Story and Structure

An architectural perspective on heritage

My parents’ house backs on to a ravine that forms part of the Dundas Conservation Area. It connects to a seemingly endless array of trails and paths that skirt the landscape. In my youth, I made it my objective to know as many backtrails and rivers as possible. The day that I discovered the Hermitage ruins is still etched in my mind. Initially intrigued with the structure itself, a mysterious collection of walls isolated in the forest, the stories and heritage of the place turned curiosity into fascination – a fascination that has followed me through life.

As an architecture student at Carleton University, the Hermitage inspired a critical studio project to design a structure that would never be built – an “unbuilt vision”. While I was imagining all the possibilities that this structure could be, it was only a few years later that the City of Hamilton invested a great deal in protecting their vision of this place.

For just shy of five hundred thousand dollars, the ruins of the Hermitage was restored. In the process, each piece of the building was disassembled and cataloged. A foundation was added and the structure was reassembled and stabilized. In a recent unveiling ceremony, the new ruins were shown off with proper pomp and circumstance.

The project attracted a fair amount of critique, and without inserting any personal opinion on the matter, it is safe to say that this is a lot of attention for a 160-year-old structure that is acting as a landmark and can no longer serve the typical function of buildings. Numerous other buildings the same age or older have fallen into ruins without notice let alone debate.

Story places value on structure.

It is seen time and time again in heritage — the difference between one building being saved over another often comes down to narrative. Certain objects end up in museums because of the stories that we associate with them. Our historical imagination places value on particular places and things, particular stories, and the stories that we value wax and wane with each generation.

The Hermitage holds an intrinsic value because of the stories associated with it. The romance, curiosity and humanity captured in tales of “The Legend of Lover’s Lane”, the coachman William Black, as well as Alma Leith and the fire are widely popular (and if you are unfamiliar with these stories, I highly recommend looking it up). So many interesting people and memories associated with one building, and because of them the structure has captured the attention and the hearts of generations.

It works the other way as well – without the structure or place, the story would fall out of public knowledge.

An article featuring a notable Hamilton architect recommending hidden gems within Hamilton inspired me to visit the sunken garden of the Hamilton Cemetery. Excited to have a unique experience, off the beaten path, and discover a part of my hometown that I had never seen before, I arrived and was left wanting: without the story the location fell flat and I was left asking, Why?

The connection between story and structure, however, seems inescapable in a room full of architects.

Speaking to Hamilton’s Architects before and after our monthly Hamilton Burlington Society of Architects meetings, I found so many who are more than willing to share their stories of previous projects and the history behind various sites and buildings around Hamilton. This Steel City of ours has such a diverse history, at times dark, at times daring, at times full of love and at others full of heartbreak. These stories are bound up within the buildings that the architects of Hamilton have designed, built, adapted, and reused. While these stories have been some of my favourite moments from the meetings over the past few years I often found that without physically seeing or being at the location the stories lost their power and significance.

In an effort to build a connection between story and structure, the Young Architects of Hamilton with the Hamilton Burlington Society of Architects are organizing the inaugural event of what will hopefully become a series: “My Local Architect”. This series is a tour of Hamilton through the eyes of two local architects and recognizes the importance of not just the structure or the story but the power of the two combined.

John Mokrycke is our seasoned Architect that will be leading the first installment of My Local Architect. If you haven’t already checked out his article ‘My downtown dream’ in urbanicity’s May 2015 issue, you should do so now. John is first and foremost a dreamer, his designs are intuitive and whimsical. A true Hamiltonian through and through many locations featured on the tour were selected to demonstrate the brilliance of his unbuilt visions as well as his built ones.

Heritage 2
Green Door House with reclaimed timber post. Photo by Agata Mancini

Agata Mancini is the Young Architect that will be featured on the tour. But youth really has nothing to do with experience proves the 30-something-year-old mother of two currently completing construction of The Green Door House, which is her own house that she designed and completed all of the construction management of while working a full-time job. Did I mention the Green Door House fully utilizes green design strategies? From the reuse of the materials of the existing house, to utilizing passive daylighting strategies, the Green Door House, now in the final stages of completion, will serve as a benchmark for residential houses in Hamilton.

While planning for our first installment of My Local Architect, we have met numerous times to talk about locations that will be featured on the tour but I wasn’t truly convinced of the strength of this idea until we completed a test drive-through of the event at the end of June. While doing a test run of a route that I have been on numerous times before, I was able to experience the story and the structure for the first time – together they created an elevated experience.

My Local Architect is taking place on Thursday, July 14th – tickets might still be available on Eventbrite – search “My Local Architect” but if you miss out on this one, more are soon to follow. The second installment will be taking place at the beginning of the New Year.

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