Q & A: The Finder of Lost Value

Philip Goldsmith, principal of Toronto-based Goldsmith, Borgal and Co. Ltd., is a leading authority on building conservation, adaptive reuse and restoration. His impressive list of projects includes the North Toronto Station/LCBO Summerhill, Victoria Hall Theatre restoration, CIBC and Kitchener Regional Headquarters (all OAA Awards of Excellence recipients), the National Ballet School’s Grand Jet project, and the Don Valley Brickworks. Current projects include the exterior restoration of the Royal Conservatory of Music (with Toronto-based architecture firm KPMB) and the James Cooper Mansion condominium (with Tridel), both in Toronto. He sat down with Building magazine for a quick one-on-one about heritage buildings in Canada and the challenges he faces in his projects.

Building. What is the single biggest challenge you face when starting a project with a heritage component?

Philip Goldsmith: The heritage value of a property is not always apparent or easily understood. Therefore the first stage in any project is to determine what those values are, to inform any decision about how to use the resource. Values include physical condition, design, association with significant persons, contribution to the local context, and associative values. The usual “condition of the building” question we get asked routinely is an important factor but often a building looks worse than it is and deterioration can be repaired. Understanding value often requires considerable upfront research.

B. You’ve described what you do as the “third realm of architecture” — mixing new and old, not one to the exclusion of others. Why is this preferable to straight preservation?

PG: My interest is more about inclusion and balance than about exclusion or preference. The reason I describe it as a third area is because whereas we have become familiar with the polemic of either-or, preservation or the construction of new designs, the challenges of mixing new and old are less understood and the conflict between the two extremes is well documented. Working in the middle requires specialized skills, a different attitude and often considerable experience to be successful. I consider it a third speciality.

The growth and change of an urban area is inevitable, it has always been thus, and this includes modifications, additions, removals and alternate uses of existing historic buildings. When undertaking work in the middle ground, the balance of interests of each component require care and consideration. An understanding and respect for the heritage value of the old building and its potential for sensitive reuse is essential; as is the need to “position” the design of the new work in all aspects of design, materiality and functional arrangements. This positioning means that artistic whim or taste in current architectural style, scale, layout, functional distribution, and material selection needs to be modified relative to the heritage component and yet result in architectural excellence. There is no formula for this positioning, as a successful marriage is dependent upon a number of factors such as the unique context, relative scale of the parts, heritage values and so on.

All three areas of architectural work are valuable contributions to the healthy evolution of our culture and the physical success of urban areas, but the middle ground is the most complex with necessary skills and sensitivities spanning the entire architectural spectrum.

B. How would you grade Canada on its report card of heritage preservation?

PG: This depends upon the window of time and space through which we look. The best preserved urban areas in Canada are those which developed early and have had slow or no growth in recent years. Economic depression is the best preserver. Where development pressure exists in our major urban centers we have failed, as have many countries, over time, to preserve or reuse many significant structures or entire streetscapes with which we were blessed at the turn of the 20th century. On the other hand, Canadians have contributed to the understanding of preservation and become more sophisticated and successful with the preservation or adaptive reuse of buildings that remain. Our losses of significant heritage structures are considerable and unfortunate and the need to be vigilant of further potential loss of this dwindling cultural resource, ever more important. Generally, I would say we have just a passing grade relative to a serious worldwide problem.

B. What is your favourite building in Canada?

PG: This is an interesting question and difficult to answer. To distil favourite down to one building is impossible. I have favourites in various times, categories and situations. So setting aside any buildings we may have done, I’ll simply identify a few of the buildings I like that have inspired me over the years in no particular order; the central buildings of the University of Montreal by Ernest Cormier; Woodsworth College at the University of Toronto by KPMB; Massey College at the University of Toronto by Ron Thom and several buildings at Trent University, particularly the library by Thom; The Newton Library in Surrey B.C. by the Patkaus; The Museum of Archaeology and History; Pointe-a-Calliere Museum Montreal by Dan Hanganu; the Canadian Centre for Architecture by Peter Rose; Hillborn House by Arthur Erickson to name a few. Some of these projects have included older historic buildings, archaeological remains, and/or responded to their context and handled the mix of new and old very well.

B. What building, now lost, do you wish you could have worked on?

PG: We have lost so many truly outstanding buildings it is difficult to identify a single one I wish I had worked on. Being most familiar with Toronto I will identify Trinity College (1851, Kivas Tully architect) as a loss that has always been incomprehensible to me and a building, or group of buildings, in their Cambridge-like Gothic enthusiasm I wish I had known and would have been proud to have worked on, in the context of its period.

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