How Hamilton architecture inspired star Bruce Kuwabara

Hamilton-born Bruce Kuwabara hopes the architects in town for a conference this week discovered some of the things that made him fall in love with the city, even before his training helped him realize what made them so great.

A mix of old buildings, new buildings and neighbourhoods-in-renewal

Architect Bruce Kuwabara grew up in Hamilton and is receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ontario Architects Association conference, held in Hamilton this week. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
Bruce Kuwabara grew up in the North End, a few blocks from Liuna Station, where he received a lifetime achievement award from the Ontario Association of Architects Friday night.

"Growing up in the North End gave me a lot of the ideas I have about living in community, a lot of the lessons about what to do," Kuwabara said.

Kuwabara, now 66, grew up riding his bike around the bay, seeing the columns architect John Lyle designed on the High Level Bridge and the fountain he built in Gage Park. He was here when Stanley Roscoe made a huge mid-century modern statement with city hall on Main Street.

He's an officer of the Order of Canada, a recipient of Canada's highest honour for architects and an early voice for sustainability in design. He has no plans to retire, and said the idea he'd be given a "lifetime achievement award" caught him by surprise.

Kuwabara's own stunning renovation of a 1929 Collegiate Gothic mathematics building at McMaster University caught the eye of Princeton University, where he is working on a project on a 1929 Collegiate Gothic building on that campus. And he was behind the 2005 redesign of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, bringing a much-desired street-level entrance to King Street.

In town to receive his award, Kuwabara talked about some architectural highlights in his hometown.

Why are those four columns exactly that height on the High Level Bridge? 

The High Level Bridge covers a waterway connecting Lake Ontario to Cootes Paradise and Dundas. (Aaron Segaert/ metroperspectives.com)
Kuwabara idolizes John Lyle, a Belfast-born architect who gave Hamilton some great public landmarks, like the columns on the High Level Bridge and the fountain in Gage Park.

Lyle's work shows he "really understood the geography of Hamilton," Kuwabara said. "That meant connecting the water and the bay to the land to the escarpment. And ultimately to the silhouette of the escarpment which kind of forms a horizon around the downtown."

After some of his architecture training, Kuwabara came home once and pondered the bridge. 

"Those four pylons — how did he determine how tall to make them?" Kuwabara said. "They're not holding up anything. It's like a four-posted bed." 

And then, it hit him: "They're there to draw your eye upward toward the escarpment."

The governor general himself came by to switch on the Gage Park fountain in 1927. (hamiltonpostcards.com)
The fountain at Gage Park is another of Kuwabara's favourites, also designed by Lyle.

The lines of the fountain and the long water feature "collapse the space" and make the escarpment feel closer to the viewer, Kuwabara said.

And there's no doubt where you're supposed to look, Kuwabara said.

"The shaft of the fountain takes your eye up to break the line of the escarpment."

Why does Hamilton's City Hall look like that? 

Councils want to get police involved in an investigation of misuse of city funds by a parks superintendent. (Terry Asma/CBC)
Stanley Roscoe designed Hamilton's city hall on Main Street with the front, glass building designed to symbolize the matters of the city being decided in a transparent way — the "proceedings of council visible in a very public way," Kuwabara said.

He says he's borrowed ideas from Roscoe for the award-winning city halls he's designed for Kitchener, Vaughan and Richmond, B.C.

"It's interesting how things carry forward in your life," Kuwabara said. "Things that influence you when you're very young all of a sudden decades later there's something still retained and you play it out again."

​Kuwabara said his dad was part of the team installing the terrazzo tile inside the city hall, and he brought home a few leftover pieces for his son to play with:

What should be at Hamilton's heart?

Kuwabara said he hopes Gore Park will pick up some of its former splendour. (CBC)
If he had one day as mayor of Hamilton with absolute power, Kuwabara would apply his focus to the centre of downtown, Gore Park. "It should be the focal point; the focal point should not be Jackson Square."

Kuwabara remembers it as a place for people to gather. "It wasn't seedy and it didn't have little Pizza Huts and things like that. It used to be the place where everyone hung out. My parents would be in the market and I'd be hanging out with people I knew in Gore Park."

He said Hamilton's biggest mistake was demolishing Victorian commercial buildings to build Jackson Square. He pointed to the popularity of Locke Street and James North as evidence that "people are looking for a city, with real streets and real public space; they're not looking for a mall."

He issued one challenge to his fellow Hamiltonians: In your excitement over the momentum that's building, make sure that what you allow developers and designers to do reflects an authentic sense of the place.

"Don't yearn for what Toronto has," he said. "You'll end up killing the beauty of the place."


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