Sunday, October 07, 2007

The beauty of coherance

Architecture writer Ian Tizzard of the Winnipeg Free Press tackled architecture in Winnipeg's residential neighborhoods in Saturday's paper, and seemed to bemoan the lack of unique residential neighborhoods in Winnipeg. (Story here.)

When speaking of River Heights, Dean Syverson of Syverson Monteyne Architecture states the obvious: "It's a safe generalization that the bigger the house, the more likely it was built with an architect or designer directly involved."

What should be pointed out is that houses in River Heights north of Academy Road, are the oldest in the neighborhood, most of which were built not only in a golden age of architecture, but at the crescendo of Winnipeg's wealth, prominence and appreciation for aesthetics. From an economic perspective, no matter what city, town, or neighborhood, it makes sense that homes built in 1912 were finer than those built in the Depression.

Just the same, I happen to find River Heights south of Academy quite appealing, and enjoy the houses built in Tudor or Georgian Revival styles, and especially those influenced by the Craftsman movement. I even find the postwar River Heights--that is, between Corydon and Taylor--to be quite nice, thanks to the continuance of gridded streets with Elms planted on the boulevard.

The article suggests that even the city's popular old neighborhoods lack distinction, and the charm of increasingly popular neighborhoods like Wolseley, Luxton, or Fort Rouge, is caused by a "few truly distinct houses and lots of big trees." (Trees that are, incidentally, the same kind and size.)

No one visits Park Slope in Brooklyn, or Boston's Back Bay--19th century suburbs that are today considered the finest residential neighborhoods in North America --and criticises the fact that all the houses look the same, or that the neighborhood's grid patterns are too boring.

Left: Park Slope, Brooklyn

In the same way, no one walks down Winnipeg streets like Harvard, Lanark, Ethelbert, Sherburn, Noble, or Bannerman and proclaims: "all these mature American Elms are nice, but this street would be much more better if some Scotch Pines, Birches and Weeping Willows were planted on the boulevards to break the monotony."

In good architecure and urban design, the whole should always be greater than the sum of its parts. The difference between coherance and monotony is quality of design.

Unfortunately, conformity to tradition and surroundings is the antithesis of principles of the contemporary school of architecture and planning, and--typical of an age where there is no longer right and wrong--encourage architects to build whatever they want. (This is why, for example, today's architecture students spend more time playing with Play-Dough than they do studying The Ten Books on Architecture.) The tragic outcome that we suffer from, is new megaprojects built in central cities that defy and degrade the surrounding built environment (nevermind 2,500 years of traditions). And when it comes to the less glamourous task of building new residential neighborhoods, the ability to design a place where beautiful houses form an even more beautiful whole has been lost.

(Another reason why today's neigborhoods do not match the cohesive beauty or Park Slope--nevermind Wolseley--is because contemporary zoning by-laws prohibits them. That is for another post.)

Thankfully, Winnipeg has many countless beautiful streets, even those where the houses were not designed by an architect personally commissioned by a leading citizen of Winnipeg's Edwardian era. Like the row of trees that stand out front, these streets are better not for each houses individual style, but simply because they stand beside eachother and make the street.

Left: Austin Street North, Point Douglas


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