The Emotional Connections of Heritage Buildings

When I released my short film ‘Time’ back in 2008 I was surprised at the level of interest. Many people had a surprisingly emotional response to the film. It made some sad, others nostalgic, and others regretful at how much we had lost. So as I was making the rounds of the film festivals and seeing people’s reactions I kept asking myself, “Why do people feel so strongly about heritage buildings?”

Many of us would have ready answers that question already. Rationally we know that we need to preserve our history. Heritage buildings have charm, they’re beautiful, they’re nostalgic. But then, what is this charm or beauty? Why are we nostalgic about a time and place when most of us weren’t even born yet? Surely if we were to go back to those times we would realize how terrible they were.

So ever since my film came out I’ve been observing. What are the essential differences between heritage buildings and modern buildings? People love vintage, not just buildings, but clothes and gadgets as well. But, an important fact to be aware is that only old things that we value survives. The passage of time has a way of weeding out the bad stuff form the good. The bad stuff ended up in landfill. We keep the things that give us something.


Renovators uncover the remnants of a drug store on Spadina Ave. Messages from a time past.

So what do old things give us emotionally? Surely it’s not exclusive to old things. We have emotional connections to new things as well. Look at the designs of Apple or Ferrari. Why do we have a stronger emotional response to these designs as opposed to those of IBM or GM? Why do we have a stronger emotional connection to buildings like Old City Hall as opposed to, say, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts?

The answer lies in architectural history, about a hundred years ago. The common people were sick of fighting wars for the nobility, kings and queens were being replaced by republics, labour movements were rebelling against the wealthy and privileged. The past was being erased. With this movement came artistic movements that seek to erase the past of art and architecture. The aesthetics of the old had to go. It was the Modernist movement and they intentionally threw the baby out with the bathwater. The advant-garde sought to return to the basics. They used the basic shapes of squares, rectangles, triangles and circles. Their palette consist of the primary colours and their secondaries. Wiping the slate clean meant having nothing unnecessary. There were to be nothing that is not necessary for the practical function of the building. The new mantra was “form follows function”. With it all decorative elements were eliminated.

Trouble is, that philosophy became dogma–one that continues to this day. Modernism came to mean people live and work in boxes. Anything that does not facilitate the functions of living and working had no place in architecture. We got buildings with giant expanses of blank walls, complex curves disappeared, everything comprised of basic shapes. Being minimal was cool, and entering these buildings makes one emotionally cold. By the time Postmodernism came around to stem the trend something essential was already lost.

While I agree with the sentiment that form should follow function maybe we had missed one essential question, “What is the function?” To modern architects decorative elements had no function so they were eliminated. But what if they had missed out on the function of decor?

When we move into a new home what is one of the first things that we do? We decorate. We make it ours. It’s our mark. It sends a message to ourselves as well as others that not only is it our castle, but it is also an expression of what we are.

When a building includes decorative elements what does it say? The people involved did not have to include these details–but they did. These elements required extra time, resources, and skills, but it was done regardless. They showed that people cared. They could had given you a box, but they didn’t. You could had been made to feel like you’re in a warehouse, but instead you’re made to feel you’re in something grand and important. They’re telling you the building and the people in it means something to them. The message is the function. As human beings our existence is defined by the interactions we have with our world. It is for this reason that we are often nostalgic for times and places that we never experienced. They send us messages that we value.

But what about Postmodernism? Doesn’t it have decorative elements? Yes, but why does it look so cheesy most of the time? It’s because the underlying message is wrong. Before modernism decor were created by crafts people–by hand. The materials involved were local. The limestone that you see holding up our parliament buildings came from local quarries. Even the sand and gravel you see within the mortar between bricks came from our local streams. You look at the details of these buildings and you know they were done by individuals. There’s sweat equity. What kind of decor do you see now? Mass produced pretensions manufactured who knows where. We can tell these details are cheap, mass produced and merely bolted on, often as an afterthought. The message is, “We kind of care, but not enough to give you real workmanship and quality materials.” So, we have the details but the message is of an opposite one.

The important lesson here is that it’s not that something is simply old that make us respond emotionally; it is that it sends the right messages. Messages that can still be felt. The exact vernacular is not important as long as we tell the people who enter our buildings that they are important enough for us that we want to communicate with them.

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