I was happy to see in a recent article in the Region of Waterloo Record that the Region of Waterloo is interested in the former provincial courthouse at 200 Frederick St. Kitchener as a potential location for more regional government offices.
I’ve always had a warm spot for the building despite it’s brooding look and concrete boxes stacked in a seemly arbitrary design. However, the cane-shaped covered ramp on its north side delights me everytime I see it. It invites you on an adventure and indeed, as you reach the top of the ramp, it opens on an expansive hidden courtyard. Sadly, one that was not likely use during its days as a courthouse.
There’s an unexpected calmness that overtakes you when you get close to this building. Unlike many courthouses, there’s nothing monumental about it – it’s low-slung, understated.
The red, gold and brown hints in the textured concrete echo the red and yellow clay brick that is a common building material in the neighbourhood and the region. The approach to the entrance plaza rises gently from the street, contrasting the life-altering decisions that were made within its walls.
A half block north of the site at 226 Frederick St. sits a “Frankenhouse” – a building transformed by roguish ideas of design. A red Japanese-influenced roof line perched atop a yellow brick, Victorian-era house is enough to drive any heritage buff to distraction. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was the place where the concrete courthouse plot was hatched, here in the former office of modernist architect, John Lingwood.
Both buildings, office and courthouse, reflect Lingwood’s evolution as an architect. Here in this office, Lingwood held “Champagne Fridays” where his staff would get together, post there work on the walls and discuss it over a glass of “champagne” (usually sparkling Ontario wine, not the good stuff). John Lingwood willingly embraced change throughout his career. From his graduation from the University of Manitoba in 1949, to the beginning of his Kitchener practice in 1955, to his last building – the TD bank at the corner of Francis and King St., Kitchener – in the early 1990s, he sought new expressions in design.
The courthouse was one of two prominent Waterloo Region buildings he created in the unfortunately-named brutalist style, the other being the Frank C. Peters Professional Building on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus, near the corner of Albert St. and University Ave.
In his mid-career work from the 1960s and 70s Lingwood seemed to straddle the modernist schools of internationalism and brutalism, applying each in measured quantities to suit the job at hand.
His elegant Carmel New Church and School in south west Kitchener definitely leans toward the international style, while the now-demolished Kitchener-Waterloo Record building reflected the monumental qualities of brutalism with its tall precast concrete columns that suggested an old fashioned typewriter key about to strike the page.
The Courthouse appears on Lingwood’s project list in 1975; its corner stone reads 1977. It closed when the Waterloo Regional Courthouse, at the corner of the Frederick and Duke St., opened in the spring of 2013. Infrastructure Ontario recently declared the old courthouse redundant and has offered it for sale to other levels of government.
According to an article in the Waterloo Region Record, the Region is considering buying the old courthouse to expand its office space. In the Opinion section for the same date the Record suggested the building would be a bad deal for the Region, citing the age and cost of the renovation. Sadly, this measure of age and cost is at the heart of many bad decisions to demolish or to build over culturally important buildings in the region. The same appetite for new ideas and innovation that fostered the wealth of modernist buildings in the region is the same appetite that could lead to their demise.
Brutalist buildings such as 200 Frederick don’t endear themselves to the public – they are not pretty. And, 200 Frederick St. happens to be saddled with one of the most controversial pieces of public art in the region – “Aporia” by artist is Ed Zelenak was commissioned by the province in 1978.
Both these are important pieces of our built heritage. Architect Lingwood has shown, with this building and others, the region’s embrace of experimentation in design and artist Zelenak has given us a sculpture that has confounded generations.
In these early decades of the 21st century, preserving these pieces of our heritage from the mid-20th century is no less important than guarding the 19th century heritage of Victoria Park.
Watch for my up coming film “Finding John Lingwood” to learn more about the man and his contribution to the buildings of Waterloo Region.