Thursday, December 10, 2009

Good News For Dundas Streetscape?




For once downtown London has some semi-positive heritage news. Two side-by-side historic gems that came close to a date with the wrecker's ball have been returned to their former glory - sort of. At least the exteriors of the Capitol Theatre and the Bowles Building have made a comeback. And rare as it is for either a developer or City Hall to be interested in heritage preservation, the $4 million bill has actually been paid by Shmuel Farhi and the City of London. In 2010, the buildings will house London's planning department, in theory a great example of adaptive reuse that will bring white-collar workers to the heart of downtown. Well that's a good idea - city staff should be confonted with the near-emptyness of Dundas Street on a daily basis. Maybe they'll feel the urge to do something about our wasteland main street.

Unfortunately, it's not the entire Capitol Theatre that's being preserved, just its front. In 2008 an architect determined the facade was worth saving for its ornate stonework. The old theatre itself, including its mirrored lobby, had already been demolished to make way for yet another rear-of-Dundas parking lot in 2006.

So we have an example of what's been called "facadism" - demolishing a building but leaving its facade. London has jumped on the facadism bandwagon in recent years - witness the Delta London Armouries and the old Talbot streetscape clinging to the JLC. This practice may be seen as a new compromise between property developers and preservationists - but the so-called preservation is only superficial and the buildings only mock-historic. The Armouries and the Talbot bricks now have a "stuck-on" effect, since taller buildings have been constructed behind them without any setback. And the contrast between the modern and Victorian styles is so great that the effect belittles the new architecture as well as the old.

Some world cities, like Paris and Melbourne, have actively discouraged facadism. I know, I know, Paris this isn't. But if the Capitol/Bowles preservation is the way the wagon's going, it might be better for London to jump off.
 
Update - September 2012: As it turned out, not even the original facade was preserved. What we see now is a completely new front made to look like the original. The facade was deemed to be past the point where it could be saved. Latest news is that London's planning department will be returning to City Hall and another city department will be moving into the Bowles Building. Maybe Dundas Street scared them.