The is the second guest column of a three-part series that Mark Osbaldeston is contributing to UrbanToronto. Mark is the author of Unbuilt Toronto and Unbuilt Toronto 2, as well as a respected speaker. We're very happy to have him writing for UrbanToronto.
Mark will be taking part in a panel discussion this coming Monday, December 12 at Fort York, on the topic "Toronto Built and Unbuilt" with architect and author Phil Goodfellow, moderated by John Bentley Mays. More information on this event here.
Flipping through the pages of the Unbuilt Toronto books, you can see that there are lots of great projects we missed the boat on over the years. But there are others (to mix some metaphors) that can only be described as dodged bullets. The interesting thing is, it’s not always immediately clear which is which.
A case in point is Buckminster Fuller’s Project Toronto. Commissioned in 1968 by the Telegram newspaper and CFTO TV, it represented the septuagenarian designer and inventor at his wildest: hogtown as a space-age utopia, complete with 400-foot-tall Crystal Pyramid and satellite “Pro-To-Cities” floating around in Lake Ontario.
In giving illustrated talks over the past three years, I’ve found that there are sometimes snickers when Project Toronto flashes on the screen. To the modern eye, its 1960s futurism can seem amusingly dated.
But if you look at what Fuller was actually trying to do, the proposal starts to make more sense. The Crystal Pyramid? It was meant to span the railway yards, bridging a century-old barrier to the waterfront. Along with a landmark tower, it would have provided a bold demarcation of a newly revitalized lakeshore precinct. The floating Pro-To-Cities would play an important role in that precinct, introducing live-work communities right into the harbour. A new waterfront university would give the CNE grounds year-round vibrancy.
All of it was meant to help remedy Toronto’s lack of connection to Lake Ontario, which Fuller seemed shocked by. It was also meant to prepare Toronto’s waterfront, from a land-use perspective, for the post-industrial economy that Fuller claimed was coming.
Knowing that context might not turn you into a Crystal Pyramid fan, but it does make Project Toronto a lot less snicker-worthy.
There are other projects that I’m personally less sympathetic to. The 1965 Eaton Centre proposal wasn’t all bad. But to the extent it required the demolition of Old City Hall, it would definitely have taken a lot more than it would have given. Likewise the full 1968 Metro Centre plan — which would have involved ripping down Union Station. I’m glad they both fizzled.
There are more than enough missed boats to make up for these dodged bullets, however. A century’s worth of failed transit plans attests to that. In Unbuilt Toronto 2, for example, I write about a subway network proposed in 1910. I also write about Network 2011, a 25-year program of continuous subway-building proposed in 1985. If there’s any consolation about abandoned plans like these, it’s the knowledge that it may not be too late to try to make up for lost time: 17 years after we first tried to build an Eglinton line, we’re giving construction a go again.
You can take the same attitude about many of the beautiful buildings in the books that were never realized. I admit it’s extremely unlikely, but if someone today had the money and desire, they could conceivably decide to build any of them (or buildings inspired by them), if not always on their originally intended sites.
The same can’t be said for the grander elements of a downtown roads plan unveiled in 1911. The plan of the Civic Improvement Committee proposed a number of fixes to Toronto’s grid, some of which were completed. But Federal Avenue, its centrepiece, remains a line on a century-old map.
Federal Avenue would have connected the new Union Station to a proposed public square on the north side of Queen. A collection of monumental public buildings would surround the square on three sides, an arrangement that was being called a “civic centre” in city planning circles at the time. Plans featuring a civic centre connected to a lakefront train station by an axial boulevard had earlier been proposed for Cleveland.
Toronto’s plan had an auspicious start. The year after it was released, a competition was held for the Land Registry Office, which was intended as the initial phase of the civic centre, flanking the proposed new square on the west. Architect Charles S. Cobb took first prize with his neoclassical design.
In 1917, the year that the Land Registry Office opened, Cobb sketched two fascinating aerial perspectives. One (a detail of which is reproduced here) illustrated his conception of the civic centre at its final build-out, and the north end of Federal Avenue. The other showed the south end of Federal Avenue and its termination at the new Union Station, then under construction.
It was not to be. A 1929 plan that would have resurrected Federal Avenue (as Cambrai Avenue) was rejected by the Toronto electorate in 1930. Cobb’s Land Registry Office was demolished in 1964.
Union Station and Nathan Phillips Square may still be on the axis proposed in 1911, but any chance of connecting them with Federal Avenue is long gone. The skyscrapers of the financial district now occupy what would have been its right-of-way. Putting the money issue aside (which you can’t actually do, of course), reviving Federal Avenue would mean demolishing, just for starters, most of the TD Centre. At this point, Federal Avenue would take more than it would give.
It was a great idea at the time. But that boat has sailed.