I’ve struggled with this because the word “contrived” has such a nasty reputation in the creative world. No artist wants their work to be considered forced, lacking in spontaneity, or – God forbid – predictable. *Gasp!* but when we look at the word as a verb, to contrive, the definition changes into something more palatable.
In verb form, we get “to plan with ingenuity”, “to invent”, even “to form design”. Those sound like pretty creative words to me, but then I have a sickeningly sobering thought: is my work contrived?! There is a fine line to walk between delivering results that appear well thought out, and those that appear over thought. As a designer, I’m always trying to create that organic feeling of accumulation, that pure eclecticism (although that’s another fine line to walk, and another story completely) that can bridge gaps between a clients’ existing pieces and newer selections or materials. It’s never about filling a space so that it looks like someone lives there, it’s about actually creating a space around how someone lives. It’s a constant challenge that I especially love in a small space, where real estate is limited and every piece counts, which is why urban design is so appealing to me.
The Downtown Voices Coalition, here in Phoenix, is faced with a similar task. We have such spirit in our existing architecture, but how do we build -and what do we build – to draw the public back into the downtown area without losing that spirit? How do we bridge that gap? Our cultural identity is not what it was 100 years ago, it’s not what it was 10 years ago, but to knock it all down and build a new city that encapsulates what IS our current cultural identity would be impossibly expensive, and just plain stupid. We need to cherish our history without sacrificing our future. Examples of this can be found all over North America, and just because we’re in the desert doesn’t mean we can’t have an urban metropolis to be proud of.
In Toronto Canada, the Distillery District has undergone major renovation since it’s purchase in 2001. Originally the Gooderham and Worts Distillery founded in 1832, it later became the largest distillery in the world by the late 1860’s. But, with the de-industrialization of the late 20th century, the area found itself derelict and demolished. The remaining distillery operations were finally shut down in 1990, creating huge redevelopment and investment opportunities. Enter Cityscape Holdings, Inc., who bought the area in 2001 and transformed the District into a pedestrian-only Mecca for arts and culture.
The history of the existing buildings balanced with the opportunity of the now vacant lots surrounding what was left of the old distillery, presented a unique challenge to the Cityscape team. We can’t replace history, it’s what gives us a cultural identity, but how do you blend early 19th century architecture with the technology and consciousness of today to create a product that will be just as appealing and alluring to future generations, especially to the creative art community it intends to harbor? By using the elements of line, color, and form, Cityscape was able to contrive a plan (see, see how it becomes a good word there?) which didn’t try to replicate – or replace – the original architecture, but instead gave a nod of appreciation to the past, while injecting new life into the area.
We’ve all seen bad, period-style reproductions. Not to say that reproductions themselves are bad. Not at all, they give us common-folk access to a look that has maintained character and reprise over vast periods of time. The problem with that is not understanding how social and political climates shape our architecture and thus record our history. Because the District was forecasted to be more of an urban oasis than an industrial one, Cityscape couldn’t successfully pull off a full period reproduction and come out with a product that fit their vision. Instead, the team turned to principles and elements, “the rules”, of design when planning their development.
The new additions are, in all honesty, very progressive and modern in their material selections, but there is a clear attachment to the original structures. Monstrous timbers add clean, geometric lines to soffits, while also adding warmth and connection to building methods of the past. Toronto’s iconic red brick is found everywhere in the District, even in the brick paved streets; most of which were laid during the renovation to blend with the only originally bricked main street. Even the repetition of horizontal line in the brick and stone work flow seamlessly between the original architecture and the new. The result is an area with dynamic juxtaposition held together by common thread. It is a place that provides a nurturing culture for local artists filled with character and inspiration.
One of the ways the new owners accomplished this was by refusing to lease any of the retail and restaurant space to chains or franchises. Accordingly, the majority of the buildings are occupied with unique boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, jewelry stores, cafés, and coffeehouses. The upper floors of a number of buildings have been leased to artists as studio spaces and to offices tenants with a “creative focus”.
Though there have been criticisms about the redevelopment, the preservation and repurposing of the historic buildings is widely praised. Additionally, the restrictions on the domination of national chains is highly supported. The Distillery District is under the protection of the Ontario Heritage Act and is a national historic site. In addition to the commercial opportunities, the residential ventures planned for the surrounding areas are expected to transform the District from abandoned industrial site to one of Toronto’s most distinctive neighborhoods. We may be a desert, but I want a Phoenix like this.