Print Edition: January 21, 2015
Buildings are not only geographical landmarks but cultural ones. They orient you in both space and time, telling you not only where you are but who the city is — its age, its origins, the battles it’s weathered, its relationship to the surrounding landscape. Architecture is essential to the gestalt of a city’s personality, the unique sense of identity that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I spent most of last week there attending a conference with some other members of The Cascade’s team, and we braved the shockingly cold temperatures to explore the Parliament buildings, the Rideau canal, boutiques and bookshops, sidestreets and statues. Staring up at the worn-down stone walls and historic spires of its heritage buildings, I was struck by a sense that this was a city that knew exactly who it was. Even as modern malls and highways have grown up around its historic centre, Ottawa’s cityscape is studded with old stone buildings, many of them bearing plaques identifying them as heritage sites.
Like many Canadian cities that boomed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ottawa has preserved its architecture from that era. Similarly, Victoria and Vancouver both have thriving downtown centres full of stately heritage buildings, some of them over 100 years old. And while we were in Ontario, a pair of friends slipped away to nearby Montreal for an evening and came back raving about its cobblestones and elegant old buildings, which are often described as the most beautiful in Canada.
But smaller towns and cities that weren’t blessed with beautiful architecture from before the 1950s often have little physical connection to their own history. Abbotsford’s own historic district consists of two square blocks of original old-timey façades downtown and its other historic buildings include a few ancient, sagging barns dotting the Sumas prairie. The buildings downtown are protected, as they should be — but it seems like half a century ago we simply stopped building places that were worth preserving. The city’s identity has been weakened by ugly buildings and malls. The commercial district of South Fraser Way could belong to any city in any country in the world.
It could be argued that Abbotsford’s sense of place is rooted in the farmland surrounding it — but the neon strip of franchise stores and cookie-cutter housing developments slithers farther and farther into the Agricultural Land Reserve every year, it seems. How long will it last until we’re no longer the city in the country, but just the city? And how will we remember where we came from then?
The problem is that we’re not continuing to develop beautiful places that will one day be heritage buildings, whether commercial or residential. I’m not concerned that Abbotsford doesn’t have enough heritage buildings right now; that’s not something we can fix. But I am concerned that in 100 years, our great-grandchildren won’t have any sense of the places their great-grandparents lived in. They won’t feel that tingle I felt on the streets of Ottawa, the sense of connection to the place’s history, because our current system isn’t building structures to last. Everything is based on an economy that requires buildings to be continually torn down and rebuilt every couple of decades. It’s not only environmentally unsustainable — it also destroys the continuity of culture.
Architecture is important for the present as well. If we built more places we enjoyed being in, buildings that weren’t simply filled by chain stores moving in and out of them like hermit crabs scuttling to new shells, we’d all be a little more in love with the Fraser Valley. We’d care more about what happened to our city, maybe we’d vote more often, and many of us would be less likely to dash down the highway to Vancouver as soon as we graduate.