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On the record with Donald Luxton

Heritage advocate talks architecture, history and evil vinyl windows
donald luxton
Donald Luxton is a long-time heritage advocate whose interest in preservation was sparked by the demolition of the Birks building in 1974. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Donald Luxton runs Donald Luxton & Associates Inc., which has offices in Vancouver and Calgary. The firm was hired as the lead consultant for the city’s Heritage Action Plan, a contract that wraps up at the end of December. Luxton is a well-known expert on Vancouver heritage buildings. Raised in South Vancouver, he graduated from David Thompson secondary and spent two years at Langara College before earning two degrees at UBC in Fine Arts and architecture.

Heritage appears to be playing an increasing role in decision-making at city hall. Is that a correct impression?
Council certainly sent out a message with the Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area that they consider it to be a priority. So it’s increasingly seen as good practice. It’s one of the things that the city takes into account just as a matter of doing business. That’s a sign that the city is maturing. The city is built out so every time you build something, you’re going to take something down. We don’t do that now without really assessing the site. Everything from environmental to [hazardous materials] to you name it is now on a standard check list. And one of those things now is, is there any heritage value to what’s on the plate? That doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever is there will be preserved, but it would certainly be assessed and sometimes commemorated, sometimes remembered in the new plan.  

What’s it like being the go-to person on Vancouver heritage buildings, especially since you’re, in effect, helping shaping the look of the city?
I guess I’m flattered. I guess I’ve been around long enough to be a bit of a heritage object myself. It’s also the fact that I’ve been involved for so long and I’ve been involved in so many different aspects of this. I like to think I’m flexible in an approach that looks at different aspects. I’m not dogmatic about heritage. Also, it’s interesting what people probably don’t know about what we do. A good half of our work is cultural work. We do as much cultural work as we do heritage work. So we work in the museum sector with cultural facilities. That doesn’t get as much attention but it’s the other half of the equation — that when we look at heritage it’s not isolated. It’s not just old sticks that we’re trying to keep. It’s:  What’s the cultural value to the city? So I hope that we take a broader viewpoint on all this.

How many Statements of Significance for heritage buildings has your firm produced?
It’s sort of like McDonalds — billions and billions served. I would have to say the last time we counted, there were over 1,500 in terms of general product. I’d say we’ve now probably got close to 2,000 throughout western Canada.

Did you practise as an architect?
Never did. Although I’ve worked with buildings my entire life, I never registered. I graduated at the end of 1982. For an architect that was not a good time to graduate. Certainly there were no jobs in architecture, so it kind of propelled me into looking around and looking for alternate ways to make a living. I ended up doing exactly what I should have been doing in the first place, which was heading towards a combination of my historical interests and architecture and ended up right in heritage.

What got you interested in the history of Vancouver?
I know what kicked off my interest in preservation as such, which was the demolition of the Birks building in 1974. [The 1912 building was at Georgia and Granville]. I was at UBC at the time in Fine Arts and interested in art and architecture and history. The argument at the time was this old building has to go. It’s progress. It has to go because we have to build new things and we can’t keep everything old. That was the attitude at the time. When I saw what it was replaced with, which was the Scotiabank tower, I realized it was a lie. It wasn’t better. As a matter of fact it was way worse. That made me begin to question the whole concept of progress in architecture and I began to appreciate the old buildings.

Do you live in a heritage building or historic house?
Nope. Absolutely not [laughs]. My background and training is in architecture. I love modern architecture. I live with a lot of concrete. It’s a condo.

Which is the most significant heritage building in Vancouver in your opinion?
There are so many that have value for different reasons like the Hastings Mill Museum is the oldest. I have a favourite, which is the Marine Building. I love art deco and I love the Marine Building. It’s insanely beautiful.

Which cities near and far do a good job of preserving heritage?
I think Vancouver does a surprisingly good job. I’m not just saying that because I don’t want my clients to fire me. But when you go to other cities in western Canada, you realize that Vancouver is getting some of the best results and has the most powerful tools and tries the hardest. So I’ve got nothing bad to say about Vancouver in that regard. As much as I’ve been an advocate over time and on the other side of the fence, you can’t blame Vancouver for what it’s tried to do because they’re not getting any help from the province or the feds. They struggle really hard and do very well given the land value and the issues that we deal with. But of all the cities in western Canada, you’ve got to hand it to Victoria. I’m mean it’s a whole different situation. They don’t have the land value that we have but they do a good job over there and it’s always delightful working in Victoria because they really care about their heritage.

Do you have pet peeves about what some owners do to heritage buildings?
Yup. Vinyl windows. I continue to call them the spawn of the devil. They are a horrible thing to do to a building. Just awful for many, many, many reasons. Just don’t do it. Please.

Do faux heritage buildings irritate you?
Yes. I like my modern buildings to be modern and my old buildings to be old. So anytime that I see something look like a craftsman building or someone that’s stuck some foam on to look like a cornice, I do shudder.

Relatively speaking, Vancouver buildings aren’t that old. What do people say when you’re travelling when you explain you try and save 100-year-old buildings?
It’s a different scale in terms of what people deal with in other countries, but one of the things people do appreciate about Vancouver is our commitment to sustainability, which includes heritage conservation. People recognize the city for that when I tell them projects I’m working on. I mean it’s not unusual to save 100-year-old buildings. What really is amazing in Vancouver is we’re saving 30-year-old buildings like the Evergreen building, the Electra and Robson Square. That’s very progressive and people are actually much more interested in that.

Do you have haters?
I don’t know if anyone hates me for what I do, but I think a lot of people disagree with me. We’ve had very spirited discussions about all kinds of things. That’s something I have no problem with because dialogue takes you where you need to go. We certainly have had many respectful disagreements during the Shaughnessy process. I don’t think I’m up on dart boards, but the thing I think is really important to understand whenever I’m taking stands or making statements or making recommendations, is it’s based on principles. And we can have a discussion about that. I have no problem when people disagree with me because, frankly, nobody gave me the magic wand and made me king yet. So I’m not calling the shots.

This interview was edited and condensed.