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Built Heritage of the Modern Era

Today's broader, more inclusive definition of heritage has allowed built heritage of the Modern Era to be recognized for its historic and cultural value. Built heritage of the Modern Era encompasses all types of constructions between 1930 and the mid-1970s, an era marked by a wide-spread faith in a better future independent of the past, extraordinary changes in lifestyle, and unprecedented growth in Canada. However, built heritage of the Modern Era is often undervalued by the general public. The heritage of the Modern Era is underrepresented in the heritage sector, with only 3% of our National Historic Sites of Canada and less than a quarter of our designated Federal Heritage Buildings post-dating 1930. Fortunately, in recent years the study of this rich era of Canadian architectural history has increased amongst professionals and scholars.

Since 1997, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board have had specific criteria for the designation of built heritage of the Modern Era. The building, ensemble or site must be an outstanding illustration of the changing social, political and/or economic conditions, involve rapid technological advances or represent new expressions and/or responses to unique functional demands of the era. Also, a site will be considered if it represents a precedent that had a significant impact on subsequent construction. Built heritage of the Modern Era presents a unique challenge in conservation as buildings were often planned for obsolescence. Many examples of built heritage of the Modern Era in Canada have been adapted or altered over the course of their life and remain in use. Hence, when considering constructions from this period, the idea of material authenticity is approached differently. To be considered of national significance, a proposed site must be in a condition that respects the integrity of its original design, materials, workmanship, function and/or setting, insofar as each of these was an important part of its overall intention and present character, rather than strictly materially intact.

Binning Residence/Résidence BinningDesignated built heritage of the Modern Era is surprisingly varied. Many sites are concerned with the growing middles classes, such as the Binning Residence National Historic Site of Canada in West Vancouver, British Columbia. The house is a very early example of Modern residential design, encapsulating the post-and-beam West Coast Style, and became a model for later construction. Built in 1941, during the Second World War, the house combined a Modern approach to form and function with economy and efficiency of construction by using local materials and up-to-date building technologies, so as to be affordable for the average family.

BC Hydro/Hydro CBOther designated buildings include resources for previously neglected groups, such as the much needed facilities of the Canadian North. The Yellowknife Post Office was built in 1956 as Yellowknife dramatically expanded. The Post Office was a focal point of the community, linking to the outside world and serving businesses, politicians and individuals. The Post Office building is a modest rectangular two-storey frame building with a flat roof. In stark contrast architecturally, its contemporary, the former B.C. Hydro Building, designed by the engineer Otto Safir, is a 21-storey, distinctively-tapered, lozenge-shaped tower. The tower is an early example of glass curtain-wall construction, an important twentieth-century innovation. It is representative of post-war economic expansion, which placed an emphasis on large infrastructure and resource extraction initiatives.

Many sites of the Modern era are more vulnerable than their predecessors; the materials and methods of construction were often less durable and in some cases experimental or not designed for longevity. This makes conservation technically challenging and of pressing importance.  But, through increased public initiatives and awareness of the unique values of built heritage of the Modern Era, the architectural production of this distinctive period of Canadian history can be protected.

Further reading: Parks Canada, National Historic Sites of Canada System Plan: Commemorating Canada's Built Heritage of the Modern Era, 2001.