You know them~those buildings you walk up to that look heritage and wonderful from the front but once you are in them they are kind of a modern box. In many cases these are heritage buildings that have had their facades maintained as part of the development permit process, with the new modern building tucked in behind.

IMG_4186.jpgFacade Retention 200 block of Knightsbridge, London

Christopher Cheung in this Tyee article explores  why just maintaining a building’s old facade was perceived as conserving it, and why some developers will preserve the whole building, “Some developers will do more than the minimum preservation required if there’s an incentive: the prestige of saving a building beloved by the community; incorporating heritage features to make their condo project stand out; or to win extra density from the city.”

Christopher observes: “Density for preservation is a tricky exchange. Across the Salish Sea in Victoria, heritage advocates lobbied city council this month, worried that too much extra height and density is being offered to developers who are protecting too little heritage in the city’s Old Town.”

Architect Javier Campos, the president of Heritage Vancouver who bluntly states “Keeping a façade is an acceptable thing, and it was very popular in the 1980s and ’90s, but it’s so unidimensional. It’s such a shallow commemoration. To me, it’s one step above having a plaque. If it’s significant enough, the answer should be restoration.”

One project everyone is talking about is what is being called the “Up” house after the movie . An existing non conforming heritage  house in the old Mount Pleasant industrial district at 37 west 6th is having its facade replicated to be the entrance to a “glass walled office building that wraps a century-old house in a tight hug” according to the Daily Hive.

Are these “hybrid” buildings really worthwhile? Do they give a context to how the house was situated, and is it enough to offer the gesture of a rebuilt facade as the memory of the building that used to be there? Heritage Vancouver’s Bill Yuen talks about the spirit or mission of a building continuing its importance.

“It may be for its aesthetic purposes,” he said. “It could be people’s association with the place. It could be for use. It could be because it’s affordable. If you remove a mission from a building, then I would say it loses some of its success.”

But these hybrid buildings are becoming very popular, and there are divided opinions on whether they are effective or not  with both the conserved and the new style being read. Christopher Cheung cites the old downtown post office morphing in to “The Post” with two towers springing from the post office’s old roof to accommodate Amazon.

While the dialogue of what to preserve in building stock and also what to conserve as parts of buildings being redeveloped continues, Javier Campos states it succinctly.

“We have to realize we only have just over 100 years of history. Ninety percent of what we build will be torn down eventually. Give it 1,000 years. For people to think this is the best and greatest we can possibly do and that it’s finished and that we should keep it exactly the same — you’ve got to be crazy. We’re making heritage right now.”


Images: Materialicous.com & West6th.ca


  1. What % of people have an interest in heritage conservation beyond lip service?
    .05%? 1%?
    Of those, how many minutes (seconds) of their waking hours are spent contemplating such issues?
    It’s a fringe interest; like those fascinated by bric-a-brac.
    Capture elements, as Michael Kluckner did in words and images, and leave it at that.

    1. When you not only live in a heritage house, but renovated it for 20 years to restore heritage architecture and interiors lost during the unfortunate spate of “modernization” that occurred in the Disco Decade (not just a period of lost music…), your investment in blood, sweat, tears and debt occupies more than a few of your daily thoughts and contributes to a sense of accomplishment.

  2. I’m ok with a facade.
    It’s all the public will have experienced with most buildings anyway.
    Look at St. Paul’s – gut it, build up and over, do whatever you want but please keep the facade. Even if it means it raises costs and the only people who can afford it will be the offshore elite. It’ll still be worth it if we can keep that facade.

  3. A city is a vast array of facades, and their cumulative presence is the urban DNA imprint of culture and history. The story of cities isn’t all about commerce, commodities and traffic flow.

  4. Regarding that single house on West 6th – that style of house used to litter Downtown South. You’d be stuck in time with single family housing on the downtown peninsula if you preserved them all.

    Unless you build on virgin forest, you’ll be knocking something else down to build a new building.
    … and in order to get the high densities that can be served by rapid transit and avoid future outcries of demolition if you at first “build gently” (the result being multiple sequential demolitions, each with a NIMBY outcry), then you’ll have to build 50 storey towers in the woods.

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