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Old August 19th, 2006, 03:05 PM   #1
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Cathedraltown...suburbia with a twist

From: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servl...nment/Ontario/
Cathedraltown: suburbia with a twist
Architect who led Westminster Abbey restoration guides Markham project

It's hardly news that the town-planning fashion called "new urbanism" -- with its emphasis on gracious, walkable boulevards and old-fashioned streetscapes -- is taking firm root in suburbs across North America. Of more interest, however, are the surprising things that happen when this philosophy hits the ground.

Take Cathedraltown, a 2,000-unit residential project now under construction in the Toronto suburb of Markham. Like U.S. developments executed under the rubric of new urbanism, Cathedraltown intends to defy monotonous sprawl and feature a mix of homes and shops, live/work spaces and offices, all within walking distance of each other. It's to be a pleasant blend of the ingredients, in other words, that make up any successful town.

But livability is where the comparison of Cathedraltown with American models ends. The U.S. versions of new urbanism seek to evoke small Southern towns at the turn of the 20th century, with their white frame façades, sociable porches, Fourth of July picnics and so forth. In sharp contrast to that brand of nostalgia, Cathedraltown offers its own: 19th-century European this time, with robust little buildings standing proudly around a central square dominated by a great church.

I suspect that everyone who's been up the 404 between Toronto and Newmarket has seen the church at the heart of the Cathedraltown scheme. It's the imposing, baroque Cathedral of the Transfiguration, rising from a pasture just east of the expressway, which was begun in the early 1980s by late industrialist Stephen Roman on his Markham property. (The interior of this structure, which Mr. Roman meant to be the mother church of Canada's 30,000 Eastern-Rite Slovak Catholics, is still incomplete.)

As explained to me by Helen Roman-Barber, who is developing Cathedraltown on the site of her father's cattle ranch, the project will introduce a strong grid of through streets lined, in the cathedral quarter, by mixed-use buildings up to six storeys tall. A straight high street, with shops and services, will extend westward from the church toward the 404. Shorter structures, mainly residential, will dot the grid as it falls away from the cathedral, creating an attractive, staged transition from high and ceremonial -- the church's golden domes are as tall as 20-storey buildings -- to the intimate scale of two-storey residences. A low-shouldered lake, now under construction, will provide further counterpoint and visual balance to the soaring church.

Cathedraltown is more, of course, than an attempt to replicate an old-world plan on new-world soil. To help with the fashioning of the project's stylistic look, Mrs. Roman-Barber has commandeered the talents of a somewhat unlikely designer: Donald Buttress, senior partner in the British firm Buttress Fuller Alsop Williams, and from 1988 to 1999, the official architect of Westminster Abbey. Dr. Buttress's best-known architectural work so far has been the restoration of the abbey's famous and magnificent west front -- not exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to find in the résumé of a designer of suburban houses on Ontario farmland.

But Mrs. Roman-Barber has large ambitions for Cathedraltown. Drawings by Dr. Buttress on the development's website show a dignified, compact town centre, with august Georgian buildings topped by domes and spires echoing the towers of Transfiguration cathedral. One cannot imagine a Blockbuster outlet in such a serious place, let alone a Mac's Milk store. It will look more like a Cambridge college than anything I've ever seen on the outskirts of town.

Will Cathedraltown work as a living community? We'll get an answer when it is built out and complete, some five years from now (if all goes according to the developer's ambitious timetable). There are reasons to be cautious, however, having to do with the portion of Cathedraltown that's largely finished and now being occupied.

There, on the northern edge of the project, the high style and period flair Dr. Buttress has lavished on the future town centre is largely absent. The note struck by the variously designed houses along the avenues -- the street names, by the way, come from prize-winning heifers and bulls raised by Mr. Roman -- is Georgian or early Victorian: sturdy, dressed-down, businesslike. To work as an urban form, Georgian needs oomph and big-city attitude it doesn't have here. And the developer's neglect of retail -- even a milk store -- in this part of the project means that, so far, Cathedraltown is looking a lot like the monoform, car-dependent suburbia it's trying so hard not to become.

Though I am usually dismayed by architectural nostalgia of any kind, I'll be watching the rollout of Cathedraltown with interest. The Georgianism and Europeanism of it all is surely part of the marketing strategy, but I find the approach -- as expressed in Dr. Buttress's sketches -- to be more earnest and principled than mere salesmanship. Cathedraltown is suburbia with an engaging twist -- hence its durable interest to everyone fascinated by what's new out on the ever-evolving city's edge.
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Old August 19th, 2006, 03:12 PM   #2
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Bizarro world! I'd love to hear more about this!
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Old August 19th, 2006, 04:52 PM   #3
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From an environmental perspective, I don't think its any better than the monotonous suburbs it hopes to replace. It is merely a well disguised example GTA sprawl. Whether it be dull suburbs or a quaint reproduction of 19th century Europe, it is still gobbling up farmland, creating a car-dependent culture, and polluting its environment. The more planners try to disguise suburban sprawl, the longer it will take for that unsustainable lifestyle to change.
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Old August 20th, 2006, 03:58 AM   #4
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It's called New urbanism, it's not totally urban will.exe. It's not disguised as sprawl either, it's modeled after 19th century euopean cities. 8 storey buildings with shops on the first floor, so it infact reduce pollution as citizens won't need to drive everywhere. It is not gobbling up framland either, it's just a bare field right now with a church in the middle
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Old August 20th, 2006, 06:43 PM   #5
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OK. I was picturing sprawling Victorian style houses, but if it refers more to apartment block style of living then I definitely commend it.
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