Applying What You Know: Reading the Built Environment

Learning to read your built environment – your city – helps you to form tangible connections to where you live. In turn, your sense of place and community increases. You feel ownership and responsibility for your town or city, which allows for better planning and smart development. The longer you live somewhere and study, the better you get to know a place; the more you love it.

But what happens you go someplace new? How do you read the built environment if you know nothing about its history? Good question. The best part of learning to read the layers of the built environment is that you can gain a sense of place and understanding without needing to know its cultural history. How do you do that?  By observing and translating the elements of the built environment you see the development and changes.

Elements of the built environment include street patterns (gridded or not?), buildings (height, architectural style, materials), parking lots (where? garages?), sidewalks (width, material?), landscaping (trees?), bridges (type?), utilities (underground wires or telephone poles?), and more.

I want to share an example that I used in my recent Built Environment lecture. It’s simple, but a good place to start. Ready to play along? And, go!

Recently, I traveled through Prescott, Ontario, a town on Canada Route 2 along the St. Lawrence River. I stopped in what appeared to be the center of town. As a preservationist, I always enjoy getting out of the car and wandering for a few blocks to snap photos and observe the area, stare at buildings – that sort of thing.

Here is the view standing on the corner of Centre Street and Route 2. Note the historic building block on the right. On the left, however, is a large parking lot. Parking lots always raise an eyebrow for me – why is there a large parking lot in the center of town? Historically, towns were not built with parking lots in the middle. Let’s have a look around.


Parking lot (left) & historic building block (right) in the center of Prescott.



Top left: the same historic building block mentioned above. Right: tower and parking lot at the SW corner of Route 2 and Centre Street. Bottom left: The same parking lot as seen from the other end of it (note clock tower behind the tree).


You can see the photos above. Now let’s step across the street. These Google street views (below) show that SW corner (in the first photo I stood next to the clock tower).

Once I did a 360 observation of the block I had a few guesses. In the United States, if there is a hole (read: parking lot) in a town or city, I automatically think 1960s Urban Renewal era. However, this was Canada, so I wasn’t sure on Urban Renewal.

But, the drug store adjacent to the parking lot had a mid 20th century vibe (see image below). The general automobile culture (1950s/60s) often falls in line with demolition and parking lots for auto-centric businesses.


Google Street views of the corner and drug store.

My guess? A historic building was demolished for the drug store and parking lot, and the clock tower built on the edge of the parking lot to “honor” the historic building. Classic, right? Always the preservation nerd, I did some Googling to see if I could find information about Prescott development. It took a while, but eventually I did find my answer!

Yes, there was a historic building there. This one:


Prescott, Ontario 1876 Town Hall. The clock tower was a later addition.

According to this source, the town hall was demolished in the early 1960s due to neglect and lack of available funds in the town for repair. While I couldn’t find when the drug store was built, I have a pretty good guess that it followed shortly after demolition of the town hall.

While this was not the most uplifting example of reading the landscape, it is important to understand how our cities and towns are shaped by individual projects and decisions. And the lesson? When you see a large hole in the center, spin around and look around. It’s probably not supposed to be there.


ROM: A Museum Addition with Much To Say

Institutions grow out of their historic buildings as their functions and purposes change and time progresses. They will need new space. Architects design the latest trends, looking to make a mark on the world. Preservationists seek to find common ground and conversation between historic buildings and architects. Yet, architecture – old and new – remains subjective. The Royal Ontario Museum (“ROM”) in Toronto, Canada is a prime case study for this discussion.

Let’s start here:

The Royal Ontario Museum  (

The Royal Ontario Museum (“ROM”) in Toronto, Canada.

What is that?, you might ask. That is the 1912 Royal Ontario Museum building with the 2007 “Crystal” addition designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. Intriguing, yes? Take a look at more photos before we talk (and click here for the project photos from Studio Libeskind).

The view across the street.

The view across the street.

The glass facades provides interesting angles and reflections of the adjacent historic buildings.

The glass facades provides interesting angles and reflections of the adjacent buildings.

View down the street towards the entrance to the museum (via the Crystal).

View down the street towards the entrance to the museum (via the Crystal).

My first question: is that addition over the building or through the building?

My first question: is that addition over the building or through the building?

Checking out the connection on the facade.

Checking out the connection on the facade.

The Crystal peeks over the side of the building, too.

The Crystal peeks over the side of the building, too.

Still with me? It’s a crazy building, but you can’t ignore it or turn away, right? Unable to answer the question of how does the addition connect to the original building from the outside, I ventured inside. Here’s what I found:

The atrium, of sorts.

The atrium, of sorts.

I walked around to see the wall junctions. The Crystal addition creates odd shaped spaces.

I walked around to see the wall junctions. The Crystal addition creates odd shaped spaces.

Another connection view.

Another connection view.

In many places, the addition seems to be a facade for the original.

In many places, the addition seems to be a facade for the original.

The entire floor of the new building sloped towards the front door; a little disorienting for those of us accustomed to walking on generally level surfaces. After chatting with one of the employees, I learned that the building was quite controversial and does not have plumbing (it remains in the original building). Interesting. This employee indicated that the addition had a lot of political pressure behind it.

Regardless of public opinion, I want discuss, with you, the addition in terms of historic preservation (or heritage conservation as the Canadians say). Is this style of architecture appropriate for the historic 1912 museum? Is it intriguing? Atrocious? Offensive? Welcoming?

The architect’s portfolio describes the addition as this:

The entire ground level is unified into a seamless space with clarity of circulation and transparency.  The Crystal transforms the ROM’s fortress-like character, turning it into an inspired atmosphere dedicated to the resurgence of the Museum as the dynamic centre of Toronto.

The design succeeds in inviting glimpses up, down, into galleries and even from the street. The large entrance atrium, the Gloria Hyacinth Chen Court, separates the old historic building from the new, providing a nearly complete view of the restored façades of the historic buildings.   The Chen Court also serves as a venue space for all kinds of public events.

Where to start? Well, it’s interesting. It does offer glimpses of the other buildings. One street facade is restored. Still, is this an appropriate treatment of this historic building? Let’s consider what the National Parks Service and Parks Canada would say.

In the United States, we follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation when dealing with historically significant buildings and new additions or alterations, most notably the following two:

  • (#3) Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.
  • (#9) New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.

In Canada, the regulations are not identical, though Parks Canada has The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. Similar to the US Standards, Parks Canada offers this about rehabilitation:

  • (#2) Conserve the heritage value and character-defining elements when creating any new additions to an historic place or any related new construction. Make the new work physically and visually compatible with, subordinate to and distinguishable from the historic place.
  • (#3) Create any new additions or related new construction so that the essential form and integrity of a historic place will not be impaired if the new work is removed in the future.

Basically, both the US & Canada’s guidelines say that new addition should be recognizable as new and simultaneously compatible with the old and the environment. And, should the addition be removed it should not impact the historic building (presumably the historic – the more prominent building – would be the one remaining). Due to these standards and guidelines, additions are often subservient to their predecessors. Setback from the original, additions employ similar architectural features without being renditions. Sometimes they are successful. Sometimes they are boring, because – at least if they’re boring – the additions do not overpower the original. From one streetscape, the Crystal overpowers the original, wouldn’t you say?

If we’re talking personal opinion: I like it for its intriguing angles and new approach to additions (I’m tired of boring additions that look like subdued versions of the old, unless the environment calls for such a thing). Yet, after looking through the architect’s portfolio and searching for other modern buildings, this one is not as unique as I would have expected.

But, on a professional review: the addition does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. It is not visually compatible and removal would damage the building. However, is it not visually compatible because we’re not trained to read buildings with striking modern additions? Should we redefine how we look at buildings and additions? After all, there are countless style-less additions that ruin buildings. Maybe this one doesn’t ruin it so much as highlight a restored facade and engage conversation and community.

What do you think? Does it comply with the Standards? If yes, how? If no, should we look at the Standards in a new way? Or do you despise such modern architecture?

I’d love to have a discussion and hear your thoughts, so please comment below if you’d like to join.

I am a Historic Preservationist.

I am a Historic Preservationist.

I love historic buildings, districts, landscapes, historic bridges, comprehensive planning,  sidewalks, rehabilitation, revitalization of downtown, small and local businesses, proper infill, kitschy roadside  Americana, blue highways, heritage tourism, National Parks, open space, maps, coffee and flamingos.

I will wade barefoot through flooded roads to get to the historic bridges.

I define myself as a historic preservationist and I’m proud of it. 

How do you define your profession?

Architectural Historian? Historian? Heritage preservationist? Heritage conservationist? Other?

And why?

Does it make a difference to you?

Please explain. I’m curious.

The Next Generation of Heritage Professionals

Who Will Advocate for Next Generation of Heritage Professionals? A Cautionary Tale for University Preservation Programs.

This is an important issue, addressed by Jeff Guin of Voices of the Past and Northwestern State University of Louisiana, on the Voices of the Past blog. Click to read the well-written, composed, and emotional full post by Jeff. I’ll share pieces of it here. The story begins like this:

Losing a historic structure is a sad thing. Losing generations of folks to expertly protect cultural heritage is much, much worse.

This past week, Louisiana’s Board of Supervisors for higher education rubber-stamped a proposal from Northwestern State University of Louisiana to eliminate the university’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees in heritage resources just as these groundbreaking interdisciplinary programs were hitting their strides. The Master of Arts in Heritage Resources (MAHR) was on track to triple its number of graduates in the next year.

In the article, Jeff explains how the program is self-sustaining and low-cost, and how the program has grown in size and popularity over the past few years, mostly due the tireless efforts of the faculty. The mission of the MAHR program is:

To provide students with opportunities to become highly motivated, knowledgeable, and skillful professionals who, by working with federal and state agencies, historic preservation groups, and property owners as well as others, are able to develop integrated preservation strategies to protect and manage the total range of the country’s heritage.

This program was supported by the community and the students and professionals in the preservation field. Yet, the University chose to cut the MAHR program before others that are not as financially beneficial to the school (see Jeff’s article). Now the faculty and the students are left without a home in the university and the outstanding work of the program is hanging in limbo.  While Jeff obviously has close connections with the MAHR program, his concern reaches far beyond Northwestern State University:

But the fact is that if this could happen to a high-quality, nationally respected and emerging program here, it could indeed happen anywhere. As governments hint at dramatically reducing deficits over the next several years, it’s clear the necessary cuts will be trickling down to the rest of the nation–just as they did in Louisiana–with potentially disastrous consequences for heritage preservation education.

And what a scary thought that is. As we can see from the budget cuts and closing of state parks, heritage is often one of the first resources to suffer. Maybe that’s because the value of heritage can be intangible and remains very subjective in some circles, unlike the importance of medicine and the broad appeal of a business degree. If something like the cuts at Northwestern State can happen anywhere, then I can’t say that there is a solution right now. But it shows the importance of supporting your local heritage programs and the work that we, as a connected field, have before us.

To Jeff: thank you for sharing this important issue with all of us. To those in the MAHR program at Northwestern State: thank you for the work you accomplished.

My Mom

Midterm week, the busiest week of the semester, calls for some preservation fun (on the blog anyway). Today I have some family photographs of my mom. The first one was taken in August 1957.  Mom, could you get any cuter?

And here is my mom at about 7 years old. She and my sister Sarah are practically twins at this age. Again, adorable.

For a wonderful post on family photographs check out Sabra’s My Own Time Machine.