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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Harper vs the Senate

I don't know why the Tories don't defend their prorogation of Parliament by more forcefully arguing for the real reason the session was ended - reconstituting the Senate committees so that Liberals can no longer obstruct legislation passed by the House of Commons. As Don Martin points out in today's National Post

By a count of 51-49 -- with five PCs or independents still complicating the count -- the Conservatives eke into a controlling position and the power to recast all the study committees in their image.

The Harper government now has a clear path to follow toward an effective government co-ordinated between both houses of Parliament.
Liberal senators have been blocking or eviscerating legislation in Senate committees, including bills that have all-party support in the House of Commons, as if they still form the government. By proroguing Parliament and appointing Conservatives to five vacant Senate seats, Conservatives now have a plurality in the Senate and can form a majority on obstructionist Senate committees. That's the way it works, folks - the government gets to govern. If Liberals don't like that situation, then they are free to bring the government down in a confidence vote. Go ahead, I dare you.

Meanwhile, the howling about Harper's "patronage" appointments packing the Senate with Tory bagmen begins. In the same column, for example, Don Martin slips in these snide references:

The appointments were wearily predictable, nobody offsetting the pedigree of the bunch like the surprise of former NHL coach Jacques Demers' appointment last summer.


With this final patronage stuffing, that vilified, Liberal-controlled, obstructionist, soft-on-crime Senate enters the history books.

If we're sitting here a year from now and there's no eight-year limit on appointments, without any serious progress toward an elected Senate, the Conservatives will shoulder the blame.

Then we'll know that the only reform implemented by Stephen Harper's well-rewarded pals was to replace politically appointed Liberals with Conservative favourites.

Please. Who do critics expect Harper to appoint - Liberals? Dippers? Elizabeth May? For years Harper refused to fill vacant seats until much-needed Senate reform happened. That proved to be impossible in the current political climate, and the Liberal opposition used its historical majority of unappointed Liberal hacks, "pals" of former Liberal Prime Ministers, to obstruct the government's agenda. Harper finally accepted the need to appoint Tories to the Senate and work within the system to advance the government's legislation. That's how the system works - it's pretty rich for the Liberals to complain when they played it like a violin for years and have no intention of changing it.

Furthermore, I find it hard to fault the choices Harper has made. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu is the founding president of the Murdered or Missing Persons Families Association and co-founder of a centre for abused women and a summer camp for underprivileged children. Bob Runciman was a cabinet minister under three Ontario premiers. Vim Kochhar founded the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons, is on the board of directors of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and is chair of the Canadian Paralympic Foundation. Beth Marshall spent 23 years in the Newfoundland civil service and 10 years as Newfoundland's Auditor General as well as being elected to the provincial legislature. Rose-May Poirier has served in the New Brunswick legislative assembly since 1999, during which time she has been minister of human resources, minister of local government and minister responsible for aboriginal affairs.

All of these new Senators have had successful careers in public service or have made outstanding contributions to their communities. Tory bagmen and favourites of the PM? Hardly. Yes, they are all Conservatives, but what do critics expect them to be? In the absence of an elected Senate, or outright abolition of the upper house, all five of these appointments are worthy candidates to sit in the Red Chamber.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Architectural vandalism: the banks (part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series looked at the golden age of bank buildings as seen in some surviving "temples of finance" in Toronto and Victoria, BC. Today - a look at the sad decline of bank architecture and the deadening effect it has on our communities.

What the hell happened to us after the Second World War? We used to have legions of highly skilled artisans like stonemasons, bricklayers, sculptors & tile workers who created magnificent civic buildings that made citizens proud of their communities. Along came Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and other European "International Style" architects and almost overnight two thousand years of architectural tradition was thrown on the dung heap. Sycophantic North American architects inflicted hideous buildings on their bewildered clients in the name of progress.

Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant little book about this in 1981 called From Bauhaus to Our House. He describes what happened:

Has their ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested [than America]...?

I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse. Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.

Every new $900 000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery.


Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors - and then then hires a decorator and gives him a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn these mean cubes and grids into a horizontal fantasy of a Restoration townhouse.


I find the relation of the architect to the client in America today wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the perverse. In the past, those who commissioned and paid for palazzi, cathedrals, opera houses, libraries, universities, museums, ministries, pillared terraces and winged villas didn't hesitate to turn them into visions of their own glory. Napoleon wanted to turn Paris into Rome under the Caesars, only with louder music and more marble. And it was done. His architects gave him the Arc de Triomphe and the Madeleine .... Palmerston once threw out the results of a design competition for a new British Foreign Office building and told the leading Gothic Revival architect of the day, Gilbert Scott, to do it in the Classical style. And Scott did it, because Palmerston said do it.


But after 1945 our plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEOs, commissioners, and college presidents undergo an inexplicable change. They become diffident and reticent. All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one's bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.
And why? They can't tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can't figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.
This is nowhere more evident than in the sorry state of bank buildings in Canada. In less than fifty years, bank architecture in Canada's cities went from this:

(former Toronto Bank, Yonge St)

to this :

(RBC on Douglas St, Victoria BC)

In a mad rush to be perceived as modern, the great Canadian banks tossed aside a hundred years of history and tradition. The Bank of Montreal, the Toronto-Dominion Bank, the Royal Bank of Canada, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Bank of Nova Scotia rebranded themselves as BMO, TD, RBC, CIBC and Scotiabank. The old "temples of finance" were deemed embarrassingly old-fashioned; historic buildings were abandoned and ugly International Style shoeboxes were erected in every city and town. Harold D. Kalman describes what happened:

After 1945 major changes occurred in the attitude of banks toward their buildings, as reputations established in the preceding decades removed the need to be identified by impressive, symbolic architecture. Efficiency became paramount as the policy of centralized, standardized design intensified. Old branches were judged obsolete and replaced with new ones designed by the banks' architectural staffs. Each bank had its preferred material - the Banks of Commerce and Montreal chose brick, and the Royal Bank black granite. Most were single-storey, plain, rectangular structures. In contrast to the era when banks dominated their surroundings, standing as the symbols of a town's sense of wealth and worth, post-War branch banks are frequently understated buildings, striving to express themselves as part of the community.
Part of the community? You've got to be kidding. Let's take a look at what some of these buildings have done to a few small communities in Eastern Ontario.

First up - the city of Belleville. Located on the beautiful Bay of Quinte, it has remnants of its Victorian downtown streetscape still intact, like this stretch of buildings along Bridge Street:

There are even a couple of banks downtown still operating in their historic buildings, like this branch of the CIBC on Front Street:

And yet, within a few blocks of each other on Belleville's main street are these monstrosities:

and this one right next to Belleville's Gothic city hall:

Cobourg, Ontario has one of the best-preserved 19th century streetscapes in Canada, including the spectacular neo-classical Victoria Hall which takes up an entire block of King Street:

So what did the city's banks decide to build directly across the street?

(Notice the pathetic attempts to disguise the concrete-block facade of the Bank of Montreal with some flimsy classical pilasters. The owners of this building know that it isn't worthy of sharing the street with Victoria Hall. The tree helps.)

Stirling, Ontario is another case in point. There was once a Bank of Montreal at the main intersection; the building survives now as an insurance office, its elaborate cornice now gone & replaced with aluminum siding:

So when the Bank of Montreal (now BMO) decided they needed more modern digs in Stirling, what did they put up on the main street right around the corner from their old historic building? This abomination, which looks like a cheap knock-off of the Festival Theatre in Stratford, or maybe a picnic shelter:

See how well it "expresses itself as part of the community"?

Not too far away in the town of Frankford stands a building that was once a branch of the now-defunct Molson's Bank, now converted into apartments. It dominates Frankford's main intersection:

It's not a very elaborate building, but it has a certain stately charm:

Frankford now has only one bank, a branch of the Bank of Montreal located directly across the street from the old Molson's Bank. Check out this imposing structure. If it wasn't for the signage, one would think this was a convenience store, or maybe a sewage treatment plant:

Here are a couple of examples from downtown Campbellford, Ontario. The sign on the BMO entrance - "celebrating 100 years in the community" - is kind of sad considering what the building has done to Campbellford's main street. Incidentally, a few years ago an out-of-control car slammed right into the main entrance of the Campbellford BMO - the only part of this fortress-like building that isn't solid concrete. They said it was brake failure, but I think the driver saw the "100 years in the community" sign and just couldn't take driving past the damned thing anymore.

Sharing the same intersection is this monument to mediocrity courtesy of the Royal Bank:

Every little town and big city in Canada has pathetic examples of the architectural vandalism that banks have inflicted on neighbourhoods. Architects counter with the argument that it's too expensive to put up buildings like they did in the old days. Tom Wolfe has this reply:

To those who complained that the International Style buildings were cramped, had flimsy walls inside as well as out, and, in general, looked cheap, the knowing response was: "These days it's too expensive to build in any other style." But it was not too expensive, merely more expensive. The critical point was what people would or would not put up with aesthetically.
So, lets not put up with it anymore. Until we stop accepting excuses for bad architecture in our communities, our neighbourhoods will continue to be cursed with these horrible buildings. Like Lord Palmerston, clients have to throw out these designs and tell architects to start over - this just isn't good enough.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Architectural vandalism: the banks (part 2)

Part 1 showed some examples of Toronto buildings from the golden age of Canadian bank architecture. Here are some buildings from the west coast which serve as a reminder that we once took pride in building beautiful structures even for everyday purposes like banking.

Victoria, BC is particularly blessed. Here are a few examples from just a few blocks of Government St, starting with this former Bank of Montreal located on the site of old Fort Victoria. What a stunning building with its rusticated stonework and its romanesque crenellations and towers. Like many old bank buildings, this one has found new life as a pub, the Irish Times:

Look at the hand-crafted detail lavished on this structure:

Further down Government St we find this former Royal Bank, built in 1905 and now a book store:

This building, called simply "the Bank Building", was built in 1886. The elaborate cornices and brackets are cast iron. It too is now a pub called The Bard & Banker:

Further north on Douglas Street, a few of the old buildings soldier on in their original capacities as financial institutions:

and this amazingly well-preserved neo-classical branch of the Bank of Montreal:

and right across the street a beautiful Beaux Arts building still in use as a Bank of Nova Scotia:

Vancouver, sadly, seems to have torn down most of its old banks in the mad rush to build downtown condo towers, but a few buildings survive. Here's a great neo-classical bank near the old CP train station that has been resurrected as a high-end jewellery store:

Exploring these old buildings is like touring the ruins of Pompeii and reflecting on a long-ago time when people took pride in constructing the important buildings in their communities. It makes one sad to be reminded of how much has been lost.

Next time: the sad decline of bank architecture.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Architectural vandalism: the banks (part I)

At one time in our history the most important institutions in a community occupied buildings that reflected their status. Court houses, libraries, schools, churches, city halls and banks were the most imposing structures in town and reflected that importance in muscular neo-classical or gothic-revival buildings that looked like secular temples. Sometime after the Second World War we lost the confidence to build beautiful civic structures and let architects in thrall to European fads inflict ugly International Style buildings on our communities with no regard to the visual damage they did to previously beautiful streetscapes. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the ugly post-war bank branches that erupted in every town & city.

Harold D. Kalman has a good summary of the history of bank architecture here. He writes about the early Canadian bank buildings:

Because banks competed for clients, they recognized the value of an architectural image that would attract customers. They adopted chiefly classical architectural forms which expressed wealth, integrity, endurance and confidence. In 1818 the Bank of Montreal constructed a stolid 3-storey building on rue St-Jacques on the model of a Georgian townhouse with a small porch consisting of a classical pediment supported by Doric columns. The BANK OF UPPER CANADA on Toronto's Adelaide St East (W.W. Baldwin, 1825-27) also resembled a respectable London townhouse with a Doric portico.

The Bank of New Brunswick (c 1826) in Saint John, NB, made a bolder statement, erecting a neoclassical building whose façade consisted simply of an Ionic temple front, closely following the innovative example of the Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia (William Strickland, 1818-24). It established the image of the bank as a temple of finance. Classical variants persisted as the century progressed. Montréal's rue St-Jacques was the financial heart of Canada where stood the neoclassical second Bank of Montreal (John Wells, 1845-48), the mansion-like Italian Renaissance revival Molsons Bank (George Browne, 1864-66) and the second-empire Merchants Bank of Canada (Hopkins and Wily, 1870).

Many of these early "temples of finance" survive, and they still turn heads. Most of them are not used as banks anymore; a lot of them seem to have found a second life as pubs. Here, for example, is a former bank built in the Second Empire style at Yonge & Wellington in Toronto, now a pub called the Irish Embassy. Notice some of the amazing details lavished on this building for no other reason than to make it pleasing to the eye:

A famous Toronto landmark at Yonge and Front St is a former Bank of Montreal branch, built in 1885 and now the home of the Hockey Hall of Fame:

Look at the workmanship that went into decorating the facade of this amazing building:

Here's another pub - the Elephant & Castle at Yonge & Gerrard, formerly the Dominion Bank. Built in 1930 in the Beaux Arts style, it has fantastic sculpted medallions that proudly proclaim the glory of commerce:

Some are still in use as bank branches. Here's the Bank of Montreal at Yonge and Queen:

Others, sadly, sit empty and derelict waiting for some imaginative retrofit and a second life. Here are two vacant banks on Yonge St. between Queen and Dundas, home now to nothing but pigeons:

The establishments in these buildings were serious businesses - customers got the sense that their money was treated with respect because the buildings were designed like churches or Roman temples. Can many of us say the same about the industrial boxes that take care of our finances today?

More "temples of finance" next time.