Interview: In conversation with Alexis Cohen

What does it take to work in heritage conservation? Find out in this interview! Here, we chat with Dr Alexis Cohen, U of T alumna and Associate at ERA Architects about her work as an architectural historian in the world of heritage conservation, her training in art and architectural history, why the humanities matter, and some of her favourite ongoing projects…

Alexis Cohen, Ph.D., Associate at ERA Architects

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

I am an Associate at ERA Architects. Our firm, which has offices in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, specializes in heritage conservation. We are an architecture firm, but we are composed of an interdisciplinary group, which includes not only architects, but also conservation specialists, land-use planners, and cultural planners. My own background is in architectural history, and I’m a U of T graduate.

Who works in heritage conservation?

There are a number of ways to work in heritage conservation. It’s a diverse field of practice. In general, my work is focused on understanding historic places. They’re not always understood as historic to everyone involved, but I look to understand the history and meaning of places, neighbourhoods, individual buildings, landscapes, and think through how they’re valued in their communities and by different stakeholder groups. We take that understanding and use it to inform project discussions and decision-making, which can be in the context of a private residential property, a public institution, or even a municipality. We use our understanding of places to inform conversations and decision-making in the conservation and planning world.

One recent project that has been a pleasure to work on, since the first day I started at ERA, is Mirvish Village and Honest Ed’s. That project is fascinating and multi-faceted. It involves archival research, community engagement, collaborative exhibitions – which also served as engagement – policy analysis, as well as discussions with the design and consultant teams, the city, and various community groups. It’s an ongoing project, and something that’s been a privilege to be involved with.

The old sign for Honest Ed’s on Markham Street, Toronto. Photo: Sean Marshall, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
This seems like something that will continue to be an ongoing project, given the heritage community that’s built up around Mirvish Village.

Definitely. The way we see the field and the way we see heritage is always evolving. It’s not something static, and we continue to revisit places that we’ve studied and we revisit how they’re understood and valued, or not valued, by the community, and that changes over time.

What made you interested in the study of architecture, architectural history, and heritage?

As an undergraduate at U of T, I was studying art history, but I always gravitated towards the architectural history courses. I was interested in the complexity of architecture, how it’s linked to cities and societies. It’s also a subject that allows you to think about design which greatly interested me. It invites you to think about urbanism, politics, economics, social history, and how buildings come to be. They’re very complicated products involving many different inputs. Architecture also helps us think about how we live, congregate, and interact as humans. I always found that social history element very interesting.

There’s often this idea in academia that you need to stay in academia, especially for grad students… What made you decide to go into heritage conservation and how do you see that relating to your academic training and background?

As a starting point, I have a strong commitment to the value of the study of the humanities and I was interested in how the type of thinking and work that we do in the humanities can be applied outside academia. I didn’t set out to work in an architecture firm, although I was always intrigued by the studio classes of my peers, and was fascinated by the practice of architecture. I started with the question of where architectural historians can contribute outside academia. The world of heritage conservation is one of those areas, and in many respects, an ideal area. It enriches my understanding of architectural history and the ways in which you can practice it, think about it, and understand what it means as a discipline. It gets expanded and morphed in very interesting ways in the world of conservation, and especially, in the ways in which research intersects with contemporary reality.

It seems interesting to explore different projects and things that you maybe hadn’t considered when you were starting out or when you were in grad school.

Definitely. In some ways, it’s not about bringing a specialization in say, European medieval architecture, because that’s not a built-form in Canada. You’re not bringing a specific set of knowledge, but you’re bringing a way of thinking, through that humanities connection. You’re bringing a way of thinking about buildings and approaches to researching them and understanding them. You can use that more general skill-set and capability you learn through studying architectural history to other contexts in versatile and diverse ways.

So, you’re saying that the humanities matter?

Yeah! I’m going to come out there and say that the humanities matter. That might be a controversial opinion [laughs], but I deeply believe they matter. Critical thinking, reconciling multiple opinions which might be in conflict, interpreting meaning from different voices and time periods, being able to understand how meaning might be different in various times, societies, and cultures, all of these are ways of thinking that the humanities teach. I think these are incredibly valuable and applicable to our modern world in so many ways. This is not to mention writing, structuring arguments, communicating with different audiences, presenting ideas, trying to compel people to find interest in historical ideas, objects, or places. I think it’s a very important area of study that can enrich your life.

287-289 Carlton Street, Toronto

Turning our attention to Canada and to ideas of the local… why do you think it’s important that we do look to the built environment of Canada?

It’s critical to understand the places where we live, work, or study. This also connects to an idea of how we contribute to our contemporary society. History helps us be better citizens in the present. In Canada, we can’t understand the damaging impacts of colonialism without studying our history, and that includes architectural history. We can’t give needed attention to indigenous history, indigenous cultural heritage, and non-western cultural heritage, without this kind of study. This also comes back to needing to understand the built environment and architecture and its relation to a range of intersecting issues.

If we ask: why does our built environment look the way it looks? That’s a research question related to how Canada was developed and colonized, who colonized it, what were their building traditions. To look for an explanation and a history is really important and worthy of study.

These ideas get to a favourite building type of mine in Toronto that got me thinking about local architecture. For me, I did remark growing up on the contrast to the number of monumental buildings you see in European cities, and it takes time to understand different patterns of development and the different ways history unfolded. I’m fascinated by the Toronto downtown home. Why do our downtown streets look the way they look? What is this late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century residential architecture? I’ve always found this built form special about Toronto.

What are some current projects you’re working on?

A project that would be great to share is a grassroots community collaboration called Dragon Centre. This is a story collection and commemoration project for North America’s first indoor Chinese mall which opened in Scarborough in 1984. It is a collaboration with Howard Tam of Think Fresh; Erica Allen-Kim of the Daniels School of Architecture (U of T); photographer Morris Lum; the School of Cities (U of T); Myseum of Toronto; Camille Bégin, who works at Heritage Toronto, but who has, as an independent researcher, written about the mall; and the developers, Shiupong.

We had an event at the mall about a year ago, and we are in the process of regrouping and thinking about next steps and learnings from the project and have launched a website. We are interested in how the project brings together questions of economic development and intangible cultural heritage and the role of small businesses in creating and sustaining the culture of neighbourhoods—including suburban ones—and cities; thinking through where there are policy gaps for conserving the value that these small businesses bring, as they act as cultural hubs, but don’t necessarily fit comfortably within our current legislative and policy framework for heritage in Ontario.

These questions help us think about multicultural heritage in Toronto, non-Western heritage, suburban heritage, and the form in which we understand and research sites. This is a site where we have some archival material, but really to understand properly its full history and what it means to community members, you have to engage the community, do story collection, solicit dialogue, and congregate (with food!). So, it’s a project where we’re exploring the format, modes, and methods of understanding heritage and documenting it. We’re really excited about next steps for that project, so stay tuned!

Dragon Centre Stories, https://dragoncentrestories.ca/

Do you have any advice and guidance to students maybe at different levels of their academic careers and how they can get involved in this sort of work?

There are a lot of great organizations that become more visible once you’re in the working world, but if you dig around, you’ll find them. There’s the Urban Land Institute and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, for example. There are the academic professional organizations like the Society for Architectural Historians, The College Art Association, The Vernacular Architecture Forum, and the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada. The more you find out about what’s out there, the more people you interact with, and the more you expose yourself to different types of research, you’ll be able to open your sightlines and doors. I know it can feel like it’s most important to be in your dorm room writing the best paper you can, and that’s definitely worthwhile, but it’s also important to be out there.

The other thing I’ve often said is that there’s the myth of the job posting; being a bit flexible, testing things out, applying for things that may not seem like a fit, and believing that you can navigate uncertainties, all can lead to a great professional experience. A lot of it is malleable, so don’t give up!

Great advice. Thanks very much Dr Cohen!

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