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Thursday, October 6, 2022
Arch-i-text: It’s all about context
Vernacular New Traditional design.
Vernacular New Traditional design. Brian Marshall

One of my favourite sayings goes: “Good design costs no more than bad design, but bad design scars the streetscape for generations.”

And, in my opinion, good design is fundamentally directed toward achieving contextual integration with the streetscape specifically and the community generally.

I have written extensively about the steps and criteria that lead to integration, so I will not indulge in a lengthy reiteration today but only draw on what I wrote in one of those articles: An integrative (good) design is “one that is anchored in the topography of the land, contextually appropriate within existing streetscape(s), respects the visual line-of-sight/privacy of neighbouring properties and, among other considerations, adds to the established architectural integrity of a community.”

Let’s visit two new builds in Old Town to illustrate this point.

On the corner of Mississagua and Anne streets, a New Traditional design in the vernacular expression is well on its way to completion. Facing onto Mississauga, its facade presents two distinct massings, each with a fairly low pitched front facing gable roof, that are linked by a short cross-gable section.

The three individual depths (relative to the property line) on the facade create the impression that the two massings were built at different times and the house evolved into its current configuration by dint of an addition.

The inclusion of brackets in the eaves and supporting the window visors, plus the oriel bay on the right massing recall historic precedent. The two masses are then tied together with the wrap-around porch principally supported by Tuscan columns, as would likely have been the case had this house actually been built in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Importantly, to New Traditional stylistic parameters, the designer has made several choices to ensure that the building only recalls history but does not pretend to actually be historic.

The use of combined cladding types (board and batten on the first floor/clapboard on the second floor), the standing seam metal roof of the porch and oriel being a blue, the decision not to paint out the brackets and visors are all examples of these choices.

I can also appreciate how, on Anne Street, the ever-present garage included on virtually all new houses, has had the normal dominance of a yawning door on the cladding field mitigated by dropping it below grade. 

When considering the gesalt achieved by the design, I think it safe to say that, at this point, it could be placed in any number of locations in Old Town and fit in. In other words, it not only works in the streetscape of its current location, but is actually contextually integrated within the integrity of the community.

Then, just down Anne Street at the corner of Simcoe, a building in the early stages of rising, already presents a different proposition.

Set within a streetscape principally comprised of single-storey and storey-and-a-half homes, the building visually towers above its neighbours with two full storeys capped with a mansard roof, adding even more height. Its facade is dominated by the double-car garage (is there not a relatively new garage bylaw?).

The building covering, by my rough estimate, about 70 per cent of the corner lot it sits upon (in a town where lot coverage often is 33 per cent?), the Anne Street facade unapologetically dominates the streetscape.

The sheer height and length of this wall not only breaks the rhythm of the existing streetscape, it radically changes the neighbourhood’s lines-of-sight while adversely impacting the privacy of adjacent properties.

To be fair, the house is fairly early in construction and its finishes may have some redeeming effect on these issues, but I doubt it. The building’s huge single massing and lot coverage cannot be changed and the impact on the streetscape will remain.

I know which one I’d rather have in my neighbourhood.