Powering up again

Conserving the architecture behind yesterday’s consumption

The regeneration of industrial areas has certainly been in vogue recently. Developers have taken full advantage of yuppies’ love for exposed brick and conversation starters like “My dining room used to be a blast furnace,” and their efforts show in pretty much every major city. Toronto has the Distillery District, London has Bankside – home of more modern art galleries than you can shake a sheep’s carcass at – and even McGill has Solin Hall, a former factory that has produced chocolate, kites, and plastic bottles in years past.

Renovating fossil-fuel power plants can be a particularly great success. The Tate Modern in Bankside, London, is housed in a former oil-burning power station. Since its opening in 2000, the Tate Modern has turned a dilapidated area in the full grip of deindustrialization into a cultural mecca. Not only is this an example of the beneficial reuse of an existing building, it refreshes our minds as to why early 20th-century industrial buildings should be preserved. Bankside, a treasured example of early 20th-century architecture, was a major work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – arguably the greatest British architect since Sir Christopher Wren, seeing as he also designed the iconic red telephone box.

Raphäel Fischler, associate professor at McGill’s School of Urban Planning, emphasized that there is a major difference between renovating individual buildings and regenerating entire areas. He cited St. Laurent lofts as an example of the former, and Griffintown and St-Henri as the latter. “In the first case,” he said, “the challenge is related to the financial viability…in the second case, the challenge is also related to the potential transformation of a neighbourhood.” In regards to the latter practice, its gentrifying side effects have become synonymous with the architectural renewal it provides. As Fischler explained, “In old industrial areas, rents tend to be low; bringing…renovated buildings means introducing households with higher incomes.” The resulting rise in house prices dramatically affects existing residents: even if they can still afford their houses (and in a city such as Montreal where so many properties are rented rather than owned, this is often unlikely), children are forced elsewhere when they leave home.

The most profitable opportunities lie in recycling industrial buildings into residences, as exemplified by Toronto’s Distillery District. But the benefits aren’t all so mercenary. Adam Feldman was the Project Architect with architectsAlliance, who were involved in developing the residential areas of the Distillery District: constructing condominiums on the edges of the site, “to help with the vibrancy of the neighbourhood.” But, he added, “Part of that, unfortunately, was the demolition of an old rackhouse [whisky aging] building from the twenties, but the problem…was there was no way to adaptively reuse it.”

Fischler explained that “in many cases, taking down the building to make room for a new project is the best way to go, [for example] the demolition of the old General Motors plant in Boisbrilland.” Regarding the future redevelopment of residences, Feldman predicted that legalities of ownership would be a greater hurdle to regeneration than architecture. “That’s going to be the biggest thing to see – when these buildings get toward the end of their life it’s difficult because it’s a group of people.…[The condominiums] are built very durable.” He admitted that “Toronto has a very different relationship with old buildings than Montreal does – we haven’t preserved and maintained them nearly as well.”

But nonetheless, industrial buildings – particularly energy infrastructure, from the early 20th century – are a far cry from modern ones. Cleaning up coal-fuelled power plants is much easier than making deactivated nuclear plants safe. Although the energy that fossil fuel-powered plants produce is undeniably detrimental to the environment, the structures still have the advantage of being recyclable. They provide cheap brownfield (previously developed) land that is usually eligible for government grants, with popular appeal for its heritage value. In stark contrast, redeveloping the new generation of power plants can involve an offputting rigamarole, and their locations are isolated from public spaces; earlier power stations are almost universally in prime locations because residential areas and towns sprang up around them.

Of course, “new generation” rather refers to the nuclear plants of the late 20th century, which are now becoming obsolete. Truly “green” plants – those processing, wind and solar power, et cetera – are so recent a development that they are nearly all still operational. In addition, these green power plants have such an exact design – compare a hydroelectric dam, which could not possibly serve any other purpose, to a coal-burning plant that could be recycled into anything from an art gallery to several hundred condominiums. We will have to wait for decades to see the full consequences of new design in industrial architecture, but in the meantime, we’re running out of old buildings to redevelop, and new land is becoming increasingly rare and desirable as a commodity.