wonder, is this meaningful or not? I just wonder if we should be allowing it at all. I don’t think the will is there to prevent it entirely, but I think we’re just entirely too willing to let it happen.”
The disappearance of familiar landmarks seems an economic waste in the long run, and may also lead to a sense of dislocation among city residents. Research shows that heritage conservation is one of the best things a city can do to stabilize the community and give people a sense of permanence and place. Yet here we are, ensuring that our sense of history will only ever be skin deep. One entry on façadism in a UK conservation glossary states: “While it is a practice much condemned by conservationists, in fact there can be arguments in its favour, but it needs careful handling.” Perhaps our modus operandi should be extreme caution rather than rash destruction.
Copyright © Gudrun Will, 2004