Preservation and Urban Renewal

Photograph of a skyscraper-lined street in Montreal circa 1960Photo from Jacques Dalibard's research project "The Image of Montreal"

In the mid-twentieth century, Canada’s economic boom saw grants become available for new infrastructure. The prevailing notion at the time was urban renewal, which proposed the complete replacement of existing urban areas with high-rises, skyscrapers, and superhighways inspired by Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.

Though it may seem destructive in retrospect, total redevelopment was considered essential for revitalization. Federal, provincial, and municipal governments made funds available for the demolition of older buildings and the construction of new structures that fit this model. The result was the replacement of entire sections of Canadian urban districts with high-density developments - higher in capacity than most cities required. By the economic slowdown of the 1970’s, vacancy rates were high for newly constructed office complexes and residential high-rises.[1]

Heritage preservation emerged as a concern after the Second World War, when the wholesale destruction of historic sections of cities throughout the world was witnessed. Many European cities rebuilt their historic buildings in an attempt to restore what had been lost. In the wake of these events, UNESCO passed the Hague Convention of 1954, whereby the signatories pledged to keep heritage safe in the event of an armed conflict. Though it was relatively untouched by the Second World War’s destructive power, heritage conservation also became a priority in the United States as historic buildings came into the possession of commercial enterprises that would demolish them in favour of more modern buildings.[2] The cultural guilt experienced over the loss of physical monuments from the past in pursuit of empire and wealth on both sides of the Atlantic brought about a new interest in preserving old buildings. How could the destructive cycle be broken?

This new attention to restoring and maintaining historic buildings required a new approach to construction that would consider a structure’s origins. This had implications not only with regard to selecting chronologically appropriate materials, but also in terms of using appropriate tools and building methods.[3] The sudden demand for skilled labourers, who could understand the techniques in use at the time of a building’s original construction led to training programs in heritage preservation.

Photograph of Canadian city with highway running throughPhotograph of Canadian downtown with highway running through centre

Unlike Europe and the United States, Canada’s historic buildings were younger and faced a different threat. Most at risk were the downtowns of Canadian cities that municipal and provincial governments were eager to demolish in favour of urban renewal projects. Canadian downtowns usually dated from the nineteenth century, with a few earlier exceptions. Tax incentives provided encouragement for developers to demolish old buildings and replace them with new structures. Furthermore, the rise of suburban areas threatened historic urban districts by segregating residential and commercial neighbourhoods and by reproducing monotonous, uniform architecture, aesthetically unrepresentative of the community and its location.[4] If the trend continued, the distinct and region-specific features of Canada’s built heritage could disappear and be replaced by homogenous suburbs and shopping complexes, erasing any local identity. In this sense, heritage conservation was, at its root, a project of cultural preservation in the face of modern cultural homogeneity.

Jacques Dalibard’s early encounters with Canada’s built heritage put him in direct contact with stakeholders in development projects and in a position to find a compromise between the imperatives of urban renewal and heritage preservation. Later, as Chief Restoration Architect for the National Parks and Historic Sites Branch and Executive Director of the Heritage Canada Foundation, Dalibard would advocate this middle ground and support it through programs such as Main Street Canada. He also argued that these interests could be aligned with environmental conservation, since incorporating heritage preservation was a step towards sustainable development. Combining heritage with environmental sustainability would be the logical next step.

[1] Jacques Dalibard, "Canada’s Contribution to Cultural Preservation", 1984, A-970; “The Management of the Built Environment”, 1981, A-970

[2] Blake Clarke “Wanton Disregard for Our Heritage”; Charles E. Peterson, “Preservation: An Emerging Profession”, Philosophy, A-824

[3] Dalibard, “Ancient Woodworking Tools and Techniques: Egyptian, Greek, and Roman”, A-970

[4] Clarke “Wanton Disregard”; Peterson, “Preservation”, Philosophy, A-824