The debate over some of the old buildings at the former Lang Tannery site in Kitchener is yet another indication of how poor planning, architectural indifference and a disregard for history have made for blight instead of brilliance when it comes to our built environment.
The four old brick buildings at the centre of the latest controversy are certainly not the brightest architectural gems in the region, bereft though it is of much that falls into that category. But they’re much better than what’s proposed for the downtown site: a gravel parking lot.
To be fair, the developer’s overall plan for the site is a good one, keeping intact the main buildings. The idea is to offer a mix of business and social space. There will be offices for technology companies and those catering to the nearby university health sciences facilities. And new restaurants and retail uses, with an eye to making the spot more than a 9-to-5 location.
But sacrificing the old one-storey buildings for parking, already an eyesore in Kitchener, is unwarranted. Convenient to the developer, perhaps, but does not improve the core.
Kitchener council, however, seems resigned to the demolition, doing little to prevent it. The city claims it can do nothing, despite expert advice noting the municipality has the power to prevent the loss of yet another piece of history. The handwringing over the dreck that replaces demolished old buildings is a common scenario in the region, of course. Apparently, the message hasn’t sunk in, however. What’s that line about those who forget the past?
The buildings now facing the wrecking ball are good, solid structures, offering the opportunity to repurpose them while maintaining the historic exteriors. That’s a useful and rapidly declining trait in these days of disposable architecture.
Along with being neither pleasing enough to keep nor built with craftsmanship worth retaining, today’s new buildings are often designed in such a way that they couldn’t easily be maintained and rebuilt in order to extend their lives.
The Lang Tannery project itself shows what can be done with old industrial buildings. The same is true of a host of other projects, from the Kaufman lofts to the buildings salvaged at the former Seagram distillery in Waterloo. In the townships, old mills have been turned into restaurants and shops, for instance.
Apart from the historical significance, the loss of old buildings deprives us of the only structures with lasting aesthetic appeal.
Today’s factories, located in out-of-the-way industrial parks and consisting of a steel skeleton clad in metal sheeting, are not candidates for repurposing, the lifeblood of an evolving community.
Older buildings, made of simple, workable materials – steel, wood, bricks and glass – can be made to last, and are much friendlier to the environment. That provides for cleaner living, the absence of the materials found in today’s sick buildings. And the structures are more durable, making them a better choice for the environment than continually demolishing and replacing them.
That’s what’s really at stake in the Lang Tannery debate, an issue with implications that reach far beyond downtown Kitchener.