The New Courthouse
Construction of Waterloo Region’s new Mega Courthouse is well underway on the block bordered by Duke, Frederick, Weber and Scott Streets. It will add yet another monumental single-use block to the downtown, which does have a certain urban sexiness to it, especially in those sleek computerized renderings, and I do believe that it will bring more employment and money to the area.
However, I don’t think it will contribute to the street life around it as much as we hope, unless it incorporates space for uses other than the courts themselves, such as street-facing shops or restaurants that can be accessed by other people in the neighbourhood. It borders two busy roads, Weber and Frederick, as well as two large office blocks: the enormous Galleria office building on the other side of Weber, and the backside of the Market Square on Duke, featuring a slowly disintegrating parking garage. The new courthouse will continue this trend of usage, without adding any additional interest to the area for passersby. Both Frederick and Scott have more activity than the rest, holding a handful of shops, restaurants, a church and a YWCA between them, but Frederick is quite wide and well-trafficked, and will not be easily crossed mid-block by pedestrians coming from the new courthouse. All in all, I think that without additional uses, the project will reinforce the dullness that afflicts the blocks north of King Street on foot, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it is.
The Old Courthouse(s)
That said, I really wanted to focus on the two old courthouse buildings and what might become of them after the brand-spanking-new facility obsolesces them. At the moment, the plans aren’t clear, but according to The Record the superior courthouse is informally slated to be remodeled for use as more civic offices, thus maintaining the status quo of the Civic Centre block. No plan has been announced for the provincial courthouse as of yet.
I think there are two major areas of consideration that should be included in any proposal for these sites. The first area of consideration (and the more obvious) is pragmatic, but not only in regards to how the buildings can better serve the city as a bureaucracy; how can they better serve the city as a physical and social entity as well? The second area of consideration is cultural: what kind of historic value do these buildings have and to what extent must they be preserved?
From a bureaucratic standpoint, I can understand how filling these buildings with more regional offices would make sense; however, as Jane Jacobs points out many times in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, these types of building uses, which bring many people to the downtown for work during the day, would do much more for the rest of the downtown (both vitality- and safety-wise) if they were intermingled with other uses, rather than all stuffed into one solid block, cut off from the heart of the city by wide streets with plenty of car traffic. Furthermore, the inhabitants of these intermingled offices would benefit from convenient shops and restaurants a few steps from their workplace.
Of course, there are two ways that one could begin to mingle these uses – bringing the offices to the other uses or bringing the other uses to the offices. The latter is a much more viable option at this moment, since an opportunity has presented itself to change the use pattern of the sometimes less-than-lively Civic Centre.
As this artist’s rendering suggests, the Civic Centre was imagined almost as a university campus, with several important-looking buildings floating in fields of green. This sort of plan often works for a university mostly because there is plenty of traffic between buildings as students and professors move from home to class to meal to class, and other uses such as residences, cafeterias and sometimes shops are integrated into the campus – not so here. As I spoke about in my last post, this type of large, essentially single-use block in the middle of a city tends to create border vacuums – large areas of disinterest to pedestrians unless they are going to the area for a very specific purpose (i.e. visiting the library, working in one of the buildings or attending a court date, art exhibition or concert). There is nothing to draw people into entering or leaving the Civic Centre block on a whim, which means the nearby downtown strip doesn’t benefit as greatly as it could from the large number of people working there, the workers don’t benefit as greatly as they could from convenient nearby food, shops, etc., and both the K-W Art Gallery and the Centre in the Square box office probably get less by-the-way pedestrian traffic than they could.
The ideal solution to this problem is to try and knit the various elements of the Civic Centre into the rest of the downtown as best we can, rather than maintaining the status quo. As Jacobs puts it:
“The main difficulty with civic centres, especially those that contain buildings such as auditoriums and halls, bringing huge concentrations of people for relatively brief times, is to find other primary uses at least roughly proportionate in the concentrations of people that they can supply at other times of day. There still has to be room, somewhere, for the range and amount of secondary diversity that these combined intensive uses can support; and of course the problem exists of insufficient older buildings for a good range of secondary diversity. In short, the trouble is that many civic and cultural centre components make sense only as elements of intensive downtown or central use, and to try to make them serve so, once they have been abstracted into islands, means trying to move the mountain to Mahomet. […] A more practical way to approach reintegration in most cases, I think, is to aim at disassembling these centres, over periods of time. Disassembly can occur as opportunity and expediency permit it. The point is to watch for the opportunities. […] If assembled components of cultural and civic islands are disassembled and leave their islands, one by one, as opportunity affords, entirely different uses can be put in their places – preferably uses that will not only be different rather than similar, but that, in their differences, will supplement what remains in the project.” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 402-403; bold mine)
One of the good things about our Civic Centre is that there are multiple primary uses that supplement each other well: the courts, libraries and offices offer a good amount of daytime use, while the art gallery and concert hall offer more afterwork and evening use (though granted, these uses are more segregated within the block than is desirable). What the block still lacks is additional spaces for secondary uses, such as shops or cafés that would continue to help knit the block into the rest of the neighbourhood. The crucial component of adding any new uses of this kind to the block is that they must be usable by and useful to those who work on the block, those who use the block for recreation in the evenings, the residents who live near the block and passersby from the downtown. Only then will the block’s border vacuums begin to disintegrate through cross-use and the block begin to feel more part of the neighbourhood around it.
Adding spaces for secondary uses on the ground floor of the superior courthouse would be one option for achieving this goal, though the width and traffic of Duke Street, and the fact that the building is set back so far from the sidewalk presents an issue there. This site would probably need more creativity put into rearranging its grounds to make any secondary use effective. Perhaps the sides of the building facing onto Queen and Frederick Streets (which are currently just cement walls with a couple windows) could perhaps support new entrances with secondary uses attached to them. A patio might be effective on the Queen Street side where there is less traffic and the scenery is more interesting.
The provincial courthouse, on the other hand, shows more promise for immediate conversion. It could still have offices on the upper floors and in the interior of the building, but many of its ground floor and street-facing areas could be converted into other uses that might serve the neighbourhood better. In particular, most of the front of the building, with its green spaces and its large paved entrance area, could serve as patio spaces if they were beautified and the tint of the windows was eliminated.
Likewise, the second floor of the building has a dead court yard that could be converted into a lovely patio area if more windows, trees and gardens were added, and if it was made more accessible to the Centre in the Square/KWAG complex as well as Ellen Street. This plan could also eliminate the rather boring cement wall that faces many of the houses on Ellen Street currently. In theory, if a reasonably-priced, attractive restaurant that stayed open late moved into this location, it could serve all of the folks that live, work and play nearby (though of course, residents would have to give the project approval, considering that it would potentially add more nightlife to their area).
“It is sad but true that Kitchener has little patience for architectural heritage. Of this, the city is replete with examples:
In the 1960s, Kitchener scrapped its old Carnegie Foundation public library at Queen and Weber Street, where a high-rise commercial tower stands today. In 1964, the splendid Waterloo County court house on Weber Street was knocked down to make way for the new and improved version, which now rests like a fat white stick broken in the middle.
In 1979-80, the city bulldozed old homes along Queen Street to make way for an arts centre. in 1979, the Dunker Building, among others, was razed and replaced with a chunky mud-red edifice called the King Centre, which blocks the view down Charles Street.
Even now the impertinence of people in a rush to pile up new bricks continues as conveniently neglected old homes along Ellen Street are swept aside to make way for condos. And next, what little charm that remains along a downtown portion of Frederick Street will be lost when trees are cut by Waterloo Region and replaced with even more concrete and asphalt.
Just what the city needs.
– Ron Eade, “Market Square gets an overdue facelift,” K-W Record, Mar 24, 1986.
The Civic Centre area felt the brunt of this impatience, losing many historic homes and other buildings throughout its steady relationship with the bulldozer. To me, the mass-destruction of these buildings raises a twofold question. Firstly, how old does something have to be before it is protected as a heritage site (by law or otherwise)? Apparently, there was no protection for the Carnegie Library or the many mansions that used to exist where most of the Civic Centre is now. Secondly, does it matter what the age cutoff is? After all, if certain buildings aren’t protected when they are young, they frankly won’t survive to become old – particularly in Kitchener. Truly, the issue of built heritage isn’t a matter of age, but a matter of judging cultural importance regardless of age.
The irony is that many buildings that do survive aren’t of cultural importance in the sense of their noteworthy architecture or their fascinating history. On the contrary, they gain cultural importance simply because of the fact that they survived. Take the Lang Tannery for instance: a rather unassuming industrial building that lost its initial use long ago, but has recently become culturally significant because it survived so much “urban renewal” in the downtown. It did so by flying under the radar, becoming a (presumably) low-rent space for the interim years.
Meanwhile, the mansions that used to occupy the Civic Centre block, which were more architecturally interesting and housed more historically noteworthy people, did not survive. There are probably many factors that contributed to this irony, but my guess is that the very fact that the tannery was in an undesirable part of the downtown (the Kitchener Urban Renewal Committee’s report on the downtown from 1965 describes this industrial area melodramatically as “the area of mass-production of subservience to the machine”) actually protected it from any urban renewal projects on the scale of the Civic Centre since they usually sought to be constructed in places of importance (places that were important mostly because of what was torn down by such projects). These places of importance had no natural protection in the age of urban renewal, but we’re long past that now, right?
As a further irony, I believe some of the buildings that were erected as part of such urban renewal projects now potentially face the same fate as the mansions, particularly the provincial courthouse, with its dour brutalist facade. These buildings are no longer new enough to be considered modern and exciting, and yet are not old enough to be considered heritage sites or even to be considered historically valuable by general public consensus. They occupy the equivalent of a person’s awkward teenage years; no longer cute and not yet sufficiently distinguished, their pimply faces, gangly bodies and crackling voices embarrass their peers who have to hang out with them. (Those poor houses on Ellen Street!)
But just because such buildings have fallen out of fashion and were constructed at the expense of other important historic buildings, does not mean that we should destroy them as well in a fit of vengeful nostalgia. Although most people I know in Kitchener would probably scoff at this, I think the provincial courthouse should be considered a site of architectural significance in the region. It was built by John Lingwood, a local architect who contributed many prominent buildings to the region, including the original Market Square Shopping Centre, the Laurel Vocational School, Forest Hill United Church, St Paul’s Lutheran Church and the TD Bank at the corner of Francis and King Streets. He was one of a handful of Kitchener architects who built in a Modernist style with a local flavour, and at least some of his buildings should be regarded as landmarks of changing architectural tastes in the region. To destroy these buildings, is to destroy our future built history.
As for the challenging aesthetic of the provincial courthouse itself, brutalist architecture was very much in vogue in many major cities around the world at the time our courthouse was built – particularly in Montreal and Toronto. A fantastic book on the subject of such architecture in Toronto was written recently called Concrete Toronto. It includes such noteworthy buildings as Toronto City Hall, The CN Tower, Yorkdale Mall, the Ontario Science Centre and Robarts Library at U of T, as well as a slew of other hidden concrete gems throughout the area. Similarly, in Reyner Banham’s book Megastructure, which traces the course of the ’60s megastructure movement in architecture, includes an entire chapter on Montreal (Megacity Montreal) because of the abundance of this type of uncompromising concrete architecture there. That is why the provincial courthouse in Kitchener should be considered a significant piece of architecture; it is the region’s own manifestation of this major architectural movement whose historical merit continues to grow as time goes on.
Amongst us humans, the awkward teenage years that these buildings unfortunately occupy are also known as one’s “formative years,” and like some humans, certain buildings of this age need guidance on how to proceed into maturity – rather than punishment for not being cute anymore. To take on a paternalistic tone: we must find ways that these at-risk buildings can grow up to be productive members of society! Like I’ve suggested in my pragmatic considerations, we must teach them to get involved in their neighbourhoods.
Really, both the pragmatic and cultural/historical considerations are two sides of the same coin, and they offer each other mutual support. Buildings are more likely to survive to become culturally significant if they are useful and integrated into the neighbourhoods around them, and even if the bulldozer does come a-knockin’, one can make a stronger argument for saving such a building if it occupies an important role in the community. Eventually, such buildings will become assets rather than liabilities if they survive to become a quintessential identifying factor of a neighbourhood, not unlike the much-applauded Lang Tannery or perhaps more surprisingly the smokestack across Joseph Street from the Tannery, both of which were considered a blight upon the city, once upon a time.