Modern architects and heritage advocates in Canada generally regard one another with skepticism, if not disdain. Architects view heritage guidelines as constraints against design expression, while planners see architectural design apprehensively as a threat to historic preservation. Underlying both views is really a kind of presumption that historic forms themselves are obsolete – like endangered species which need isolation and intense management. (This attitude of preciousness is curiously much less common in Europe, where new and old mingle happily.)
Interior Designers use the term “transitional” to label a style straddling historic and contemporary, appealing to many of us who like both, and don’t want to feel bullied into picking one and excluding the other. The results are usually disappointing, with a pastiche of traditional details in a modern context. The same is often true of whole buildings designed in heritage areas: gestures of token historic styling get a scheme past the heritage review, and the final product is neither really historic nor really current – just insipid and confused.
We are a modernist studio. We don’t want to just replicate “heritage” architectural languages. And yet, much of our work resonates with what is a long, careful consideration of historic building types. We think that traditional forms, such as the Nova Scotian Cape House, sheds and boathouses, offer vital and relevant templates for innovative, modern residential design.
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, founded in 1753, is a vivid example of historic architecture and British colonial town planning. The building stock is distinctive, cohesive, and outstanding. The entire Old Town is a Heritage District, a National Historic District, and a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. The area has become for our office a research laboratory for our own interest in reconnecting the modern and the historic. Our projects are an ongoing exploration of this synthesis.
In our work we are continually attempting to distill the archetypal historic house layout and arrangements, understanding how the technologies and systems informed the original type. Then we investigate how those systems and their formal expression correlate with contemporary innovative and sustainable design systems. The task of synthesis is even more important at a poetic level, unifying the resonance of historic architectures with the boldness, openness and simplicity of good modern design.
The two labels of Heritage and Modern are not really in opposition. Nor are they simply “styles” to be commodified, cut, and pasted. We see historic architecture as a lineage which remains vital, and which imbues contemporary design with meaning and structure. Likewise, we develop good minimalist architecture as a distillation of that lineage, not a refutation of it.