How far do we have to go in order to protect our urban heritage without turning our cities into soulless museums? In the aftermath of the demolition of the Redpath House, a Montreal architectural gem, the scientific director of the Canadian research chair in urban heritage of UQAM, Lucie K. Morisset, speaks out. And these ideas could shake the foundations of certain convictions.
To what end should we protect a building or a neighborhood nowadays?
According to me, there is no heritage that is more or less important according to what is older or newer, unique or representative of an era, but rather, according to what collectives identify themselves with. The 30-year moratorium on the Redpath House could have launched a community of belonging around itself. That never happened and resulted in the disappearance of this building.
If there is not enough collective interest in preserving a monument or place, the government should not provide for it; we do not have the means to protect that which only a few people claim is their heritage, at the mercy of the evolution of the city. How many Montreal residents know what Queen Anne style is? And why would this style categorized as 19th century matter to Montreal residents today?
So, we will only be left with the heritage we deserve?
Over here, there was a time when the French regime was the most important, and it was in this spirit that we rebuilt an entire neighborhood around the Place Royale in Quebec. But nowadays, why would a new Montreal resident identify with it? If all the people of Quebec stopped talking about the Place Royale, in 20 years, I am sure that we would build a condo in its place and that no one would notice.
On the other hand, if the collective mobilized itself, we would end up somewhere else entirely, as is the case in Arvida. This city, founded by Alcoa for his workers and integrated with Saguenay today, constitutes, according to me, the most important urban planning of the 20th century in the West because of its scope, history, and the quality of its urbanism.
While other company towns could count three or four housing models for their workers, Alcoa came up with more than 125 for a total of 2,000 residents. But what is even more important is that it seems to have given rise to a place where it is hard to separate the Arvidians from their territory, and that the city became the seat of a very strong identity that still survives today.
For example, when the municipality, at the request of the citizens, ended up protecting 733 houses in the city, in 2010, people went there in order to applaud the municipal council, and some were crying. It's this kind of belonging that makes up heritage.
Should we always find a new use for a registered building?
The traditional way of classifying a building or an urban parcel has become outdated. With the classification mechanism, the building or the monument under threat by urban evolution finds itself "closed off." Its property value freezes, and it stops bringing in taxes for public authorities that, in addition, need to invest funds in this monument in the name of common sense.
If we need to finance or reduce the assessment on a building, that should happen because a collective use justifies it. The loss of its use always gives rise to a vulnerable building, while by finding a new use for it, we continue to make it an object for development. By becoming a gathering place for a communal activity, it creates a social place, a belonging. This is the ferment of heritage.
Do you have any telling examples of such a renewed use?
Together with representatives of communal and cultural settings, my colleague who is an architectural historian, Luc Noppen, bought the Sainte-Brigide-de-Kildare Church in the Centre-Sud neighborhood of Montreal. Together, they transformed it bit by bit. The communal function of the church was in such a way extended through a secular lens, and by now, it serves the entire neighborhood.
On site, inside the church, the presbytery and a new pavilion, there is a cooperative artists’ residence, a center for runaways and another for itinerants, as well as spaces that serve to hold activities, like theatre and exhibits.
We are foreseeing welcoming a research and theatre arts centre for young people, a childcare centre, transitional apartments for the homeless ... In short, heritage blooms in interconnectivity with the local population.
What should one consider when deciding whether to preserve a building? Is age enough to preserve a building or is community paramount?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.