Recapping the Julian Smith Event

Written by Ashley Renders

Julian Smith, Executive Director of Willowbank and one of Canada’s leading conservation architects, delivered a fascinating lecture titled “Exploring Cultural Landscapes” at the Urbanspace Gallery on Wednesday November 14. The lecture asked “What gives a physical place meaning?” and “How do we decide which historic sites are culturally significant?” Using cultural landscape theory, Julian answered these questions and revealed how we create cultural landscapes in our communities.

Julian began by outlining the periods of heritage conservation, starting in the mid 1700-1800s. The first period was known as the Antiquarian era in which archaeologists were mainly concerned with the pure preservation and documentation of ruin sites in-situ. This was followed by the Commemorative era, starting in the mid-1800s, wherein architecture was mainly preserved to commemorate important events or time periods. This model has been replicated across the United States and much of North America. The Preservation movement began in the 1960s, and while it recognized the value of cultural heritage, “culture” was defined narrowly as anything built between 1800 and 1900. Architecture outside the pre-defined definition of “heritage” was not considered relevant and was ignored. Under this framework, buildings and landscapes are preserved according to strict guidelines that are encoded in legislature. The Ecological era (beginning in 2000) ushered in a new definition of cultural heritage landscapes as a patchwork of different cultural experiences over time. In this era, mixed-use buildings blur the line between private and public land-use and represent a more dynamic understanding of culture and heritage.

Following the presentation, a lively conversation was moderated by Gillian Mason, which centred around how the newest generation of heritage conservationists is focusing on “transition zones” rather than static historic sites. This new generation as well as indigenous groups have not adopted the conventional set of definitions used in Euro-centric legislation such as the Provincial Policy Statement, the Heritage Act and UNESCO heritage guidelines. Instead, they are focusing on areas such as Ottawa’s Dalhousie St., old immigrant communities, bars, and chaotic pedestrian and car traffic zone – the events and places that define the culture of our everyday lives.

For example, students of Heritage Resource Management in Montreal are more interested in mapping transition zones such as the centre of Montreal where immigrant communities and nightlife intersect, rather than the Anglo and Franco heritage sites in more static neighbourhoods. Furthermore, indigenous Japanese heritage committees and Canadian groups have rejected UNESCO’s criterion that cultural heritage landscapes must be older than 20 years in order to recognize the Japanese tradition of rebuilding a particular sacred temple every 20 years. Under this criterion, the temple does not qualify as a cultural heritage landscape even though the tradition dates back thousands of years. This example illustrates the need to recognize sites that are in constant transition, as well as static historical sites.

Various groups across the country – from Vancouver to Kensington Market – are demonstrating that the current generation of heritage conservationists are re-defining cultural heritage in ways that preserve original landscapes while accommodating adaptive, reuse buildings. By working with the community, this generation is finding a middle ground between total preservation and total demolition of cultural heritage.

Other coverage

An attendee, Stephanie Calvet, blogged about her thoughts on Julian Smith’s presentation:

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.

Another attendee, HiMY SYeD, videotaped the event and shared it on Youtube. Watch it here!