Monday, May 28, 2007

What's been lost, in color - part two

The 1960s were to North American cities what the 1940s were to European cities. Modernism, a line of thought that influenced Mussolini and Hitler in their sinister goals, came to have a similar influence upon architects and planners in the decades after World War II. In the swingin' '60s, Modernism's assailment on our cities reached a fevered pitch. In Winnipeg, it was demonstrated in text-book fashion with the building of the civic centre, which wiped out the neighborhood around City Hall in phases between '62 and '68. Out went the mixed-use apartment buildings (the largest concentration in the city), the shops, the old City Hall (nationally recognized for it's distinctive, "gingerbread" architecture), the public market behind it, the Romanesque warehouses. Six blocks in all (which were reduced to three super-blocks).

This view was probably taken from the Union Bank tower, and shows the roof of the Old City Hall. Behind it, you can see some of the neighborhood that existed immediately to the north.

Here is the north side of Market Avenue, looking west from Lily Street. The brown warehouse appears to be one of the finer examples of Richardson Romanesque architecture in the city. Beyond it, buildings at the NE and NW corners of Market and Main were home to shops and dwelling units.

The first failed mega-project
Like the Convention Centre of the 1970s, Portage Place of the '80s, and the MTS Centre and Hydro building of the present decade, it was hoped in the '60s that with the Civic Centre project--especially the Concert Hall, Planetarium and Museum of Man and Nature--revitalization would come to the declining surroundings. Cafes and hotels would spruce up their premises to serve the droves of the returning middle classes, and new retail and services would spring up in their wake. (Too bad the Civic Centre eliminated thousands square feet of commercial space.) It has become a familiar pattern, and every Winnipegger knows how much worse Main Street now, how boring the area around the Convention Centre is, and how dangerous and dull Portage Avenue continues to become in spite of over a billion dollars in mega-project funding.

And that is what happens with misanthropic design is used to draw people: they won't come. The postwar mega-project is designed like the suburbs they compete with--for machine, not man. In an increasingly suburbanizing city, where the majority of middle class people were beginning to (have to) drive a car to buy a litre of milk, why would anyone be expected to know how to stroll three blocks to Chinatown for dim sum after a show? With the inhuman new architecture built at inhuman scales, the hostile quasi-freeways that traffic engineers turned downtown streets into, and the increasing number of surface parking lots pock-marking the remaining urban landscape, why would anyone want to anyway?


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