What constitutes architectural heritage? Living and working in Toronto’s rapidly evolving downtown core, a mix of old and new buildings is a conspicuous — and often uneasy — reality. At the base of our seemingly innumerable blue-glass condominiums sits a seemingly innumerable procession of restored Victorian façades, melding a 21st-century metropolis with the simulacrum of a 19th-century streetscape. This, at least, is the contemporary mode of historic preservation many of us encounter on a daily basis. Michael McClelland has a broader perspective.
A founding principal of Toronto-based heritage firm ERA Architects, McClelland is at the helm of a firm that’s synonymous with heritage architecture across Ontario and beyond. Established in 1990, the firm now has offices in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, with a diverse portfolio of built work. From iconic restoration and adaptive reuse projects — including Toronto’s reinvented Maple Leaf Gardens and lovingly restored Distillery District — to many of the quotidian heritage alterations that accompany high-rise development, McClelland has helped shape the transformation of our urban fabric.
As an architect and heritage consultant, Michael McClelland has collaborated with a who’s who of Canadian designers, from Jack Diamond and Eb Zeidler to Brigitte Shim, Peter Clewes and Siamak Hariri, to name just a few. He has also cultivated a civic presence, championing broader and more culturally responsive notions of architectural heritage. Together with ERA’s Graeme Stewart, McClelland co-edited the 2004 book Concrete Toronto, which celebrates the city’s expressive (yet often derided) mid-century landmarks. And more recently, ERA Architects has expanded the scope of its heritage work, embracing everything from the rehabilitation of mid-century apartment towers to the animation of suburban plazas and strip malls through events and activations. It begs the question: How does heritage evolve?
It’s tempting to think of heritage as a static thing. We often argue that buildings of a certain age need to be preserved because of some inherent aesthetic quality or beauty, yet our perceptions are always changing. Where do our aesthetic values come from?
- Michael McClelland
People often hang on to the idea that values are permanent and unchanging, but that’s never been the case. Values are always relative and relativist, and that upsets a lot of us. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed a theory of aesthetics, and he identified that our tastes — in architecture and fashion and everything else — are actually a reflection of our social and cultural class position. Together with a whole group of sociologists and thinkers throughout the 20th century (including my favourite philosopher, the American pragmatist Richard Rorty) he basically undermined the idea that aesthetic values are permanent; they always exist in relation to class and status. So it evolves with changing class interests — and of course it greatly depends on which socio-economic class dominates our cultural conversation.
To my mind, it means that we all have a greater responsibility to identify the things we think are valuable — and to then develop a vocabulary and a public literacy through which to understand that value. What we have to do is help awaken people to understand the internalized social mechanisms by which we’re all taught to interpret the world, which Bourdieu referred to as habitus. We have to identify where our tastes and preferences come from, and then challenge those structures. So as architects, I think one of the things we have to do is to help build up a complex and literate public culture to understand all this.
I grew up in a mid-century Toronto apartment complex full of other recent immigrants, and these big Forest Hill mansions were right across the Allen Road. I always thought those houses were beautiful, and that our building was really ugly. Today, I’d say the opposite. Those big slab apartment towers helped make Toronto affordable to immigrants and newcomers. Now I think they’re part of our heritage. But that’s just me. How does thinking evolve on a public scale?
If you look at how heritage preservation works, it’s always instigated by a few fans or nerds getting together. In England in the beginning of the 19th century for example, they wanted to demolish all of the Christopher Wren churches from the previous century — because England had too many churches. So they founded a Georgian society to advocate for it. And then in the 1950s, everyone wanted to demolish Victorian buildings, until some nerds got together and started a Victorian society. And now of course you can’t touch a Victorian building. Take Toronto’s Old City Hall: Today, it’s celebrated as a Richardsonian Romanesque landmark. But back then, everyone thought it was a piece of crap.
Maybe we like our Victorian buildings too much. Or, to put in Bourdieu’s terms, our tastes reflect a bygone political economy. In the 1950s and 60s, derelict Victorian houses became affordable urban havens for writers and artists and immigrants, and maybe we cling to that nostalgia. But today, they’re all worth millions of dollars. We still think of Victorian architecture as inherently beautiful, but I wonder if we’ll start to associate it with inequality?
That’s the thing, values are always continuing to evolve. So while I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, I do think that everything needs to be critically assessed. We need to understand that it’s not working for people anymore. I think Victorian housing is going to enter into a deep cultural decline, because it’s going to be looked at as totally elitist, unaffordable housing. It’s becoming a billionaire’s playground. And so the way we still venerate these buildings is probably going to be seen as a symbol of our weird economic times in retrospect.
Even now, people are already starting to look at Heritage Conservation Districts, for example, and they’re asking “how come those rich people get to control it?” And that’s not going to stop — it’s only going to get more intense. So there is going to be a shift in how people appreciate architecture and in what’s perceived as having value. There are definitely buildings we’ve got to keep forever. But every neighbourhood has to change, and you have to make careful decisions about what you can remove and what you preserve.
Your firm is also doing more and more work on buildings typologies that aren’t popularly perceived as heritage structures. Graeme Stewart and Yael Santopinto are leading up the Tower Renewal Partnership to restore mid-century affordable housing projects, while ERA Architects is also working with Daniel Rotsztain and PlazaPops to shine a spotlight on suburban plazas and strip malls. How do you foresee public perception of these spaces evolving?
It’s the same type of evolution that’s always been happening. So we project that same idea forward. Take the strip mall plaza retail in Scarborough, for example. You might look at it and say it’s just suburban crap. But now we’re gradually starting to find out that they’re a really innovative way for new communities to set up small businesses, and that amazing things can come out — and that it’s some of the densest retail in North America. And the PlazaPops thing has really opened people’s eyes to how these retail areas are actually part of a really complex, thriving culture.
And architects play a role in that. When Graeme and I did the book Concrete Toronto, it was a very deliberate attempt to copy Bourdieu’s ideas about cultural production. So we took all these buildings that everyone hated, and we got people to write nice things about them. And before you know it, those same buildings became interesting to people. I think that’s how culture emerges, and how it evolves. It’s not an artist sitting alone in his loft. That’s not where culture or art really comes from — there’s a whole infrastructure of gallerists, promoters, journalists and critics, and then the audience. It’s a public conversation. We have to help create that.
To project it all another step forward, Toronto is into the third decade of a transformational high-rise residential boom. Yet I think we still lack a public vocabulary for talking about these buildings in an intelligent way.
Well, the interesting thing with the condos is that they provided a building stock that Toronto needed. It was — and still is — mostly a city of semi-detached houses, and it didn’t already have a large stock of tenement buildings. But we don’t have a sophisticated sense of why they’re happening, or where they’re happening, or how that connects to the Official Plan, land use policy, population growth and finance. We can’t articulate why they’re so good or so bad.
And from a design standpoint, architects have a duty to communicate the merits of their buildings to the public — and we’re bad at that. We’re not good storytellers. “I like it because I designed it.” Sometimes that’s as far as it goes.
Michael McClelland portrait by Stewart McInthosh.
The ERA Architects co-founder and principal talks evolving architectural values and the class politics of preservation.