A Memorable Place: Memorial School, Niagara Falls

Posted Jun 22nd, 2020 in Design, Niagara Architecture

Ian Ellingham, PhD, FRAIC

Originally published in The Right Angle Journal.  Fall 2017.

It is worth considering what makes a place worthy of positive note.  Fortunately, psychologists have been working on this question for some decades and have fascinating insights, and over the past fifteen years, the neuroscientists have joined in.  This is not a frivolous matter - architects, planners and developers all have a role in ensuring that the wider population responds in a positive manner to the buildings and cities that they create.  

There are some things that research has repeatedly confirmed.  First, overall decisions about buildings and streetscapes are made very quickly - the neuroscientists suggest in under a second.[1]  In some of our own research, in which people selected from pairs of photographs, most people took under ten seconds to respond - and that included the time for information transfer to and from the brain and to push the button indicating their selection.[2]  In particular, it appears that rejection occurs very quickly - something that would be of benefit to those ancestors living in the wilderness.  Quick identification of obviously dangerous, or even unknown hazards would have helped them avoid being eaten.  

A second, and very important finding, is that architects have very different evaluations of buildings than does the wider population.  This strand of research goes back at least into the 1960s.[3]  Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria found certain buildings ranked very highly by the wider population were relegated to near last place by the architects he was studying.[4]  In experimental findings we are conducting now, this familiar pattern continues to appear, but follow-up discussions with the participants have revealed something else is going on.  In one session, a particular building being used as a test stimulus was attacked by one of the participants as a dreadful building - he offered numbers of reasons why it violated the precepts of architectural philosophy.  No one in the session disagreed.  I had included the building as someone had suggested it as an appealing building.  When I analysed the preceding survey responses, it ranked as one of the most preferred buildings.  In a subsequent session I asked for someone to explain why they regarded it in a positive way, no-one would admit to their scoring.  

In another discussion, I asked about the response to the image of a particular building, that others had suggested was 'ugly'.  In discussion one individual said she did regard it in a positive light.  I asked why.  She thought for a moment, and said that she had a pair of shoes that had the same pattern as the facade of the building - she liked the shoes so liked the building.  This sort of response has been explored - that when we assess a new stimulus, our brains will attempt to relate it to something already known - something sometimes termed a 'prototype'.[5]  In the case of this individual, it was not another building she was relating it to, but her brain, in seeking something to use to assess this newly-encountered building found a matching pattern - quite literally, in a pair of shoes.  

Putting such oddities of behaviour aside, it is interesting to consider why we might regard a building in a positive manner.  While an individual might see a building as 'beautiful', there are other possibilities.  One is the concept of the 'romantic', which was seriously explored through buildings, and in music and literature by the Victorians.  The Oxford English Dictionary[6] offers this definition of romantic:  "of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized, sentimental, or fantastic view of reality; remote from experience... concerned more with feeling and emotion than with form and aesthetic qualities; preferring grandeur or picturesqueness to finish and proportion."  This underlines the importance of the relationship between the individual and any building - with the concept of the romantic taking the relationship one step further.

Another concept is that of nostalgia - and there is a building that when I encounter it, I feel a cosy warm feeling[7], and memories flood back.  To you, it could be one of the ugliest buildings you might ever encounter.  

As a recreational pursuit I play the clarinet and bass clarinet in a couple of community bands.  It is something I learned in high school, played a bit in university, and picked it up again a few years ago.  Not only does it bring one into contact with people that an architect may not engage with in the course of his/her travels, but there is nothing like listening to great music from the inside - whether it is Haydn, Glenn Miller, or Queen.  A couple of years ago another clarinettist suggested I change groups.  He gave me the directions to the Legion Hall where they practised.  That evening I was running late, so followed the directions, parked the car, rushed up the stairs and arrived just as things were starting.  I sat down and focused on the music.

After a few minutes, I started to consider where I was.  The Legion Hall had obviously had a previous career as a school, and that there couldn't be that many early 20th century schools in that part of town.  Then it struck me - I had attended this very school in grade six, and I was sitting in my old classroom.  I had come from another direction, and in grade six had usually walked to the school - and it had changed.

The building had been rather unsympathetically renovated, the windows crudely covered over, and any surrounding vegetation had disappeared, leaving it sitting stiffly on its site.  Many of the interior walls had been removed, so there was no semblance of my old classroom left, save the now locked door leading into the old-fashioned cloakroom.  But, the staircase (boys only of course), upon a bit of consideration, created immediate resonance.  Wonderful memories flowed from the back recesses of my brain:  the projects I had worked on, my friends, the artwork posted on the walls.  It was obviously not the specifics of the building that caused this - most of them were gone, but somehow the building created an association with a landmark year, characterised by a most memorable teacher who worked hard to inspire young minds.  

And a few months ago, during a practice, one of the other band members informed me that my Grade Six teacher had passed away in her nineties.  Can you imagine, finding out about the demise of one of your most memorable teachers while actually being in the classroom, so many decades later?  

All of this, from what otherwise was an ordinary school of its time, thankfully converted into a Legion Hall, when so many of its contemporaries have been lost.  Every time I walk through the doors that happy warm feeling re-emerges.  Some things however remain an enigma - perhaps I had not fully explored the building when I was in grade six, but I don't recall there being a bar on the ground floor.


1.  Hietanen, Jari. K. and Korpela, Kalevi M., (2004)  Do both negative and positive environmental scenes elicit rapid affective processing?  Environment and Behavior, 36(4) .

2.  Fawcett, William; Ellingham, Ian; and Platt, Stephen (2008) Reconciling the Architectural Preferences of Architects and the Public: The Ordered Preference Model, Environment and Behavior, Vol.40, No. 5. 

3.  Hershberger, R.G.  (1970).  A study of meaning and architecture.  Sanoff H., and Cohen, S.  (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st EDRA Conference, Raleigh, N.C., pp.86-100.  Reprinted in  Nasar, J.L.  (Ed.), (1988).  Environmental aesthetics, Theory, research and applications.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press. 

4.  Gifford, Robert; Hine, Donald; Muller-Clemm, Werner; Reynolds, D’Arcy; Shaw, Kelly (2000)  Decoding modern architecture:  A lens model approach for understanding the aesthetic differences of architects and laypersons.  Environment and Behavior, 32(2). 

5.  Kaplan, Stephen and Kaplan, Rachel:  (1983).  Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an uncertain world,  Ann Arbour:  Ulirich’s. 

6.  The Concise Oxford English Dictionary: 9th edition (1995). 

7.  In experimental results, people tend to apply the term 'warm' to positively-ranked buildings, and 'cold' to negatively-ranked buildings.


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