02 . 27 . 2015

My London: Web doc celebrates local icon

AUTHOR James Reaney

One of the most beautiful buildings in my London — and, undoubtedly, yours — is on its way to becoming an Internet hit.

The Dominion Public Building is a soon-to-launch web documentary on the classic and classy architectural gem at Richmond St. and Queens Ave. It’s a labour of love from Venezuela-born documentary-maker Juan Andres Bello.

“I fell in love with the building. It was love at first sight,” Bello said during an advance look at the documentary.

An award-winning creator in his hometown of Caracas, Bello arrived in London when his wife took a teaching job in film at Western University about five years ago.

The Dominion building was a mere 75 or so at the time, patiently waiting for Bello to tell its story with a lot of digital care and passion.

He has embraced the object of his affection with a documentary approach right for 2015. “It’s all about what you can share on Facebook, what you can tweet,” he said of the way social media speeds up historical and cultural reflections.

There have been tributes to the Dominion (or Federal) building which go well beyond the 140 characters in a tweet.

A plaque honouring the building lauds its “Classical Moderne style using stylized Art Deco decorative carvings in the masonry.” The local architects were from the Watt and Blackwell firm in association with Roy O. Moore.

“The building has been designated a classified heritage property by the Federal Government for its historical associations, its impressive architectural design, and its importance within its urban setting” (opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral).

Bello has been able to combine such reverence with his own discoveries.

Among the many archival treasures collected by Bello is an image of The Free Press story sensibly headlined Federal Building Opened. Written by the matchless L.N. (Les) Bronson, the account has a characteristic Bronson touch. A mentor to this column and all who care about London lore, Bronson points out it was about time for that building — Londoners had been campaigning for a new post office and customs house since at least 1912.

It took the Depression and the federal government of R.B. Bennett’s decision to spend big on projects across Canada to make that longtime London wish a reality.

Bello’s documentary shares a master list of such projects costing Ottawa tens of millions of dollars overall. The London building is a big-ticket item — $1.5 million — sandwiched by two projects in Nova Scotia — breakwater work in Lockeport and dredging in Lunenburg.

Like other federal buildings, it was a statement of optimism in the face of crushing economic woes, an expression of hope.

“That hope has a clear connection with hard work,” Bello said of the project and the needed jobs it brought to the London region. In part because its creator is attuned to human emotion behind a massive edifice, Bello’s choice of material reflects that hope. Many of his awards are for documentaries about architecture. Museum London screened one of them, Villanueva, The Devil about three years ago, It was also selected for the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal and an Alberta series.

Bello is still waiting to settle on the time and place for a public screening in March for his remarkable project.

“Juan has designed the website in sections, each dealing with an aspect of the Dominion Building, from history about the Depression to the actual building. He acquired a lot of images and documentation from Libraries and Archives Canada and has recreated a solid representation of the time,” Museum London director Brian Meehan said.

Bello said the website and web documentary should no longer to be considered a work-in-progress.

Indeed not. Supported by a 2014 City of London grant and happy to undertake a labour of love, Bello has drawn marvellous images from Western Archives and blueprints. He has also created six mini-films, one with London duo Wormwood on the soundtrack.

He has also included Arthur Gleason’s photographs which documented the day-by-day progress starting about April 2, 1935. It’s fascinating to see horses being used on the site and to puzzle over such names as Erie Shovel, which show up on equipment.

Bello has blown up photos of some groups of workers. He would like to hear from Londoners who may know of a family connection to any of the workers or others involved.

He is also interested in profiling the contributions of those who work there, now. Many have ties to Service Canada. Their presence is a reminder of its original purpose.

“This building is like a monument to that idea of the government as a provider of services. It’s very powerful,” Bello said. “The building is not a museum.”

That’s true — its enduring beauty and idealism continue to inspire Londoners. “Today it’s just as strong and iconic as back then,” London architect Tom Tillman says in an interview Bello uses.


For more information on the documentary check this site.