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Brutal Decisions

Richard Beckett’s attempt to construct Brantford’s future.

Tim Ford, November 02, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioA look at Brantford's former city hall. Photo credit Barnabas Bozoki.

 

In the centre of a town that prides itself on its heritage, surrounded by buildings that are 150 years old, there obtrudes a structure that looks like a prop piece from Blade Runner. If staring from a certain angle on the corners of Wellington and George Streets, the hulking structure looks like a stony grey creature, complete with horns, and air vents that look like gills. Up until 2021, Brantford’s city hall laid in the belly of that beast, and since the opening ceremonies in 1967, it has been mired in controversy and clutched pearls. Two years prior to shovel piercing soil, the bold decision was made by Mayor Richard “Dick” Beckett to usher Brantford into a new era, whether it wanted to be ushered or not.

He chose a brash and unlikely remodelling of the historic downtown, ultimately choosing architect Michael Kopsa’s new city hall design as its focal point. The proposal consisted of tearing down the old city hall on Market and Dalhousie Streets and moving it two blocks north, adjacent to Victoria Park. This plan also included moving the farmers market two blocks south off that site to where it is now, on Icomm Drive. Aside from leaving a monetary and literal hole in the already struggling downtown commercial sector, there was a more superficial reason for Brantford’s town folk to rustle themselves into a commotion. The decision to use Kopsa’s vision was met with staunch concern. Kopsa was known for his Brutalist architecture, an art of design that was popping up in Europe at the time. Taken from the term “beton brut” or “raw concrete,” it was the antithesis of traditionalism, something Brantford had been grasping to since the Second World War. 

Kopsa’s final blueprints were a far contrast to the blue-badged heritage buildings that pinned the other corners of the park. Brantford purists begged for a more classic looking city hall, or better yet, acquire one of several vacant buildings that were already emerging downtown. Determined to bring Brantford into the future, and not to continue to rely on its past, Dick pressed forward and signed off on the construction of the new city hall – and the demolishment of the old city hall and the market.

In November of 1967, the new heart of the city was ready to pump blood into its veins. It was unveiled to gasps and awes alike and to this day its beauty is hotly debated. To some, it’s a blemish on the aged elegance of historic Brantford. To others, it’s a brash example of forward-thinking and proof that ugly is in the eye of the beholder. To exiled skateboarders, of course, it’s heaven with paved clouds.

 

Richard Burnell Beckett made the brutal decisions as Brantford mayor. Stock photo.

 

Dick Beckett’s decision to choose a form of architecture that is supposed to invoke opinion and an emotional response was truly ahead of its time. His boldness to do so in such an old part of town was a courageous effort. Because of his forward thought, Brantford has the distinction of having a Brutalist work of architecture, a rarity in Canada, if you like that sort of thing. Ironically, while Beckett was determined to bring Brantford into the future, he and those who reigned after him let the past fall to rubble around their feet. In a move that set into motion decades of struggle and the eventual collapse of downtown commerce, the city officials left the original market square land vacant for another decade, eventually paving it into a parking lot.

The market square, once the epicentre of the city now laid completely unused, stagnating the rest of the business section downtown. Dick’s original plan to build a retail mall on that spot wouldn’t be realized until 1984 and by then there were already two malls in the north end to compete with. It now lays under utilized. One might wonder if the decisions made by Dick Beckett in 1967, with intentions to move Brantford’s downtown into the future, was the beginning of its ultimate commercial standstill.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.

 

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