Buildings should respect traditions



Recently in the Free Press, David Witty, Dean of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture, wrote about the importance of good design without specifying what might qualify as “good,” and without stepping on any toes by labeling anything bad.

Dean Witty did come close. He offered vague praises for the Provencher footbridge and the new Millennium Library. Yet he neglected to mention that upon its opening, the 1977 Centennial Library also was praised for its modern design — the original architect certainly thought it good — even though the Millennium project came about only because, by 1999, most Winnipeggers regarded the Centennial Library as unbearably hideous.

In 1965, our new city hall was considered a major aesthetic improvement over the 1886 “gingerbread house” it replaced; today, the Civic Centre’s monolithic modernism comprises some of the city’s most reviled structures, while the old Victorian City Hall remains much-lamented.

“Good design” is relative. Trends do come and go, but most buildings in Winnipeg that are universally accepted as beautiful were constructed before 1920. These designs were based not upon an architect’s egotistical whim or desire for experimentation. Rather, they conformed to the classic forms that manifested themselves in the contemporary styles of the day: Chicagoan, Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, Edwardian Commercial, Victorian Italianate.

Examples of each can be found in the Exchange District, a national historic site of which Winnipeggers are rightfully proud. But, before being demolished for the sake of modernist experiments or surface-level parking, Exchange District-style buildings were once laid over a much larger area of the city, throughout the downtown and into the inner city along such streets as Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Logan, Sargent, and Selkirk.

At the time, the demolitions may have seemed convenient, but they permanently transformed the urban environment into something comparatively repellent.

Recent new construction in the inner city has been unsympathetic to historical surroundings. Across from the brick, five-storey, 1909 Casa Loma Building on Portage was recently constructed a number of single-storey, box-style fast food outlets (and, set back a good distance from the sidewalk, a drug store) no different than those found among the subdivided outskirts of North American suburbs and small towns.

Perhaps the middle-class, suburban men and women who comprise the city’s planning department have decided the best course is to suburbanize the urban? Or maybe the problem is there’s no planning at all.

As legendary Winnipeg planner Earl Levin wrote in a 1984 paper titled Beyond the Core Area Initiative: Prospects for Downtown Winnipeg: “Major planning and development decisions affecting the City of Winnipeg are not being made by city council and do not involve in any formal way the city’s planning department.”

Speaking of Levin, it is he we have to thank for the wasteland of surface parking that exists downtown south of Portage and north of Broadway. Up until the late 1960s, the area was residential — tree-lined streets filled with row houses and walk-up apartment buildings; where now sits the Convention Centre once lay a school. Levin had a grandiose vision of a modern, Le Corbusier-inspired, towers-in-the-park sort of downtown, and the first of it was completed in 1972 between Hargrave and Carlton streets between York and St. Mary avenues — Lakeview Square. While the plaza in the centre of it all didn’t turn out to be the hit Levin expected — I find it a solitudinal spot to enjoy a surreptitious beer on a weekday afternoon — those who sit amid its shade might look at their surroundings and think, “That’s a lot of concrete.”

But Levin’s vision, minus the subway he and Bernie Wolfe had hoped for, only compounded the parking problem and left our landscape filled with holes.

If Winnipeg’s Exchange District might be compared to Vancouver’s Gastown, we would do well to do what they have done. New buildings in Gastown have aped the scale and the style of historical surrounding structures, often with a postmodern twist.

Winnipeg should work aggressively to develop empty lots and parking lots into new buildings of the old styles, expanding our Exchange District into the neighbouring neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Centennial, and West Alexander, while demanding that all new development in the inner city be aesthetically rooted in one of the historic forms we all agree to admire.

Petro prices could drive more to bus, try walking

Focus, Tuesday, November 8, 2005, p. A13

Repopulating of core, better transit are key to going without car


ECONOMISTS and geologists have offered ample warning that the days of cheap oil would not last. This year, however, their words took on new meaning when gasoline prices rose beyond a dollar per litre.

Were it any other product, consumers might be induced to substitution, even a change in lifestyle. But most Canadians have instead opted to take the hit and keep on motoring, with many venting their anger in nasty letters to our dithering prime minister, demanding he take action.

On a macro level, even a complete elimination of the gasoline tax would do nothing to change the laws of supply and demand, conditions over which the government is helpless. But on a micro level, householders decrying the unaffordability of petrol could adopt one simple policy to rein in their transportation budgets. They can quit driving.

It’s not impossible. Motorists living in such urban enclaves as Toronto’s Bloor West Village or Vancouver’s West End will admit to seldom using their car for anything other than weekend getaways that seldom happen every week. Even here in Winnipeg there exist districts scaled to the wayfarer rather than the driver.

Upon closer inspection, the Everyday Low Prices of suburbia’s big boxes aren’t necessarily so low. To begin with, their location and layout presuppose automobile ownership.

At current gas prices, owning and operating even a basic vehicle will average over $400 per month. Driving something that invites ignominy will cost closer to $700 per month. Shopping at local grocers in the walkable central city might mean paying more for some items, but there’s little chance that the difference will add up to hundreds a month.

Corner store

Moreover, the overpriced independent grocer seems to be more myth than substance. Recently I ran to the corner store for an emergency bottle of lemon juice which I bought for $1.99. The nearest chain supermarket sold the same bottle for $2.69.

Besides the fiscal, other benefits to quitting driving concern one’s quality of life. Having somewhere to buy fresh produce between the transit stop and one’s home means fresher food. Missing ingredients can be had without wrangling through traffic and navigating a sea of seemingly endless parking. Smaller grocers are often family owned, and some, even in this day, still allow regular customers to run an informal tab.

Quitting driving can improve health too, for walking offers us exercise without the tedium or cost of visiting a fitness club.

While few would disagree that the automobile is unessential for the bachelor life, most Canadians would say that a car (or minivan or SUV) is a must for raising families. But the inner cities are filled with zero-car households that often comprise more than a kid or two. Many of these families can’t afford a car, but many can. Their children are obliged to get around on their own: walking, bicycling, skateboarding, even riding public transit. Our nation of chauffeured children is really a nation of coddled, overprotected, spoiled brats.

Until gas prices rise yet further, life sans auto won’t be a catching trend. How far up need they go? It’s possible that oil at $100 a barrel will draw mass demonstrations, even rioting, before it will draw people from their auto-centric lifestyles.

But in the last year or so, Winnipeg Transit buses have seemed much fuller, with many routes standing-room-only not just during peak hours, but throughout the day and indeed even the evening.

Most of these new riders likely did not opt out of driving; they were forced out, by economic circumstances. It would be an interesting statistic, the number of Winnipeggers who spend more on transportation than they do on housing.

Winnipeggers frequently congratulate themselves on having a lower cost-of-living than Canada’s three overpriced metropolises. What they fail to mention, however, is that in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver — in the central city at least — it’s possible to live without a car and not be stigmatized, ridiculed, or inconvenienced.

In Winnipeg this might not be so, but given a proper transit system and the repopulation of the inner city, more of us who can afford to drive will make the choice not to.

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Inflation, prices and salaries; Oil and petrochemical industries
Length: Medium, 584 words

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