Back in October the Walrus Magazine, Canada's general interest literary journal, invited nine Toronto-based movers and shakers to speak on "The Art of the City" at a salon held in front of a sold-out audience at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The event gave the audience nine thought-provoking short talks by the likes of journalist and author Kamal Al-Solaylee, astronaut Roberta Bondar, poet and novelist Dionne Brand, CBC Metro Morning host Matt Galloway, City of Toronto Cheif Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, chef Jamie Kennedy, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, journalist Shawn Micallef, and founding partner Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt Architects. You may watch the whole event at thewalrus.ca (find the path to the video at the end of this article), or for the UrbanToronto audience we have transcribed Donanld Schmitt's talk 'The Art Of The Architect' here, replete with all the visuals presented at the time.
I am speaking about the art of the architect, or more specifically, the art of weaving art into the fabric of the city.
A couple of decades ago we did a downtown YMCA in a downtown neighbourhood, and in our design that included gymnasia, pools, and classrooms we created at the crossroads a theatre, a flexible performance space for music, film, dance, and for the spoken word. We did that because I think we understood that to be a great building you not only needed to nurture the body and the mind but we needed to nurture the soul of those who are a part of the community of the YMCA. I think we tried to understand that the building would come alive because culture would be at the heart of it. I think there’s a lesson that Torontonians have embraced increasingly about the importance of the fabric of culture in the foundation and the health of the city. Of course Toronto has its great cultural institutions as Shelley Ambrose said, the jewels; the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, Roy Thompson Hall for the symphony and of course the Four Seasons for opera. Those institutions are a significant part of what make Toronto great, but what really makes Toronto vibrant and energetic is a healthy development and cultural ecology, a network of vital cultural production at a much smaller scale that nurtures a broad fabric, a network of artistic incubators, of schools, startups and studios where risks can be taken, where experiment is possible, where excellence is nurtured. Most importantly there is a network grounded in the diversity of Toronto, this extraordinary diversity of cultures that really feed the network. This is how deep roots are formed, how the great fabric of the city is supported, and the soul emerges.
How does this happen and where does this happen?
If you look a the new arts and culture centre in Regent Park it is a place where learning takes place, where performance can take place, where rehearsal takes place but most importantly it is a place where community comes together, a community who live in that precinct of the city, converges and celebrates each other and explores new artistic production. Eight to ten organizations come together in one place, in one forum—the Regent Park School of Music where young kids take music lessons, the African drumming collective, the Native Earth theatre collective, Heart 2 Heart, visual art studios, Pathways to Education, the Centre for Social Innovation—all rooted in Regent Park, rooted in the extraordinarily diverse culture of Regent Park, but open to the city as a whole and open to the world beyond. On a recent Saturday night the great Indian actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Patkah Shah performed 6 performances, 400 people at each performance, 2400 people watching with extraordinary vitality a play in the most amazing English about the life of George Bernard Shaw. That is the fabric out of which the city of Toronto grows such strengths.
A few blocks away Coleman Lemieux dance company, taking enormous risks with no money to establish a dance theatre and a resident company in an old, almost abandoned Salvation Army citadel, but working with the best choreographers in Canada, James Kudelka and others, this extraordinary network is a gathering together of choreographers, dancers, musicians that will emerge with (no extra word here) some of the great dance performances and productions that supports the work of the city. There’s this risk and initiative in all the corners of the city we’ve discovered.
When you look at the great urban university Ryerson in the centre of the city; what forms the gateway, opening the university to the city as a whole? It’s not a classroom building, not a business school but a school devoted to visual arts housing one of the great photography collections in the entire world. It is housed in a transformed building with a façade made of light, luminous transformable illuminating LED lights, 16.7 million colours which can be modified and altered —against the wishes of the architect!—with their smart phone. It’s a building for a university that is part of the twenty-first century and an institution that is part of the twenty-first century but grounded in the visual arts at that gateway point.
If you go to the exhibition on show now there are eight great Canadian artists interpreting work from the collection. Michael Snow, Steven Andrews and in the loggia facing Lake Devo and the square of the city, David Rokeby, one of the most extraordinary video pieces I’ve ever seen that you can see from the square and in the gallery, where he’s taken the works in the collection and layered them to reveal new meanings and new perceptions about the photography that are breathtaking. It’s that sort of work from Toronto artists shown in Toronto institutions that form the gateway of this great university.
Similarly, emerging hopefully on the east side of Toronto a new digital neighbourhood devoted to film and video production, small incubator startups grounded in the industrial heritage buildings of Toronto’s former fabric and emerging in a new neighbourhood which with galleries, food, public space for outdoor film exhibitions that began and nurtured video and film culture in the city.
And of course the Brick Works, the site of the production of all the great red brick and yellow brick that formed Victorian Toronto, now transformed into a network, a place for coming together to discuss urban innovation and sustainability, a place that is a crossroads for discussion, that is infused with arts, which has building facades that can be transformed on a monthly and annual basis by artists working in the community. A whole new architecture grounded in visual arts and community.
Finally, Luminato, that great arts festival in David Pecaut Square. An installation to make a place for gathering and celebrating the production and programs of the Luminato festival. An installation forming public space made with light, made with wind, made with canvas, creating an extraordinary space but nevertheless ephemeral, creative, full of colour, temporary, interpretable, and, in a way, really celebrating the foundations of our culture in the city.
These are the concrete places and programs that are developing this network, this ecology of arts and cultures and connection between artists, of community, which nurtures the city, and it’s rooted in our diversity and our culture. This is the future underpinning of the fabric of the city that will really ensure its health and our soul for time to come.
Top left to right; Matt Galloway, Roberta Bondar, Jamie Kennedy • Middle left to right Dionne Brand, Kamal Al-Solaylee, Deepa Mehta • Bottom left to right; Shawn Micallef, Donald Schmitt, Jennifer Keesmaat
To watch the evening unfold, click on this link, and then follow this path: click on Walrus Foundation Events to the upper right of the video box, and then The Walrus Talks at the Art Gallery of Ontario link will appear atop the list.
Also check out our article on the Diamond Schmitt-designed Ryerson Image Centre and inaugural exhibitions!