Heritage for whom? conserving community spaces
National Trust for Canada and Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada
Summary of findings
This research session series, chaired by Giaimo Creative Director Stephanie Mah, explored the question of “heritage for whom?” through an understanding of how diverse community spaces across Canada have been created, renewed, evolved, conserved, or lost. How can community members and historians document the ephemeral use of architecture through sources like digital media, photography, oral histories, and personal archives? What case studies can provide models for communities seeking to preserve their spatial histories with few physical resources? This research aims to support grassroots community members in conserving and celebrating their cultural heritage by collecting a range of examples of programming, documentation, advocacy, and other case studies that use methods that extend beyond typical heritage conservation practices in Ontario, and sharing their lessons learned. It also looks to facilitate conversations within the industry and work towards more equitable and inclusive definitions of heritage conservation.
While the relationship between architecture and community are intrinsically intertwined, the built form of “community spaces” is not easily defined by any specific style, design, or building typology. Though there are many purpose-built community buildings across Canada, including community and recreation centres, performance venues, and town halls, many community spaces often evolve organically and informally from the community itself in a diverse range of buildings and landscapes – from strip malls to public parks. These spaces are then defined by the activities that take place, and, more specifically, the people who use, gather, and connect within them. In using the space, the community creates their own connection to the surrounding built environment, forming a relationship between the social and architectural. To this end, some community spaces receive protection through architectural conservation practices and processes across Canada that focus on preserving historic structures and buildings deemed to have heritage value. However, through this same process, many community spaces are excluded, with no way to ensure the conservation of the intangible and social elements such as the cultural value, use, and programming, and more broadly placekeeping, stewardship, and accessibility.
The first iteration of this research session took place at the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 2022 Annual Conference in Montreal, the second at the National Trust for Canada and Canadian Association of Heritage 2022 Annual Conference in Toronto. Speakers and case studies included:
Lulu Wei is a Toronto-based director and cinematographer, who holds an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University. Lulu’s work explores themes of urbanization, cultural identity and queerness. Lulu’s debut feature documentary There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace premiered at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in 2020 and won a Rogers Audience Award. A broadcast version of TNPLTPA was commissioned by the CBC and received two Canadian Screen Award nominations for directing and writing. This documentary looks at the transformation of a much-loved Toronto landmark, the Honest Ed’s block, through the stories of its community members who are forced to relocate when it is sold to a developer. The film chronicles the evolution of their lives as they reconcile their history with the future, all while facing the biggest housing crisis the country has ever seen.
Maryssa Barras is an archaeologist who is interested in heritage ethics, regulation, policy, and legislation, and co-created Points of Pride. Cynthia is a curator, previously at the City of Hamilton where she led the development and implementation of Hamilton 175. Like most other Canadian cities Hamilton, Ontario’s queer heritage is hard to access and identify. In addition to being stigmatized, the marginalisation of the Queer community has excluded its built and spatilised heritage from meeting designation requirements. In response to a lack of visibility for the city’s queer heritage, the Points of Pride community based project was founded in 2020 with the goal to help map and re-spatialize Hamilton’s queer history. As a grassroots project PoP was supported by and realised by the City of Hamilton through their 175th anniversary celebrations.
Joginder is an architectural photographer. His recently completed MFA thesis at Toronto Metropolitan University documented the adaptive reuse of Christian Religious Architecture by other diverse faiths. Through photography and sound, a sampling of churches that have been converted to mosques and temples across Ontario and Quebec are explored, questioning if these transformations are a form of decolonization or if they perpetuate a continuum of colonial architectural expression. These heritage spaces are transformed layer by layer and are adapted to the religious practices of the new inhabitants and communities. The “original,” however, is largely evident and co-exists symbiotically with the “altered.” Interventions are made mostly to the interior of these spaces and the new occupants grapple with a form that does not necessarily align with their religious practices, often resulting in diverse communities being hidden behind colonial heritage-designated facades.
Cynthia is Professor of art History at Concordia University. La ville extraordinaire is a three-year Partnership Development oral history research-creation project that aims to understand the ways in which diverse communities have shaped the city of Montreal over time. The project includes interviews with older (broadly defined) residents of the city, including members of the Filipino-, Haitian-, and Chinese-Montreal communities, as well as less clearly delineated groups, such as older sex workers and older adults who face literacy challenges. In their interviews to date, core themes have emerged around the vitality of collective identification with specific sites in the city, as well as spatial practices (such as Haitian soccer games and traditional Filipino dancing) that claim no particular built environment but which produce community space wherever they are performed. What emerges from this research is a vital, polyvalent spatial story about the city of Montreal, one which complicates the well-rehearsed settler narrative of the English and the French fighting for cultural supremacy. It also sheds light on urban sites that range from the mundane to the monumental, recasting them in the light of individual and community meaning. It also shows how, in the palace of memory, community spaces that have long since fallen to the developer’s wrecking ball remain profoundly and unequivocally alive.
Despite the close historic relationship between architecture and heritage in practice,
considerations of heritage are often ignored by architectural historians. Heritage scholars have
observed that academics tend to dismiss heritage as simplistic and populist, perhaps to guard the ivory tower and notions of “expertise.” Unfortunately, this translates into the ways in which architecture is taught at the postsecondary level. This begs several questions: How might we change the standard model? How can we better integrate heritage into our architectural history teaching? How can we mobilize students in the community? Can we get students interested in heritage?
Since 2021, Dr. Jessica Mace has been conducting experiential education at the University of Toronto, using heritage as an educational resource to serve the diverse student body. This includes 1) a course project in which Canadian architecture students worked directly with a local heritage organization to produce public-facing articles, and 2) internship placements wherein students worked with community partners in architecture and heritage.