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People & Culture

An interview with architect Julian Smith

The Canadian architect and conservator talks sustainable cities, cultural heritage and why the world is looking to Canada to lead

  • Sep 13, 2016
  • 934 words
  • 4 minutes
Architect Julian Smith Expand Image

Julian Smith, the executive director of the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston, Ont., has spent his career working on major heritage conservation projects in Canada and around the globe, including restoring the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. As the world prepares for Habitat III, the third UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development, taking place in Ecuador in October, Smith discusses the meeting, his work and what the future holds.

On Habitat III and sustainable cities

Most of the people there will be urban theorists and planners, and they’ll be talking about how to design a better sustainable city. But there’s relatively little interest among that group in how to deal with existing cities, even though sustainability is presumably about connecting past, present and future. How can you build the ideal sustainable city if you have no proof that it will be? If you have an 18th-century city that has survived with amazing qualities, and you can think about how to make it more energy efficient and more friendly to pedestrians and alternative forms of transportation, then you have a basis for thinking about sustainable patterns.

On the connection between cultural heritage and sustainability

If you don’t realize that the idea of sustainability varies across cultures, or that cultural diversity is itself a key component of sustainability, just as biodiversity is, then you’re working to create the ideal city as though everybody who lives in it is anonymous, just an urban dweller in an abstract sense, with no culture or heritage.

On Canada’s role in the evolution of a sustainable city

A city evolves when it embraces a broader array of ways in which we live in it. When I travel the world, there’s this sense — which has really been reinforced since the federal election — that Canada is working to understand what a true multicultural society looks like. People say to us, “You’d better figure this out; we’re watching and learning from you because you have the resources. You’re a wealthy, multicultural country and you have the perspective of the First Nations, for whom culture and nature have always been indivisible.” That’s finally being understood as the key to sustainability. That puts a responsibility on us to take advantage of our assets.

On helping save Ottawa’s Byward Market

The work in helping save the Byward Market back in the 1980s is something I’m particularly proud of because I don’t think many people realize that the plan was to demolish the 30 square blocks and just build a lot of modern buildings in that area. It was a real last-ditch chance to try to save something of that whole area of the city. They decided to stop demolition for one year to let us do this study and come up with any reasonable arguments as to why we shouldn’t allow the demolition to continue. It was a very complicated, tough environment, both politically and philosophically. I remember the Ottawa Citizen wrote an article saying it was ridiculous to think anything good could emerge out of the Byward Market from all those old buildings that were falling down anyway.

On restoring the Canadian National Vimy Memorial

The Vimy monument was the most satisfying international project I’ve worked on because the power of that site meant that everybody who worked there was kind of humbled by it and just appreciative to be involved in the project. It was technically challenging, though. The monument looked pretty good, but it was self-destructing. Parks Canada had given us this brief that said we should go around and do these random repairs, but we realized that wasn’t going to save the monument. We had to figure out how to dismantle most of it and rebuild it differently so that it would survive, and try to do that within budget.  

On his work at Willowbank

We’re interested in a respect for traditional practices and ways of building and inhabiting places. We teach contemporary design and planning, and we work on sustainability issues and environmental approaches to urban planning. The additional complexity of Willowbank is that we use the same curriculum to teach everyone — planners, designers, carpenters, masons — because we feel that, in the end, good places come from an understanding of how you live in a place and how you build a place.

Historically, most of the built environment that we live in was built by the communities themselves, using the master builders who lived there. A master builder is somebody who probably started as a mason or a carpenter but has become someone who can develop a whole neighbourhood. The Byward Market, for example, was created that way — more than a third of the buildings there were built by someone who lived within three blocks.

At Willowbank, we’re trying to tie those things back together — this sense of design and build as an integrated activity. That’s important because we’ve sort of lost this idea that you could be a carpenter-architect or a philosopher-stonemason. We’ve divided the world into white-collar and blue-collar, into designers and builders, into theory people and practice people, into university courses and college courses. Willowbank has very challenging academic courses, but you could also find yourself in a workshop learning to cut a curve in a piece of glass — something your MA in art history won’t help you with. Meanwhile, the person next to you may only have a high-school diploma but he’s worked as a carpenter for five years and possesses skills that you really begin to admire.

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This story is from the September/October 2019 Issue

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