When people travel across oceans to see the Parthenon in Athens, the late Baroque towns of southeastern Sicily, or Paris’ Notre-Dame, what they’re really travelling to see is a piece of history. They want to marvel at a particular architectural technique that has endured for centuries. They want to gaze up at structures that feel familiar, yet completely distinct. They want to experience a connection between the past and the present, inticately layered and inextricably linked.
It’s the same reason that today, cities, governments, cultural societies, and civic-minded citizens work tirelessly to protect and preserve heritage sites around the world. Maintaining a strong connection to the past, helps inform the future, and creates more vibrant social, cultural, and architectural communities for everyone to enjoy.
Of course, as the saying goes… one man’s heritage is another man’s landfill. Ok, we may be paraphrasing a bit. But how does the process work to determine what sites are worthy of being saved and which ones can be sacrificed in the name of development? Because it is true that sometimes it may be necessary to tear down the old to make way for the new. But it is equally true that history has an essential role in shaping where we, as a community and culture, go.
Many cities around the world have managed to strike a balance between the past and the present, cities where storied houses and contemporary structures co-exist and create a textured cityscape where both young and old feel at home. In Toronto, that balance continues to evolve.
Developers and architects are constantly searching for new ways to celebrate heritage and landmark buildings within the streetscape, whether through ensuring unobstructed views of historic architecture, restoring heritage elements, or integrating heritage sites into the public realm. Some of the cities oldest buildings – including Old City Hall built in 1899, the Flatiron Building built in 1892, the Robert Simpson Co. Building completed in 1896, the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres which opened in 1913, even the historic Wychwood Barns, originally a streetcar maintenance facility commissioned in 1913 – still play an active role in today’s urban landscape, providing spaces for people to engage and interact with the city, their communities, and each other.
The key to effective heritage conservation is remembering that a city is not a museum, filled with static artifacts too precious to touch. A city is a living, breathing, evolving organism that, by its very nature, must adapt to the people who call it home. To quote prominent architectural critic, Ada Louise Huxtable,
“What preservation is really all about is the retention and active relationship of buildings of the past to the community’s functioning present. The accumulation is called culture.”