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Conversations with Conservation Architects

Conversation 1: Built Heritage

James Ashby, Senior Conservation Architect in the Heritage Conservation Directorate of Public Works and Government Services (PWGSC) has worked with the Directorate since December 2001.  

Though he is interested in all styles and periods of architecture, Ashby's main interest is in conserving the built heritage of the modern era, more specifically the period from 1945 to 1975. He trained as an architect, where co-op opportunities provided him an introduction to the field of heritage conservation where he chose to specialize.

In the early 1990s, when he was first starting out in his profession, there were opportunities to work in architectural firms with a variety of clients, in both the public and private sectors. He considers success to be when he is able to engage with people of other disciplines on projects and to encourage them to understand the importance of heritage conservation.  Ashby also teaches courses on heritage conservation, and enjoys being able to speak about the profession to a wide audience.  He notes that a new younger generation is very enthusiastic about his profession and modern heritage, and that they are coming to the field from a variety of different backgrounds.

What is a Conservation Architect?

Someone who specializes in built heritage, with formal education and training combined with experience in the field. Architectural conservation isn't a regulated profession.

What sort of training did you receive?

I received a Bachelor of Architecture from University of Waterloo, then took a course from the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation  and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome.  I then received an MA in Conservation Studies (Historic Buildings) from the University of York in England.  Twenty years ago, there were fewer places in Canada that provided opportunties for graduate studies in architectural conservation.

What styles and periods do you specialize in?

I feel there is a lack of collective experience in conserving modern architecture, and hope to change this attitude, since many modernist buildings are under threat now of deterioration.  One should also be objective in order to see a building for how it represents the values of society in a particular time period in history.

What kind of opportunities are there now for conservation work in Canada?

These days, in the larger cities of Canada there are some firms that specialize in heritage conservation. The profession of heritage conservation is much more multidisciplinary now, so there are opportunities for historians, landscape architects, materials conservators, heritage trades, and newspaper writers.  There are also more programs attracting a new generation of involved young people.  Carleton University in Ottawa seems to be on the leading edge in this regard and there is a new program in Conservation Engineering starting in the fall of 2011.

Programs now try to make connections between heritage conservation and sustainability, so there is more of an emphasis on building bridges with other professions/movements, such as the environmental or green movement.

How have you applied the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada to your work on heritage buildings? S&G Cover Page

I use the Standards and Guidelines all the time and find them very valuable.  I feel they are important for my work and use the principles laid out to educate owners/property managers.  The Standards and Guidelines demystify the field and goals of heritage conservation, by showing in objective terms that a building can have an ongoing life.

Can you tell me a bit more about the rehabilitation of heritage buildings?

In rehabilitating a heritage building, the single biggest factor to whether its future will be successful or not is determining a use that is compatible; in this regard, one has to have a dialogue with the building owner and demonstrate that a building has the ability to be flexible in dealing with change.

What is your favourite heritage building on the Canadian Register of Historic Places?

...is the one not yet on the Register!

When you aren't thinking about old buildings and landscapes, what do you do? In other words, what are your other interests?

Travel and swimming (though it should be noted that I swim in a historic pool!) 


Conversation 2: Landscape Heritage

John Zvonar is a Senior Landscape Architect who has worked with Parks Canada and Public Works and Government Services for almost 20 years.  He is considered one of the top experts in his field, and considers himself part of a tradition that goes back to the mid-19th century but which is, at least in the government, a relatively new profession.  The conservation of landscapes has existed in Canada at the federal level since 1968, and at that time was brought in for the sole purpose of dealing with the historic landscapes under the control of Parks Canada.  Since 1988, landscape conservation in the federal government was expanded.  That is to say, a landscape architect working in Public Works and Government Services is now responsible not only for helping out how to provide advice on landscape architecture for the extended family of Canada's National Historic Sites, but also for Veterans Affairs, National Defence, the Parliamentary precinct of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and the Canadian war memorials in France.

Though Zvonar used to travel a lot - as he says, there is nothing better for a landscape architect than to be out on a site to see what it has to say or show - he is now involved more with management work in the national office.   He feels he is the institutional memory for landscape architects in his department, and that he has a responsibility to pass down to a younger generation what he has learned.

Before he started work with Parks Canada, Zvonar worked with the City of Ottawa and then at the National Capital Commission.  He is always looking for things that relate to his work.  As long as he is doing something that has purpose and meaning, and contributing to bringing out the importance of a place, he is happy.  He feels there are lots of opportunities to work in this field because it so broad-based and, as he put it: "You have the chance to work outside!"

What is a Conservation Architect?

Someone who is paid to have fun! Someone who is there to unlock the story or the jigsaw puzzle of the past!  Someone who is paid to learn!

What initially got you interested in the profession and what sort of training did you receive?

During high school (in Thunder Bay), I went to evening art classes, and an art teacher (the teacher was rather bohemian) took an interest in what I did and suggested I might want to think about going into the field of architecture.   I applied to the art program at the University of Manitoba - partly because I was following a girl who was also going there...Isn't that always the case? That particular girl fell by the wayside, the interest in landscape didn't! -  which had an architecture stream.  In my third year I had the option of following three different areas of focus - interior design, landscape, and architecture.  I chose the second area of focus. (Landscape Architecture is a program stream within the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba).

Susan Buggey - who is a now a heritage landscape consultant - was my mentor and teacher in the landscape architecture program at the University of Manitoba.  She has been working in the profession since the 1970s, and is one of the four co-founding members of the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation - I am one of the four!

My first major work was to help out in restoring King Edward Park in Winnipeg, followed by a practicum to work on Major's Hill Park in Ottawa (mid-to- late 1980s). 

Bar U Ranch, Parks Canada, 1993 / Ranch-Bar U, Parcs Canada, 1993My first major assignment for Parks Canada was working on restoring the landscape of Bar U Ranch in Alberta in the early 1990s.

What styles and periods do you specialize in?

I am interested in anything and everything.  There is no particular area of focus, instead, I meet specialists in various disciplines and learn from them, and I meet with ordinary people, and get to hear about their stories.  This means I have worked on everything from Victorian to Modernist landscapes and gardens, and have had the opportunity to travel all over Canada and other countries to learn. 

What kinds of successes have you had?

I have received a public service award for my work.  However, this is not as important as my opportunity to make a contribution to the future, and to learn about the stories of others, and pass them on.

How have you applied the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada to your work?

I am constantly applying the Standards and Guidelines to what I do.  It makes sense to follow the holistic approach where an entire landscape and its stories are considered.  I'll give you a couple of examples: The first is the Garden of the Provinces on Wellington Street in Ottawa.  Several years ago, there as an opportunity to provide guidance to restore this modernist public  space, and so I was able to talk to the landscape architect who designed it, and it turns out that it was his first project after he graduated from Harvard.  The public space is supposed to be an expression of peace and harmony, but what is interesting is that I also found out that at the opening ceremony, in the fall of 1962, the opening speeches were referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  So in this case, knowing the historical context is important. 

Here's another example: I have become interested in aboriginal cultural landscapes, especially those of Northern Canada.  These landscapes have so many layers of stories, and so many of the important historical and cultural elements are intangible, so you are left with trying to find an "idea" about the landscape that needs to be presented and commemorated in a tangible way.

And here's one more example: I was recently in Halifax and doing work on restoring one of the oldest cemeteries there - there are graves from the 1740s there - and it is overlooked by an old row of 19th century apartments.  I was told by the superintendent of the apartments that the best caretakers of the place were the old ladies who lived here, for they were always watching what went on in the cemetery.  In other words, they were the eyes and ears of the area, and without their support, without their stories, I would not get anywhere, I would not be accurate in my particular job. Old Burying Ground NHS, Parks Canada, 1993 / L'Ancien-Cimetière, Parcs Canada, 1993

In all cases, I think it is important to talk to the locals when trying to understand a particular landscape.  Let them be your guides, learn from them, and you will begin see the importance of a "place" in a community.

What are your other interests?

I am trying to learn how to dance.  And, I love to travel.  I also garden.

Additional CRHP Resources:

Built Heritage of the Modern Era

Vimy Ridge

Rehabilitation of Historic Places

Heritage Gardens