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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

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

Architectural crimes against humanity: Kingston, Ontario

Kingston, Ontario is a beautiful little city on Lake Ontario at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River. European settlement began here when the French founded Fort Frontenac at the mouth of the Cataraqui River in 1673 - in fact the ruins of the fort can still be seen today. There was a substantial influx of Loyalist refugees in the 1780s and the town was heavily fortified after the War of 1812, resulting in the construction of some of Kingston's most beloved buildings, like Fort Henry and the Martello towers that still guard the harbour.

At one time Kingston was the capital of the united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada and was the home town of Canada's first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. Its location at one end of the Rideau Canal and its importance as a military garrison and the home of Queen's University led to a period of prosperity and ambitious building projects. Many, like its magnificent City Hall, have survived and give the modern city's downtown an impressive collection of 19th century architecture.

Unfortunately, Kingston went through a period in the 1960s and 1970s when a lot of hideous modern buildings went up and vandalized the downtown streetscapes. Wandering around today the visitor strolls down streets like this

only to be visually assaulted by buildings like this hotel, built right on the historic waterfront within sight of City Hall and adjacent to a Victorian fire hall:

or this horrendous bank, now abandoned, which squats like a nuclear reactor across from the Market Square, making no attempt to blend into the surrounding streetscape in any harmonious way:

Whole downtown city blocks were razed to put up Brutalist concrete structures like the "Hanson Memorial Parking Garage" near the Market, which I notice has been painted with cute children's art to make it less threatening. I'm not sure what Mr. Hanson did to deserve this memorial. Its pedestrian entrance looks like a maximum security Soviet prison:

But of all the ugly buildings in Kingston, there is one that is head and shoulders above the rest: Princess Towers - a hulking apartment block at the corner of Princess and Division Streets. There are no other high rise buildings in the downtown core, so this structure dominates the city like a medieval castle. Its blank featureless concrete north face confronts visitors travelling south down Division Street from Highway 401 as they enter the downtown business district; it's the first impression that most tourists get of downtown Kingston, somewhat like crossing through the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie.

It reminds me of the Flak Towers that Hitler built to defend German cities from the Allies during the Second World War, like this one that still stands in Vienna:

The story of the Princess Towers is a cautionary tale. According to the Queen's Encyclopedia it was originally built in 1972 as "Elrond College", an "experimental cooperative student residence" owned by Queen's University but run by the students themselves. It was named after a character from J.R.R. Tolkien's novel Lord of the Rings, which is appropriate since the building looms over Kingston like Mount Doom over Mordor. The Queen's Encyclopedia tells the sad tale:
The idea for Elrond College came from students in the late 1960s, who were fed up with traditional residences, restrictive landlords, and the perennial shortage of housing in Kingston. The co-op, named after a character in the Lord of the Rings whose house was "a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness", was to be a coeducational residence "where the `they' is `you' and the rules are your own," as early promotional material promised. The students secured support from the alma mater society, Queen's administration, and the federal government, and had high hopes for a new era of student housing when the co-op opened in 1972. But the 16-storey project was plagued by financial problems, including a lawsuit levelled by its construction company and a chronic inability to fill its 400 beds. It worked fairly well as a co-op at first, with all residents doing a couple of hours of cleaning and cooking work each week. But the system began to break down in the mid-1970s and the building became increasingly shabby. But what finally brought Elrond to its knees was its inability to pay off its mortgage, thanks again to a persistently high vacancy rate. After a long and winding road of financial misery, the idealistic project closed its doors for good in 1981. The building was sold and it has been a privately-owned apartment block ever since.
It's no wonder there was a chronic inability to fill its beds. Take a look at this building and try to imagine spending a cold Kingston winter or two inside its forbidding ramparts:

The Princess St. entrance alone is enough to depress even the most optimistic Hobbit - how anyone can think that this leads into a building that is "a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness" defies belief. It looks like the entrance to a subway station or a bomb shelter:

The former hippie cooperative is now being run by capitalists as a private enterprise, and instead of a utopian commune where "the `they' is `you' and the rules are your own", the building advertises its convenience and downtown location. Maybe that's a good marketing campaign for all failed socialist experiments - I'll send the idea along to Angela Merkel and her friends at the European Commission.


Sean M said...

No doubt Kingston was one of the most beautiful cities in the British Empire, and no doubt the Trudeau revolution of the 1960's and 70's was the start of Kingstons headlong rush into historical revisionism and denial. Unfortunately, like all revolutions from the left, what once was beautiful and representative has to be destroyed, denied, leveled, or made to be ugly. It"s a shame because Kingston is an important part of British North American history. Sad that it had to be marginalized and tragically uglified.

Anonymous said...

Offer the Princess Towers to Mayor Moonbeam in Vancouver. He´s already got Vancouver property owners on the muncipal hook for a $983 Million dollar fiasco called the former Olympic athletes housing which he´s finessed into subsidized housing for the know the ill-done-by... teachers, fireman, councillors, posties etc. Not one of these condos is valued at less than a million, and there is nothing to see here...


Chrissy Harpell said...

I agree with this site completely, especially since the hockey hall of fame was torn down recently. Our town depends a lot on turist revenue and who would want to come to a place that looks like their own city except very small and with a lot less activities for their families to enjoy while here. Why are we trying so hard to be like the big cities when we have such a beautiful historic town. The KROCK center was a complete waste of our towns money and we should have restored the memorial center and just expanded it so the other millions could be spent of roads and other things that would have helped turist and Kingstonians enjoy it here even more.