We're finally waking up again
Apr. 8, 2006. 09:24 AM
Every half century or so, Toronto suddenly wakes up to the fact it is a city. It happened first in the late 1800s when architect E.J. Lennox was commissioned to design what we now call Old City Hall.
More than 100 years later, it remains the pre-eminent example of high Victorian optimism.
Then, in the 1950s and '60s, we built Viljo Revel's New City Hall, still the most exhilarating piece of architecture in these parts, and that brooding modernist monument, the Toronto-Dominion Centre, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Now it's our generation's turn and architecture is once again front and centre. But the focus has shifted from the civic realm to the cultural. It seems everywhere one turns these days, a museum, gallery or concert hall is under construction. And let's be clear, these projects do not just address the institutions' need for more space, they're about building and transforming Toronto.
Though we are prone to lapse into civic smugness especially in the aftermath of our Golden Age in the 1970s and '80s when Toronto was lauded as The City That Works, or New York run by the Swiss that was then; this is now.
Since those heady days, Toronto has fallen on hard times. Beset by a redrawn governance system that has left it unable to take care of its needs, a general lack of political leadership and declining self-confidence, the city has become a place whose future doesn't always measure up to its past.
But if the cultural sector knows anything, it is that the power of perception and with it architecture should never be underestimated. The sceptics argue that a revamped Art Gallery of Ontario, an expanded Royal Ontario Museum or a brand new opera house won't solve the problems of a city that is dependent on the kindness of strangers at Queen's Park.
They are right, but that's not the whole story. What these projects will do is change the way Torontonians view themselves and the city they inhabit. Bringing some of the planet's most innovative and acclaimed architects here will not only put Toronto on the world map, it will alter our perception of ourselves.
Instead of looking, as we do so often, to an organization like the Maple Leafs as a metaphor for Toronto, we will start to look at the AGO, the ROM and the like. The Leafs, perennial losers who have never had to win to sell out, are managed by people who have grown lazy and second-rate. The cultural sector has always had to try harder; it has had to be quick on its feet, flexible, open-minded and opportunistic.
That's why, irony of irony, when the federal and provincial governments, under Jean Chrιtien and Mike Harris respectively, launched the SuperBuild infrastructure rebuilding program back in the 1990s, the cultural sector was poised to take immediate advantage of it.
The result is a building boom like none other Toronto has seen. The list of projects is impressive.
In addition to the AGO, the ROM, there's the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Toronto Film Festival Centre, the National Ballet School, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and the Ontario College of Art and Design. Then there are the changes happening at the Ontario Science Centre, the Hummingbird Centre, Roy Thomson Hall and, soon to be announced, the St. Lawrence Centre.
Also worthy of mention is the spectacular new Pearson International Airport, which, though not usually included in the lineup, should be. After all, it was designed by some of the finest architects of the age (Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Moshe Safdie and Adamson Associates). It also boasts work by leading artists such as Richard Serra, Jonathan Borofsky and Jaume Plensa.
If all this weren't enough, the city has been enhanced by a series of projects undertaken by the University of Toronto, which has recently woken up to the fact that it, too, is part of the city. Most remarkable is the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Biomolecular and Cellular Research on College St. west of University Ave and the nearby Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy..
One thing all these projects have in common is that they were undertaken by the public sector. That's not to say that private money doesn't play a role it does. But the fact remains that with precious few exceptions, the private development industry lags far behind in terms of its awareness of and commitment to architecture and city building. This is nothing new, to be sure, but one can't help but be reminded of the critical importance of the public realm, whether intellectual, political or economic, to the civic ideal.
As much as anything, this so-called renaissance confirms the emergence of architecture as part of the culture of our times. Sometime during the post-war period, the discipline was reduced to a merely technical concern. Buildings weren't designed so much as assembled. Think of St. James Town, First Canadian Place and even the TD Centre. But if the work of Frank Gehry (AGO), Daniel Libeskind (ROM), Will Alsop (OCAD) and Toronto's leading architectural firm, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (Royal Conservatory, Toronto Film Festival Tower, Gardiner Museum, Young Centre, National Ballet Sschool), proves anything, it is that architecture involves content as well as form.
In its own way, each of these structures tells a story of its builders and their relationship to the city and the larger world. They also illustrate this generation's relationship to its past as well as its future. And at a time when that future looms more threatening than at any time in the last half century, the optimism embodied in these buildings is hugely reassuring.
Of course, there are stories to be discerned in certain projects; most interesting, perhaps, is that of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto's much-anticipated opera house. In these deliberately unremarkable exteriors, more reminiscent of a shopping mall than a house of spectacle, we are reminded that Toronto's relationship to the arts remains ambivalent.
Yes, we desire an opera house; we have for decades. But at the same time, there's a part of us that remains unsure about the idea of opera.
Like that old joke about why Baptists disapprove of sex it might lead to dancing Torontonians are hesitant to embrace opera.
Perhaps that's why the building, designed by Diamond Schmitt, has such an apologetic air about it; whatever virtues it may have are well hidden within.
On the other hand, projects such as the Young Centre in the Distillery District represent a new level of attention to the detail of our cultural infrastructure.
Created out of two 19th-century redbrick boxes, this is a facility designed for maximum flexibility; every space can serve two, three or even more purposes.
Architect Tom Payne managed to create a centre that combines enormous sensitivity to the context of this historic neighbourhood while establishing a robust sense of place.
So far, the cultural renaissance has been concentrated in downtown Toronto.
That's entirely appropriate, but in the years to come the focus must expand to include the Toronto waterfront, where the potential as well as the need will be huge, and the outlying region. There have been spurts of activity here and there, but the 905 has yet to reach that critical mass of activity that could make a cultural precinct viable. Mississauga has tried with the Living Arts Centre, but then went and built the Hershey Centre as far as possible from the city centre. That's exactly the kind of mistake that gets repeated over and over, much to the chagrin of those would transform the suburbs into something more interesting, let alone urban and sustainable.
On the other hand, it's entirely likely that when the next renaissance occurs, 50 years from now, it will be in the 905.
Until then, it will be important that we avoid the temptation to see these projects as the culmination of the city-building process. In fact, they are the start, or more accurately perhaps, a continuation of a process that never ends. If it does, the city will end with it.