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The Invisible Truth: Some Thoughts about Toronto's Architecture

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Some Thoughts about Toronto's Architecture

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I have a friend who works at City Hall here in Toronto. He's in the heritage department of urban planning. Being from San Francisco, he often vituperates against the tendency in Toronto to level everything worth preserving in order to erect ticky-tack glass-and-concrete condominiums. While I agree with the spirit of his invectives, I think he goes too far sometimes in lambasting Toronto's architecture.

Granted, Toronto is not a city of architecture on par with Chicago, New York, Berlin, Barcelona or even Dubai. That said, it has experienced a little bit of an architectural renaissance, with exciting projects like the newly reno'd Royal Ontario Museum, the newly reno'd Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Ontario College of Art and Design. While there are some horrible glass obelisks going up, such as the Bay-Adelaide centre, and scads of unremarkable condos, not all of the new projects strike me as worthless.

Take the "L" tower, a residential/mixed use building planned to rise above the Hummingbird Centre, down on front street, for example. Its shape suggests a chair, which in my opinion is a coup of significance over function and decoration, two among several important traits of buildings. The chair is a piece of functional material reality, but one more traditionally associated with indoors. The indoors/outdoors dichotomy of urban space in this building is inverted in the design of a building to suggest the indoors through outward presentation. Plus, the smooth, rounded lines of this proposed building are a relief from the somewhat monotonous perpendicularity of the modern city.

Furthermore, as much as I have ideological problems with the operation of banks, the bank towers of Toronto are laudable simply for the buildings' adherence to each bank's brand design at large. For instance, the Scotia Plaza tower (on the right in the photo) is reddish, evoking the red of Scotiabank's logo. Built of reinforced concrete, with an exterior of red-toned Napoleon Granite, quarried in Sweden, cut and polished in Italy, the Scotia Plaza reaches far into the sky above the old Scotia bank building, the second tallest skyscraper in Canada. The two TD Canada Trust Towers on the left, part of the Brookfield Place office complex, feature windows of a greenish hue, fully consistent with their brand colours of green. Even the grey concrete has a light-greenish hue to it too, especially in bright sunshine. Finally, and perhaps most spectacularly, the Royal Bank Plaza features glass coated in 24 carat gold: almost 1 million dollars worth. Besides the significance of gold as emblematic of monetary wealth, when seen against a blue sky, the building also evokes the colours of the Royal Bank brand: blue and yellow.

A common design detail of all these buildings is steps. This is perhaps the dominant architectural motif in Toronto, and it is echoed in many more buildings than just the ones I've discussed here. It is especially clear in the photo. What is its significance? Perhaps it signifies what it resembles: the stairway. Stairs can symbolize the climbing of the social ladder, or they can visually symbolize the rags-to-riches narratives that abound with regards to large urban centres. As Toronto is Canada's financial capital, this reading rings especially true.

Another motif in Toronto architecture is the juxtaposition of old and new architecture. Examples include the old Scotia Bank building adjacent to Scotia Plaza; the façade of the 1890s-era Merchants' Bank Building in Brookfield Place; the old Stock Exchange façade enveloped by the TD Centre, which was designed by Mies Van Der Rohe; the One King West hotel/condo built on top of the old Dominion Bank Building (1914); and the Michael Lee Crystal, designed by Daniel Libeskind, built into the old Royal Ontario Museum. The old/new hodgepodge creates an eclectic effect that embodies Christopher Dewdney's concept of the metropolis as a gathering of coeval, but distinct, temporalities. Different periods of time coexist in coeval space.

This kind of preservation doesn't seem enough for my friend though. Then, a colleague of mine suggested that perhaps my friend has such a militant attitude towards preservation because he's from San Francisco, a geophysical area regularly rocked by serious earthquakes. As such, the culture of the architectural and urban planning professionals in San Francisco, in which he was immersed for a considerable period of time, might be particularly ardent about preservation considering the dangers to urban structures existing there.

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