Heritage Architect Julian Smith on ‘Re-imagining the historic urban landscape’

“What gives a physical place meaning? How do we decide which historic sites are culturally significant?” Cultural Landscape theory is an attempt to provide new answers to these often-debated questions. It emphasizes that the traditional distinction between the physical and the cultural landscapes is an artificial one and that nature and culture should not be seen as conflicting but rather as part of an all-encompassing ecosystem, a vision not unlike that held by indigenous communities. In such a view, human habitats display the diversity and richness of their different cultural subgroups and achieve a sustainable equilibrium with their environment.

As part of an ongoing series of talks, Toronto’s Centre for City Ecology recently invited leading heritage architect and educator Julian Smith to give a lecture entitled ‘Re-imagining the historic urban landscape ’ in which he explores the meaning of cultural landscape and how we create it in our communities. Smith has established an international reputation for his work in the conservation, restoration and adaptive reuse of historic properties, and cooperates with UNESCO and the World Bank, but his most challenging role is as Executive Director at Willowbank, an educational institution “at the cutting edge of a global shift towards a more ecological and sustainable approach to heritage conservation.”

Willowbank promotes cultural heritage and emphasizes the apprenticeship tradition (hands-on craft skills). In addressing Willowbank’s approach to the historic urban landscape, Smith prefaces with the distinction between historical landscapes, which have prior historic significance and can be observed, and cultural landscapes, which exist in the cultural imagination and have to be experienced to be understood.

Smith summarizes a 300-year history of motivations for Conservation into four biases: Antiquarian – the archaeologist spins great stories about culture from physical remnants of earlier civilizations; Commemorative – the historian protects and tells the story of the historic place through reconstructions or ‘stage sets’; Aesthetic – the architect/architectural historian recreates heritage vocabulary (think Colonial Williamsburg-inspired wallpaper); and, most recently, the Ecological bias that emphasizes a more holistic view of the interconnectedness of buildings/landscapes/artefacts as way of understanding the world whereas earlier biases expressly used the ‘object’ in isolation. This 21st century approach is based on the notion that artefact and ritual come together to create cultural reality.

When we talk about how communities understand place we are dealing with perceived realities, which consider the cultural landscape, not actual or physical reality, i.e. GIS map. Rituals map the city. Case in point: everyone in the audience was instructed to map a small common section of Toronto (an exercise Smith often has students do). The results typically demonstrate that when people think of cities, they plot their rituals, such as commute, festivals, or processions.

“One of the great things about cities is that you can have cultural landscapes that overlay each other and multiple cultural realities existing in the same place.” Smith cites a number of local examples of these places of overlap which frequently are the most fascinating parts of cities: Boulevard St. Laurent, a commercial and multicultural artery in Montreal; or, Kensington Market, a distinctive neighbourhood in downtown Toronto with an unpretentious, bohemian-esque vibe. In the latter’s case, nothing evolved according to planning principles but was rather the result of a pattern of (illegal) unregulated activity and that is precisely what gives this area its vitality. Smith thinks this part of the city deserves recognition as a cultural landscape that overrides both the province’s Planning Act and Heritage Act and needs to be protected as such.

Smith highlights Evergreen Brickworks, an innovative multi-use community environmental centre housed in a series of heritage buildings that successfully blur the boundaries between public and private spaces. He argues that architects/planners have been limited by architectural constraints or relied too long on property lines and rights when thinking of how we occupy the city. “Planners are still groping with what it means to lose those distinctions. Our approach has become so aesthetic and commemorative,” says Smith. “You have to maintain cultural landscapes of city layered on top of each other (otherwise you gentrify).” We need creative thinking; a dynamic definition of cultural change; and, to allow the evolution of buildings and places with contemporary layers such that they are in harmony, and not just freeze them in historic settings.

This type of discussion is particularly interesting for a dynamic environment like Toronto that is growing and changing at a rapid pace by virtue of the constant influx of people. It seems that only by integrating commerce, culture and community can we achieve a balance between urban growth and quality of life on a sustainable basis. The Centre for City Ecology, whose mandate is to “raise levels of urban literacy so that ordinary Torontonians can join in a robust conversation about city building,” engages the community to create meaningful spaces for a more liveable city. It hosts lectures at the Urbanspace Gallery at 401 Richmond St West, a heritage building providing spaces for the creative sector.

For more information on the lecture series, check the CCE’s website http://www.cityecology.net/. Click here to see the video of Julian Smith’s November 14 presentation. 

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2 responses to “Heritage Architect Julian Smith on ‘Re-imagining the historic urban landscape’

  1. Pingback: Heritage architect Julian Smith compares historical and cultural landscape concepts (Stephanie Calvet, Nov. 27, 2012) | Preserved Stories

  2. Pingback: Deer Park United Church redevelopment is a classic illustration of the conversion of a designated heritage building | Preserved Stories

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