Comment: Design conversation in Victoria monopolized by heritage preservation

A commentary by a partner with Victoria-based Aryze Developments.

Yet again, in sleepy old Victoria, a heritage brouhaha is erupting. Not even a housing crisis coupled with a global pandemic can douse the flames of heritage fervour.

This time it’s over the long-abandoned Northern Junk buildings, two of the oldest buildings in the city, surviving, although just barely, since the Gold Rush era.

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This rendition isn’t the first proposal for this isolated wedge of waterfront property. It comes after a decade of proposals that fell short.

Despite seismically upgrading and retaining the majority of the heritage features, letters to council and every editor everywhere sound similar: “Save the heritage,” “Heritage is Victoria,” “Those nasty developers.”

Certainly, Victoria’s identity is connected to heritage.

Certainly, many developers focus narrowly on their own goals. However, this conversation is more complicated than the recurring heritage diatribe suggests.

The heritage commentary both drowns and neglects other concepts of city identity that manifest through architecture.

Few examples beyond Thunderbird Park and the odd totem pole or mural add nuance to Victoria’s image, but even this is mere tokenism.

Besides being a colonial symbol, a so-called “heritage” identity disregards reconciliation and undermines ambitions to explore a more inclusive identity through architecture.

Heritage preservation has monopolized the design conversation in Victoria to the point of architectural apnea. In most cases, we’ve ended up with bottom-line-driven buildings decorated with heritage schlock.

Another, more pressing consideration is seismic preparedness. Surely heritage retention would take a back seat to safety?

Following the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, that levelled most heritage buildings, earthquake standards increased to make anything heritage —except building facades —extremely onerous.

Not surprisingly, failed applications for Victoria’s waterfront have nearly filled an entire book. In Dorothy Mindenhall’s Unbuilt Victoria, she chronicles enough failed proposals to fill the city’s harbour.

Granted, many of these past proposals seem outlandish by today’s standards; but compared with the swaths of parking that now defines our waterfront, others are lost opportunities.

Some of those unbuilt plans offered real ambition and a desire to change Victoria’s image. These qualities seem a far cry from the dialogue today.

Judging from a history of concession to heritage advocacy, we might as well be recreating ye old England.

Keep in mind, advancing the city’s image doesn’t mean the same thing today as it once did.

Modernization — the sort that killed many past proposals — focused on a technological fascination, prioritized vehicles, and rejected all things traditional. Today, advancement, as opposed to modernization, is more about addressing climate change and reconciliation, creating more inclusive spaces and a meaningful, wholehearted reconsideration of all things traditional.

In fact, the entire city planning discipline has returned to now espouse conventional city building, which surprisingly, is exactly what the most recent Northern Junk buildings proposal does.

Few buildings in Victoria inspire us the same way our heritage buildings do — that’s why we love them.

But the culture that created these buildings is far different than our culture today. We see in those heritage buildings design; we see architecture; we see a culture from the past. Heritage design focused on emulating human proportions, beauty, durability and a strong sense of humanity, all aspects that modernism has done its best to quash. But that era of modernism has passed.

So, while many modern buildings leave much to be desired, if we hope to address the real threats facing society, we must cultivate a similar cultural ethos, which starts with a more inclusive community dialogue and more ambition.

However, prioritizing heritage preservation above all current priorities seems like a misplaced reaction to a bygone era. Even more worrying, this misplaced emphasis also undermines our city’s maturation.

Heritage protection advocates dominate the dialogue around architecture in Victoria, at high costs. Must this be the default position for every application that comes before the city? What if we ever want to exercise some ambition or advance other more pressing priorities? What then?

Surely, heritage priorities cannot trump all other considerations. It’s unjust to promote a heritage-first doctrine for the few when it comes at the expense of the many — the many who see more potential for this city.

This is the problem with advocacy: It can be issue-specific without wider consideration.

City policy, on the other hand, tries to cover and balance a wide array of objectives; economic development, climate change, parks and open space, heritage retention and housing, to name a few. Advocates latch onto one or two policies, but city councils balance an array of objectives, policies, and, sometimes, contradictory goals.

Fundamentally, this is a cool proposal. It utilizes and rehabilitates the heritage buildings and adds uses and vibrancy to them after a long period of dormancy. Threats that this proposal will undermine Old Town or lead to heritage building demolition are just that, threats.

Certainly, the plan doesn’t solely prioritize the heritage elements of the site. But we have to ask, do we want it to? What are we preserving?

Would a little one-storey, re-creation of the past, isolated from the city by vast space, really do anything in terms of activating this area?

The only heritage being preserved if this application fails is the long history of the worst characterizations of Victoria.

So, as this little saga unfolds in beautiful B.C.’s capital, I’m reminded of what the great Canadian poet Gordon Downie said, “Not one ambition whisperin’ over your shoulder” in this great land of hockey and Bobby Orr.

It seems like our lack of ambition, fear of diversity and fear of change in Victoria might just be a microcosm of those fears in our Canadian culture. “Isn’t it amazing anything’s [ever] accomplished?”

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