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Inspired by Wal*Mart

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fantasy Land

By Sarah Powell

Recently, in my small home town of Port Perry, permission was granted to a commercial property developer, Smart Centres, to build a Wal*Mart Superstore where there used to be farm land, a driving range, and a mini-putt. It was heart wrenching to drive past the allotted land and see all the trees that divided up the farm pasture felled, and realize that despite furious opposition from many groups in the community, the big box construction was indeed going to happen.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a pub with my hubby and a few friends, one of whom is an architect. Fresh out of his Masters degree, his first job is to come to Port Perry and do a survey on the future development of the town. And in discussing the Wal*Mart issue, he made a wonderful statement: “They (the town council) should force Wal*Mart to make it the greenest Wal*Mart on the planet.” The idea has really grabbed me.

While I doubt very much that our piddly little council could make Wal*Mart do much of anything, I was intrigued enough to do a little web surfing on the subject of green, or sustainable, architecture. The wikipedia article on it is good enough for a definition; “in the broad context, sustainable architecture seeks to minimize the negative environmental impact of buildings by enhancing efficiency and moderation in the use of materials, energy, and development space.” One aspect of sustainable architecture is adaptive re-use, or the re-development of unused space for a new purpose. And you might be surprised how much adaptive redevelopment is going on.

BCE Place in Toronto. See the old and the new?Adaptive re-use is an important aspect of sustainable architecture for three reasons. Firstly, it recycles existing materials. Not everything in an old building can be buffed for modern use, but many things like bricks, and windows, and flooring outlast the initial (and even some subsequent) uses of a building. Reusing them seems like an easy choice. Secondly, if we reuse those materials, then the retrofitting of old buildings can make economic sense. There are some places that just need to be torn down, and that repairing would be way too expensive, but for each one of those, I bet there’s still a lot of reclamation work that can go on in and around them first. And finally, the one dearest to my heart, we need to keep these older buildings for aesthetic and cultural reasons. If nothing else, the 50s, 60s, and 70s have taught us that. The ugly, dated architecture we have from those decades is, largely, horrible. I wonder how many beautiful old buildings we destroyed so we could put up concrete wonders.

Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, LondonThere are the famous examples of course. The one that immediately comes to mind is the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London, first opened in May 2000. I had the pleasure of visiting it on my trip to England in 2003, and while it helped me determine that I am definitely not a modern art lover, I could certainly appreciate the inventive use of the building. The big, open spaces of the old Bankside Power Station on the river Thames lend themselves perfectly to the ultra-modern.

This is the coolest rock-wall climbing centre I've ever seen!But that’s London. They have high taxes, and a voracious tourist appetite to feed. Of course, there are loads more examples worldwide: Sydney, Australia, with the Sydney Powerhouse Museum, a museum of science and technology; the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, a converted railway station; and one of my favourites – St. Werburgh, a 15th cen. Golthic church in Bristol, England, that houses the Bristol Climbing Centre. Imagine rock-wall climbing there!

Even here in humble ol’ Toronto we have many examples of adaptive re-use ; the uber-trendy Distillery, the Don Valley Brick Works (still under adaptation into an environmentally based community centre), and even 51 Division Headquarters of the Toronto Police Services, now housed in what was once the West Gas Purifying House. This last one even won an award for the careful restoration, and sympathetic blending of old and new building materials.

This is not the format for an in-depth analysis of adaptive re-use architecture, and I am not even an armchair architecture scholar. But it seems to me that even my examples offer solid support for the practicality of adaptive re-use in sustainable development. Why waste the resources our grandparents and their parents left us – they’re available, and they’re beautiful. While the mini-putt and driving range hardly offer themselves for adaptive re-use, I bet if Wal*Mart tried hard enough, they could find plenty of places to use, without the treeless, souless, paved parking lot wastelands that they usually inhabit. We just need to force them to look a little harder. llewopharas

One Comment leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, May 29, 2007 12:05 pm

    The problem with Walmart is their business model. They actively seek out areas on the edge of suburbia and just plop a store down there, so there’s usually not much around to save.

    But the examples you listed in Toronto are good ones — I’ve seen many examples of this sort of development in the last few years. That first pic you posted is BCE Place, which, as you see, was built around an old bank building on the site.

    Other examples are the new Ballet School of Canada on Jarvis and that new UofT building on St. George which I don’t know the name of. Maple Leaf Gardens is also awaiting redevelopment into either a grocery store or something else.

    York University also made a commitment to all their new buildings being as sustainable as possible (one of them even won an award when it opened).

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