On Heritage, and Other Things ‘So Yesterday’ …

By Tanzeel Merchant, originally published July 7, 2008

Are we building a shared sense of space and memory today?

Will Dundas Square be a true reflection of our times?

I’ve resisted blogging, preferring to save my ruminations for unsuspecting dinner companions, so this is a first of what I hope will be many, minus the food, but do take it with some wine and a pinch of salt 😉

I wrote an op-ed piece many, many moons ago, when my head had no salt and only pepper in it, on what I then called the ‘jesus fulcrum’- how a single birthday became the benchmark for how we measure time and history, and how so many different cultures (and faiths) had their own pivots on which they balanced their teetering constructs. At some point one end of the seesaw gets too heavy, and through minor, bloody upheavals, we find a new event to prop it up with for a few more generations.

Unlike in the visual, performing and literary arts, where today is being recorded through the memorable lilt of a figure etched in paint or prose, the shape and form of our cities are left to the ubiquitous imaginings of nobody, leaving nothing of collective value to the future.

Most of us, washed or unwashed, look at “heritage” as being old-hugging the rotting columns of forgotten buildings as if they might one day agree to marry us, perhaps even procreate too. But that old was once new. Its value lies not in what it might sell for, but how the collective consciousness and outlook of a people, of a time, was invested in space and place. Squares of the past were not just landscape, but the creation of its minions gathered in it as they prepared for war. The finials of a tower were not ornamentation, but an expression of the petty politics and intrigue of that time. Windowpanes were a symbol of status, and not just something to look through.

The thought that went into making, was what gave the product meaning, and hence value, and told a story. We seem unable today to fathom that concept. We make our buildings to imitate ephemeral fashion, sticking deceptive facades onto styrofoam. Our new squares are imitations of other places sans the success. With the exception of a (very) few notable buildings in Toronto, there is nothing we have made that is a reflection of our times, and of our stories.

It is not the exception that makes a place, but the ordinary. The actions of the anonymous millions as they live out their lives, build, add, subtract and destroy silently, but collectively, are what create identity. Music, whether we like a particular style or not, has been perhaps the most successful in reflecting the diversity and richness of our times, but it takes a short trip through your surrounds to realize that the built form of this city has not.

Unless we can find a way to codify into how we make, the story, colour, texture and secrets of the present, come tomorrow, we have nothing to show for our own pasts. We, here and now are not the coda, but just a passing verse in what I fear will be a dull and blunted song that is unlikely to be hummed by anyone…

… and stay tuned to find out how we’re going to change that 😉

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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