Why Don't Victorians Like Modernism?

It isn’t often that I have strong pangs of sadness when I hear about a building being considered for replacement, but that is exactly what I felt this week when I heard about the likely demise of Pluto’s on Cook Street. While we have a great heritage inventory from earlier periods, it seems that when it comes to various forms of modernist architecture, we don’t really care very much and I am not certain why.

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I know that during the the 1950’s and 60’s lots of buildings from the beginning of the 20th century were either re-skinned or torn down as they were no longer considered fashionable. Now, those decisions seem almost crazy and in some instances we do what we can to try and fix the damage caused during those times. I think that we often fall into that trap of thinking that we have somehow become a better type of human and that we don’t have the same biases and we are now not able to make bad decisions, specifically in this case about what should be preserved. Well, in my opinion, we haven’t gotten any better at this and those buildings that maybe we feel are tired or old or ugly, need to have a second look and make sure that we are not throwing some important away. This is what I think we are doing with the Pluto’s Diner.

Pluto’s of course wasn’t always a restaurant, it was built as a Pacific 66 gas station. Pacific 66 was part of Phillips 66, the American gas company. The exact station we have here was built all over North America. The station’s style fall into the Googie architecture school. The gas station was supposed to look space aged which is why Pluto’s fits so well into the building. While there remain examples of this iconic gas station elsewhere in North America, it is one of very few remaining pieces of Googie architecture in Victoria but we are willing to let it go because it is just an old gas station. We have said things like this quite a few times recently.

We have lost quite a few amazing examples of modernism in the last few years across the whole region. Some of the most predominant ones for me are Mayfair Lanes, the BC Tel Building and the Royal Bank Building.

One the key aspects of Googie architecture is that it came about just as the North American economy was in overdrive and there was broad movement of the middle class to the suburbs in the late fifties and early sixties. This means that much of the architecture is built around the automobile; Mayfair Lanes was a great example. Built in 1963, this bowling alley was meant to have a futuristic feel on the inside and outside. Unfortunately we lost this place in 2006 to make way for a grocery store that was never built. One of my friends, Rob Randall, took a great photo set just before it was torn down and he has given me permission to re-post them on here.

Another piece of the modernist thread that we have lost recently is the the BC Tel building that used to sit on the corner of Blanshard and Johnson where Superbaba is today. This building was actually built in the early 1900’s and was then re-skinned in the 1950s (I think… There is almost nothing on this building anywhere). While I am a huge fan of the Atrium building (as you might know if you have been a long time reader), I do think that it is unfortunate that we lost the entire facade of the BC Tel building. It had this great angular undulation of blue and white that looked like something out of a Charles Bronson movie. It appears to be impossible to find a decent picture of the entire facade and in fact the one below is the only one I have found at all that showed any of it to date.

Former BC Tel Building 1321 Blanshard Street - From Photobucket - Theoldvictorian https://i79.photobucket.com/albums/j142/Theoldvictorian/telus_jan08.jpg

Former BC Tel Building 1321 Blanshard Street - From Photobucket - Theoldvictorian https://i79.photobucket.com/albums/j142/Theoldvictorian/telus_jan08.jpg

A second piece of modernism lost to a Jawl development designed by Franc D’Ambrosio (I sincerely think it is just a coincidence) is the old Royal Bank building at the corner of Douglas and Pandora. This building was a small but classic example of the International Style of modernism. The best existing example in Victoria is likely the Toronto Dominion Bank building at Fort and Douglas. At the time of the demolition so much attention was focused on the glazed tiles at the old CIBC two buildings down that no one really cared that we were losing this amazing building. I went to a concert in the building a few weeks before it was torn down and was just so sad that this was being lost when it so clearly could have been re-purposed. But there was just not enough people around that felt the same way. And again I really like both buildings that replaced it but I am sure that another design could have kept it around longer.

Unlike other building styles in Victoria, there is a limited amount of good modernist stock left and unfortunately many of the buildings have a number of things going against them. First, due to when they were built, many have a suburban aspect to them with things like parking lots in front that makes them poor candidates for preservation over the longer term. Some of them like Pluto’s or the Royal Bank building simply can’t be economically justified, mostly due to their scale. The main reason is though that most of them are at an age that they look tired and unlike the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around the city, they have not been repainted and repaired to show off their beauty. I think this last point is what has created the biggest problem because it is hard to care about a tired old building.

There maybe some hope though. A new development proposal being brought forward by Cox Developments, for the old McCall Brothers Funeral home at Johnson and Vancouver Street actually has designed the original chapel into the building. For whatever reason John di Castri is one of local modernist architects that has crept into the preservationists’ lists, as has John Wade. The new proposal intends to save the chapel portion of the building and actually have the new building lean over top. I personally am a huge fan of this project but to date we have not seen much movement on it.

Still, overall I am worried because our total stock, especially downtown of the various modernist styles is quite small, we need to pay attention to what is being removed. With the potential loss of Pluto’s that means that we could be down to only one or two examples of Googie architecture in the city, the Denny’s building at Finlayson and Douglas and maybe The Ruby a little bit further north... And yes I think they should be preserved! If you can think of another one in the region, please let me know in the comments. I would also love to hear about your favourite modernist buildings in the city.