Over the last three weeks, I was fortunate to be on holiday in Europe. As I wandered cities filled with old buildings, I was struck by how these very old places had worked to address new styles of architecture, to use W.H. Auden’s phrase.
There were some odd looking buildings to be sure — London’s famed Gherkin comes to mind, as well as its spectacular Shard — but if there were supremely ugly buildings, I didn't see them.
As I was admiring a curved office tower, locally known as the Transistor (as in radio), an older man stopped by and struck up a conversation. It’s a nice building, he mused, but don’t you think these kinds of buildings — tall, very large and dominating — make people think smaller and become less open to new ideas?
I didn’t have a quick response at the time because I think the question was a provocative one and deserving of a thoughtful answer. It certainly has made me think hard about city landscapes and how we humans interact with them.
There is a trend, one that is quite disturbing, wherein municipalities have introduced measures to deter the homeless from sleeping rough in doorways or on benches, by embedding spikes or knobs to make the space uncomfortable. It’s almost as if the lack of empathy and kindness — and even cruelty — behind these forms of deterrence shows the ugly side of humanity too.
So to go back to the stranger on the street’s question, I have come to agree that there are buildings whose inappropriate, and — dare I say it — ugly design, compresses the human spirit so it shuts down various pathways including those which lead us to openness and flexibility.
I’ve been in cities where there are many tall buildings scraping the skies with their glass, steel and brick components arranged daringly and yet their creativity signals a boldness and a beauty in their defiance of architectural norms and which complements their surroundings.
I’ve been in cities where buildings are four centuries old and they co-exist with more recent constructions, each successive century’s representatives evolving the city’s built heritage with a palette of ideas and concepts. Even a city as old as Barcelona combines the traditional with the modern and is able to accommodate and welcome enthusiastically the off-the-charts creative concepts of Antoni Gaudi with an openness that cracks apart what you think buildings should look like.
Today, I live in a city where there is a significant built heritage. After the Great Fire took out much of the city’s structures in 1892, there isn’t a lot we have that is truly old, the way some other cities elsewhere in the world are old. But what we have is pleasing and there are newer buildings here and in other parts of the province that challenge and invite us to look at things differently.
So, with the incredible beauty we have to inspire us in nature — our cliffs, our beaches, our forests — I was appalled at the extreme ugliness of the concept created for a new hotel downtown. I know ugly is in the eye of the beholder and what I think is beautiful or intriguing may not fit your definition.
However, the proposal before council is not much more than a series of blocks perched awkwardly on top of an existing structure. There is no effort to incorporate elements from those buildings that will surround it.
Even more appalling is that the builder did not even bother to create a design that meets the criteria in current legislation. The developer submitted a proposal, and city staff, instead of using the regulations to assess and then reject the proposal, recommended council amend the regulations and then consider the proposal.
Every year we get these proposals that defy the policies, and every year we spend significant time, energy, and money debating the validity of these proposals.
Here’s a thought: instead of being so flexible that the guidelines resemble pipe cleaners ready to be bent into every possible permutation, let’s make sure city staff apply the guidelines so developers start meeting the criteria.
We have to stop these end runs around policy and think critically about the legacy we are leaving the next generation, not just in the built heritage but in practice too.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant. Email: email@example.com