This fall I’ve been gathering with my faculty book club in the Laziridis School of Business and Economics at Laurier. It’s a brand new gleaming edifice stretching along University Avenue, across from the main campus. On occasions when I’ve let some cynicism seep through, I’ve referred to it as the “Cathedral to Capitalism,” and imagined St. Paul, craning his neck in its shadow, sighing “I see that in every way you are very religious.”
I actually like the building, though. It might represent an oft-impersonal and intransigent global economic system, but the structure itself is quite humane. Long sheets of glass compose the exterior walls at street level, inviting sidewalkers to take a peek inside. At the second story, two circular walls bloom out over the plaza, clad in (what appears to be) wood, a lovely, organic interruption on an avenue choked by exhaust fumes and asphalt. Inside is a cavernous atrium, four or five stories high, its roof made entirely of glass. The daylight shines everywhere.
I don’t always notice these kinds of things. Like many, I spend a good chunk of my bus commute hunched over my phone, oblivious to the world as it whizzes past. At work it’s easy to get stuck inside my laptop, or rush off to the next meeting. When I’m behind the wheel myself, I’m anxious about getting to my destination, and would sooner apply a little more pressure to the gas pedal than contemplate the design philosophy made manifest in the buildings to my left and right.
The Saturday before last, Waterloo Region held its annual “Doors Open” event. Businesses, churches and other notable buildings invite the general public in, to learn about history, architectural styles and the design philosophies that govern the structures we inhabit. We live in downtown Kitchener, and that meant we could walk to a bunch of the sites, freed from vehicular haste, and away from the temptation of a distracting screen. A pace suitable for contemplation.
More than trivia
We visited SRM Architects, and its interior looked every bit the interior of a modern architectural firm. Crisp, tidy, soft grey and white, and well-organized. Vintage architectural drawings were on display, as were vibrant photographs of recently completed projects. I noted their contribution to my city’s changing skyline; they’ve designed many of the new condo towers popping up all over the place.
From there, we ducked into the Polocorp headquarters, which is housed in a Queen Street mansion once owned by the hotdog magnate JM Schneider. It’s a Queen Anne revival style, built with those distinctive buff bricks you see all over Ontario. The house is red, though, and we learned that they’d painted it, a century back, with a mixture of ox blood and ash.
We ended the afternoon at the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Transfiguration. It’s not particularly striking, and barely distinct amid a row of rather unremarkable buildings on Victoria Street. But inside, it was like some living thing. Icons stared back, unblinking. Tongues of flame on beeswax candles flickered and danced. St. Cyril looked down from above, holding a scroll with his alphabet. My daughter, who likes to point at the solitary cross at our church, found 10 or 11 gold ones, glinting in the light coming through the windows. I love how Eastern Christians aren’t afraid to drive a point home visually.
I’ve passed by this church hundreds of times, and never thought what treasure might be inside. I’ve passed by old JM Schneider’s mansion hundreds of times, never wondering about the reason for its ruddy complexion. I’ve noticed condos shooting up like exotic flora, but not given much thought to the architects that dreamed them into life. Yet all of those stories, these little quotidian wonders are out there, just waiting to be discovered. And to have ears to hear them and eyes to see them means we acquire something much better than mere trivia. We can learn to be truly attentive. That’s a wonderful way to relate, not just to our built world, but to our neighbours too. Some of them have peculiar complexions, some don’t. Some are kind of plain; some stand out above the crowd. All of them have a wonderful icon, a wonderful image, within.
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