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Water Street walk highlights building ‘blights,’ successful structures
In the middle of Water Street sits “one of the most remarkable things that nobody ever notices.”
That’s how retired architect Jim Case describes the RBC Royal Bank building.
“I love pointing this out,” he grins as he explains the first three bays are original, but the fourth is an extension completed in the 1980s.
“If you wanted a textbook example of how to do a sympathetic, modern extension – this is the textbook,” he says, pointing to the original window pattern repeated in the extension – its success measured by the fact that nobody notices it.
“It just sits there in its casual elegance, and there’s no affront to it.”
Case’s adoring analysis of this particular extension is in sharp contrast to much of the public discussion about architecture in St. John’s over the past few weeks.
Public outrage over a proposed annex on the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist shows the potential impact of seemingly innocuous design decisions.
There are also public concerns about a proposal for condos and retail space in the old SaveEasy building in Churchill Square.
With architectural decisions making headlines, it’s a good time to take a walk with a St. John’s architect to discuss what works – and what doesn’t.
Importance of context
The founder of Lat49 Architecture, Case retired last year after a near 40-year career. He’s past-president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Architects and past-chair of the Architectural Licensing Board. A member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada since 1995, he was inaugurated into the RAIC College of Fellows in 2016.
When it comes to architectural criticism, however, Case insists he’s “just a Joe” – not an architectural theorist, rather someone with opinions to share after a career in the field.
And he has opinions aplenty.
Across Water Street from RBC is Atlantic Place, a building he calls an “architectural albatross.”
“Based on all my research, and 40 years of knowledge, and having worked with the people who actually worked on this building, I know there was no architect. This was a building designed by engineers.”
Case speeds past the brown box-like building.
“Come over here,” he says, “so we won’t have to look at it.”
As he walks a little farther down Water Street, he exhales disapprovingly.
“This is Toronto context.”
He shakes his head at the “glass box” ScotiaBank tower, calling it a “completely inappropriate use of reflective glass imposed by Toronto architects who, in a moment of unbridled narcissism, felt this was appropriate for St. John’s.”
For Case, context is key.
A tale of two boxes
The morning sun seems to spring pedestrians from the sidewalks as Case strolls in the direction of the Murray Premises.
He says the historic building would have gone to the wrecking ball were it not for Beaton Sheppard, who was a young architect at the time and convinced people to save the building.
“It was just about ready to be demolished. Can you imagine how sad that would be? But one of the nice things is that it launched an idea here in St. John’s that heritage preservation mattered.”
Speaking of which, Case commends the many businesses that continue to maintain the old buildings that define the Water Street vernacular – the brickwork and punched window openings – characteristics he believes should be respected if one is going to build in the area.
However, as he walks westward toward the dockyard, he approaches a structure sans brickwork or punched window openings, more closely resembling a blue box.
Case calls the industrial structure that currently houses Sea-Force Hyperbaric in the St. John’s dockyard a “blight..
“To put up a monstrosity like that in this sort of sensitive neighbourhood is just abhorrent. … This thing here goes up – boom. No discussion.
“I think even in an industrial landscape, if you are situated in an area that has got a high public profile, someone should be asking questions.”
He compared it to another building just up the street that also serves an industrial purpose – the Oceanex building is also a blue box on the harbour-facing side, but was successfully designed with a brickwork façade facing Water Street.
“This building says, ‘I respect the urban form, I respect the fabric, I respect the public.’ That building down there says, ‘Well, I don’t respect any of that. I don’t care, I’m just an industrial building.’”
To avoid building “blights,” Case suggests city council create urban design guidelines – something council wrote about in the draft Envision Municipal Plan, but has yet to begin.
Without such standards, criticism tends to be based on what someone feels, “like playing a game with no rules,” Case says.