Every once in a while, I find myself confronted by the complexity of understanding 21st century Toronto. After settling into my own ideas of what this place is, a conversation with fellow Torontonians re-awakens me to a radically different understanding of the city. Oftentimes, there's an intergenerational element to it, and it's parents of friends and friends of parents that tend to open my eyes to another Toronto. Even a casual exchange touching on driving, density, design, transit, or infrastructure, lays bare profound, almost epistemological divides. In the most extreme cases, it goes beyond differences of opinion about what the city ought to become, revealing fundamentally different ideas about what it is.       

So what does a new guide book about Toronto's architecture have to do with any of that? More than I expected. Authored by Patricia McHugh in the 1980s and newly revisited by the Globe and Mail's Alex Bozikovic, the new edition of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, brings readers up to date with the architectural and cultural landscape of Toronto in 2017.

 A City Guide. Book jacket, image courtesy of Penguin RandoToronto Architecture: A City Guide. Book jacket, image courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

Building on McHugh's two earlier editions, the book is organized into a series of walking tours. For readers—including tourists and locals—the walking tours are also probably the best possible way to knit together a mental image of the urban fabric. Spanning from the Downtown to well past the outer reaches of the amalgamated city, the hundreds of individual entries provide concise but meticulously well-researched insights on the buildings that define the city. McHugh's entries are initialized PM, and Bozikovic's AB, helping readers keep track of two distinct voices.

Both very fine writers, McHugh and Bozkivoc differ somewhat in sensibility and perspective. While McHugh's entries were composed in a very different context—prior to Toronto's 21st-century ascendancy—there is also more of a focus on private residences and the architecture of Toronto's 19th century residential neighbourhoods. Bozikovic focuses more of his attention on buildings that engage the public, while also devoting greater interest to the suburbs and the waterfront, expanding the scope of the book to include the overlooked and the new. 

New City Hall, a Toronto icon, image by Vik PahwaNew City Hall, a Toronto icon, image by Vik Pahwa

Rich in detail and historical context, Bozikovic's updated volume delves into the past to understand the present. In the introduction, a thoughtful overview of Toronto's evolution frames the current building boom in a wider context. "The city has gone through much more dramatic transformations before," Bozikovic tells me. "The impacts of the current Downtown condo boom pale in comparison to earlier growth," he adds, explaining that the population growth between the 1850s and 1910s—when the city swelled from 30,000 to over 300,000 people—changed Toronto much more drastically. 

Between entires, the book also devotes significant attention to the planning regimes that continue to shape the city. In doing so, Bozikovic moves beyond purely aesthetic considerations of built form—"the larger challenge is social and economic," he writes. Planning policy that discourages growth in so-called residential Neighbourhoods is singled out for critique, since "these districts are becoming forbiddingly expensive." In the Annex, for example, houses "are becoming single-family homes again, occupied by the white-collar professionals and capitals of industry who lived here a century ago. No white-painting writers can buy houses here, now will they ever be able to do so again."

"Age-old cultural conservatism and 1970s progressivism have joined forces," Bozikovic writes, diagnosing the paradox of a supposedly liberal and inclusive culture that nonetheless displays "visceral resistance to new development of all kinds." To be sure, the book focuses on buildings and design, but in doing so it also touches on some of the most crucial urban issues of our time, and the stark differences in perspective that make urban density—and, by extension, the very identity of the city—such a contested topic.

Woodsworth College is singled out as a 20th century gem, image by Vik PahwaWoodsworth College is singled out as a 20th century gem, image by Vik Pahwa

For the planning nerds among us, there's plenty more. Metro Toronto's 1967 plan for the waterfront is reviewed in the introduction to that chapter, while incisive analyses of suburbanization and immigration patterns help contextualize individual chapters. Writing in an era where planners like Jennifer Keesmaat and Brent Toderian are—for better or worse—probably better known to the general public than any young(ish) Canadian architects, Bozkovic complements architectural analysis with this decade's broader 'city-building' zeitgeist. 

In assessing Toronto's 21st century architecture, Bozikovic's lively prose doesn't pull punches. (It makes for lots of fun reading). The 78-storey Aura tower is called "titanically bad," while its "sidewalk-facing retail spaces are cramped and cluttered, overshadowed by an ominous cantilever." All told, "it makes for a junky skyline and a mean street." 

On Bloor Street, meanwhile the Daniel Libeskind-designed Michael Lee-Chin crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum arguably remains Toronto's most talked-about 21st century building. A product of our city's short-lived—and perhaps slightly desperate—infatuation with so-called "starchitecture," the crystal's interior is described as "cheaply finished" and "impractical for display and circulation." That "the museum is planning a renovation of the lobby after less than a decade," is "clear evidence of the project's poor planning," Bozikovic concludes. 

QRC West is recognized is a highlight of sensitive 21st century heritage preservQRC West is recognized is a highlight of sensitive 21st century heritage preservation, image by Vik Pahwa

There is, of course, plenty of praise to dole out as well. The Galleria Italia that fronts Frank Gehry's addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario is called "one of Toronto's great public rooms," while the building "retains moments of magic, such as the lobby's winning ramp and the corkscrew stair." Tucked away south of Bloor and Bay, meanwhile, the Hariri Potarini-designed 7 St. Thomas is singled out as an exceptional addition to the heritage context, where "curvy, fritted glass establishes a lovely counterpoint of form and material between new and old."

Turning to the future, Bozikovic is optimistic about the fast-paced redevelopment of the waterfront, where some of our newest and boldest urban ideas are being tested. "This is a return to where the city began, and it could offer what Toronto has been missing: a big dream, and a bold answer to what this place is all about." That answer is, alas, at least another edition of Toronto Architecture away. But if future updates are anywhere close to as well-considered and thoughtful as this one, they'll be well worth the wait. As for the buildings themselves, fingers crossed.


On Monday, UrbanToronto will be giving out free copies of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide to five lucky recipients, so keep a close eye on our Twitter and Instagram feeds to learn more! Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment on the space below this page.