Icons of an Era, But Where Are Ours?

By Tanzeel Merchant, originally published October 14, 2008

We don’t build like we used to

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know about the precipitous fall that global stock markets have taken these past few days. Anybody trying to call a bottom to this slide must either be a prophet, or insane. Gone with them are the legends of modern finance which has driven much of the world these past decades. Within days, names such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns and Merrill Lynch were relegated to the annals of history through a combination of bankruptcies and forced takeovers.

I was in New York last weekend to catch a play and let my feet wander, as they love to do. I couldn’t help but notice how quickly the stories of these companies had vanished off the face of the city. Lehman Brothers’ headquarters now bore the name of its rescuer, Barclays Capital, and the skin of video screens that cover the building’s base flashed Barclays’ blue instead. I had to walk just a block further to see the contrast with legends past.

The Rockefeller Centre is a must-see on any visitor’s map. A model for successful urban design and renewal, and besides being a thriving entertainment, retail and office complex (which includes Radio City Music Hall and the GE/ RCA building), it has also been the stage for famous stories, pictures and videos that have been seen across the world. Built in the 1930s by the Rockefeller family (that made its wealth in the oil business), the 19 buildings of the Rockefeller Centre cover a 22 acre site. Now owned by a generic property owner, Tishman Speyer, the complex was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Standing outside it, I could not help but notice how well this icon had endured, unlike its more contemporary avatars that had disappeared in mere hours.

We don’t build like we used to, we don’t dream like we did. The neo-mythical art deco statues that stand watch over the Rockefeller Centre (see image) or even some of our older bank buildings in Toronto have survived mergers and acquisitions. The rich, carefully conceived textures of the older buildings continue to tell stories long after their own times. Contrast this with the superficially-thin gimmickry that characterizes contemporary buildings – it took a switch, screwdriver and 10 minutes to take Lehman’s name off its building. Remove ‘BCE’ off BCE Place and it could be anything, anywhere.

I’m not romanticizing history or past generations. The difference between then and now was about care, and not just culture. Builders of the past took pride, in telling a story that would long survive their own lifetimes. The cheapness, vanity and superficiality that characterize Toronto’s new buildings are unlikely to ever do that. Can Libeskind’s lame ‘L’ made of tawdry glass and tacky metal siding, ever compare to Atlas on the Rock, holding the world up for mankind?

Tanzeel wears many hats, of many colours, and has many fingers, in many pies, which ensures his head’s always warm, and his fingers taste sweet, for those who have licked it at least… An architect, urban designer and planner, financial geek and journalist and Heritage Toronto board member, he’s called five cities “home” over ten years and loved them all, till Toronto’s understated anonymity let him be who he was, stole his heart and kept it here.

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