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Towering ambitions: the architecture of modern Toronto.

It is altogether fitting that the CN Tower, a thick concrete pencil pushed through a gleaming steel donut into the clouds, serves these days as the visual symbol of Toronto on everything from postcards to the logos of television stations. It dominates the skyline for miles in any direction, and if you approach Toronto by air, water, or highway you see the CN Tower before you see anything else. Inside the city, walking or driving, you glimpse that unmistakable phallic shape everywhere, looming over hundreds of quiet residential streets, the only landmark visible above all the roofs. Its omnipresence recalls a remark by nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant: "I like to have lunch at the Eiffel Tower, because that's the only place in Paris from which you can't see the Eiffel Tower."

Which suggests the first reason the CN Tower makes an appropriate image for the architecture of the city: Toronto people feel ambivalent about it, as they feel ambivalent about much of their built environment. Ambivalence is a major local characteristic. On the one hand, Torontonians speak with a certain pride of the polished, highly diverse, sometimes playful, and intensely internationalized city that they built, between 1950 and 1990, on top of the old British metropolis created in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. On the other hand, they just as often wonder aloud whether they have not made some gigantic mistake in building so much so high so fast. Even Patricia McHugh's delightful Toronto architecture: A City Guide, a mainly enthusiastic inventory of the townscape, contains this rueful remark about recent construction: "Toronto may soon have the best second-rate architecture in the world!" Not many guidebooks offer that sort of opinion: most cities suffer from architectural mediocrity, but perhaps only Toronto obsessively worries about it in public.

If the subject of the CN Tower comes up in conversation with visitors, local people will almost certainly mention that it is the tallest freestanding structure on earth (1,815 feet) and then immediately add that they do not care for it all that much and have never bothered to ride the elevator up to the restaurant or the observation platform. In fact, it is hard to find a Torontonian willing to say a kind word about the tower--most people won't go any further than acknowledging that maybe we'll someday learn to love it as Paris reluctantly learned to love the Eiffel.

The CN Tower speaks eloquently of the period in which it was built. A century from now, cultural historians, the local equivalents of John Ruskin, will study it as a way of searching for the soul of Toronto in the 1970s. It went up in 1976 as the corporate creation and symbol of Canadian National, a historic railway and telegraph agency. It exists for two reasons: to transmit telecommunications signals and to assert its own importance. In that, too, it was very Toronto-ish. In the mid-1970s the city was struggling, successfully, to shake off the dowdy self-image that was part of its heritage as a colonial city perpetually living in someone else's shadow: too British to be American, too American to be British, and too prosperous and cosmopolitan to be properly Canadian. About the time the CN Tower was being planned, Torontonians were starting to consider, with awestruck pleasure, the possibility that their city might be interesting and even enviable. After all, a dozen or so magazine articles and TV documentaries in the U.S. were caressing our civic ego by describing Toronto as "the city that works," a swiftly growing urban centre that has somehow escaped the gravest problems of cities elsewhere on the continent. At that happy moment, the CN Tower was a way to reinforce the new local exuberance by demanding even more attention.

It was also appropriate, given Toronto's role in Canada and the world, that a communications tower should become a municipal emblem. Toronto functions as not only the center of broadcasting, publishing, advertising, and filmmaking in English Canada but also a pioneer (and an international power) in the development of cable-TV and cellular technology. For some years Toronto could watch more TV channels than any other city on earth, and it was not an accident that the world's leading theorist of mass communications, Marshall McLuhan, developed his ideas while teaching, from the 1950s until his death in 1980, at the University of Toronto.

Something else makes the CN Tower typical of Toronto: the design is more or less anonymous, and in Toronto many of the most important urban forms are the work of people whose names are little known or not known at all. Even when the CN Tower was under construction, the designers were rarely credited. It was as if the tower simply appeared on the site, a natural product of a collective corporate mindset rather than the work of individuals sitting at drafting boards. We can say much the same about another powerful landmark, the SkyDome sports stadium, which symbolized the wealth of Toronto in the 1980s just as the CN Tower symbolized the thrusting ambition of the '70s. The SkyDome's architects are mentioned in public no more often than the people who shaped the CN Tower, which in a way is fortunate. No matter how well the SkyDome works as a ballpark (it was built for the Toronto Blue Jays, who won Canada's first World Series championship last autumn), it is a lumpy and unlovable contribution to the streetscape, sitting on the edge of downtown like a gigantic grayish toadstool, bumptious and unavoidable.

Three other major elements of Toronto are similarly anonymous: the astonishing maze of passageways beneath the downtown core, the highway system that defines the city plan, and the two most desirable downtown districts, the Annex and Rosedale. Of these phenomena the most recent, and in some ways the most surprising, is the vast empire of shopping malls and tunnels beneath the towers of downtown. Many cities have tunnels that connect a railway station with two or three hotels or office buildings, but the Toronto system is by a long way the most extensive in the world. It runs for eight kilometres, linking the subway, the railroad, and the bus terminal with a dozen office skyscrapers, three major hotels, and the leading concert hall. For those who learn to find their way through this complicated labyrinth, it is a blessed, climate-controlled refuge from both the chill blasts of February and the overpowering heat of July. Almost no one uses all of it, and few Torontonians know how far it reaches (it is always growing, in unexpected directions) but about 100,000 people can be found somewhere inside it during the course of any weekday, most of them patronizing some of the 1,100 stores and restaurants it contains.

No one "designed" the underground. Town planners suggested it, but it developed spontaneously, if it is possible for anything involving millions of dollars to be called spontaneous. One building connected its concourse level to another building's, and then it happened again and again until just about every downtown building, old and new, was linked to every other one. A lawyer who works in any one of those buildings can go off to a meeting in another building in the morning, have lunch in an excellent restaurant or club in a third building, attend a second meeting in a fourth building in the afternoon, and then go back to check in at the home office late in the day, all without donning outdoor clothing.

Traffic engineers are as anonymous as the tunnel builders and are even more important creators of modern Toronto. Aside from Lake Ontario, on whose northern shore Toronto sits, there are three crucial lines that shape the city, all of them major expressways built in the 1950s and the 1960s--Highway 401, whose 16 lanes race across the top of the city, the Don Valley Parkway, which runs down the river valley at the east side of downtown and the Gardiner Expressway, a monumentally ugly elevated road that stretches across the southern reaches of downtown and visually separates the city from the lake. Tearing it down, perhaps burying it below grade, is the fervent wish of many planners and architects.

Just as these traffic engineers had a major influence on the shaping of the city so did the scores of architects and builders who created the Annex and Rosedale, two downtown Toronto districts that have all the rich cultural identity of small European principalities. The Annex, architecturally the more mixed of the two, also has the more checkered past. Beginning in the late 1880s, well-to-do Toronto filled the Annex with Queen Anne and Romanesque houses built of lovely pink sandstone and terra-cotta brick. While carefully respecting the need for a harmonious streetscape, they nevertheless indulged in such a multitude of bay windows and turrets and eccentric stonework that a casual walk through these streets today is a form of entertainment as well as a lesson in cultural history. Sometime not too long after the First World War, the Annex lost its appeal and slipped economically; its leading families moved to newer suburbs to the north and many a handsome mansion turned into a rooming house. But the fashion for living downtown, which took hold in Toronto in the 1960s, gave back to the Annex much of its old stature. Today, carefully protected from apartment developments by fierce citizens' groups, it is the habitat of choice for an army of prosperous TV producers, musicians, professors, and writers. In the Annex lives the great writer on urban affairs, Jane Jacobs, author of Death and Life of Great American Cities, who has been a Torontonian (and, in the eyes of many urban-minded people, our leading cultural asset) since she and her family moved here from New York in the late 1960s. A few blocks away lives the brilliant novelist Margaret Atwood, whose books have helped make Toronto famous in a dozen foreign countries.

If the Annex is a kind of Upper Bohemia, then tree-lined Rosedale, built mainly in the early years of this century, remains Toronto's ideal of traditional affluence. Certainly it is the preferred address of a great many lawyers, bankers, and accountants. Its hundreds of neo-Georgian and very-late Tudor houses were proud possessions of the newly rich only eighty years ago but now bring to mind the phrase "old money," which in Toronto usually means a fortune made by someone's great-grandfather in meat packing or whiskey. Rosedale people sometimes think they see themselves, or their ancestors, depicted in the much-admired novels of Robertson Davies, a close student of Canadian upper-class mythology. Amateur linguists claim that the residents speak their own dialect, a kind of quasi-British honk, perhaps learned in private school, and amateur geographers claim that no district this side of Tokyo is harder for a stranger to navigate. The street plan, laid out so as to work around some of the ravines (which are Toronto's most striking topographical features), is so confusing that only a tiny minority of Torontonians ever master it (the phrase "lost in darkest Rosedale" can be heard from time to time).

Downtown, in the commercial districts of Toronto, the banks are the most ambitious builders, and always have been. At Front and Yonge streets, at the south end of downtown, you can see, preserved as if under a glass case, a building that symbolized grandeur for the bankers of the nineteenth century and their customers: the still dazzling rococo temple designed by Frank Darling, a major Toronto architect of the time, for the Bank of Montreal. It was started in 1885, the year that the Canadian Pacific Railroad (with heavy backing from the Bank of Montreal) reached Vancouver, symbolizing the unification of Canada from coast to coast. Understood properly, it is an architectural exclamation point marking a moment of triumph in Canadian empire-building. Darling's grand banking hall, the most impressive in Canada when it was built, was still used for everyday transactions until 1982, when it was replaced by more up-to-date facilities. Recently the interior has been redesigned to house an institution that is as peculiarly Canadian as the Bank of Montreal: the Hockey Hall of Fame.

For many years Torontonians casually destroyed buildings like this one when they lay in the path of development, but in the last twenty or so years we have learned to preserve at least some of them. A good example is the Gooderham Building, a whiskey company's headquarters inserted in the shape of a flatiron into the triangular lot where Front Street meets Wellington Street. David Roberts designed it in the early 1890s, a decade or so before the more famous flatiron building in New York, and today it is cherished as a delightfully detailed example of early Toronto taste. In 1980 it acquired a fool-the-eye mural, painted by Derek Michael Besant, that has become almost as well loved as the building itself.

Not far from the 1885 Bank of Montreal, another bank building makes a similar statement of exuberance and power, but in the style and on the scale of more recent times: the Royal Bank Plaza, designed by Webb Zerafa Mendes Housden, looked magical when it was finished in 1977 and remains today perhaps the most enchanting of the downtown skyscrapers. Its sharply faceted glass walls are tinted with gold, which sounded (before the building went up) like a rather literal interpretation of a banks function but turned out to be permanently charming. A few blocks away, on King Street, near Bay Street (the Canadian equivalent of Wall Street), the architectural competition of Canadian banks becomes more obvious. On the south side of King looms the T-D Centre (named for the Toronto-Dominion Bank), whose first tower was constructed in the mid-1960s. Embodying a stern elegance, this structure is, indubitably, one of the masterpieces of the late Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It may be intimidating at street level, but its bronzed glass and black I-beams produce an effect of solemn beauty. Across King Street the late Edward Durrell Stone, another architect who left his mark on North America, is less effectively represented by a rather heavy-handed mid-1970s building wrapped in white marble--the First Canadian Place, built for the Bank of Montreal. Close by stands Commerce Court, where between 1968 and 1972, I. M. Pei & Partners constructed a 57-storey steel and glass structure alongside a 1931 bank building which, at 34 storeys, was long called "the tallest building in the British Empire." This is one case where older was clearly better: the 1931 Romanesque skyscraper, with its flamboyant gargoyle-like sculpture at the top, tends to make the Pei architecture look mean and unambitious.

Another major U.S. architect, Philip Johnson, recently created a landmark--the Broadcasting Centre, a Toronto home for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which opened last year. Johnson brought to Canada an architectural style he calls deconstructivist, which in this case means that the key elements in the building--the TV studios--are scattered haphazardly around the roof like toy blocks left by a child. Appropriately, the studios are painted in blatant nursery colors. The building itself has a boxy, warehouse-like shape, and its facades are dominated by a pattern of geometric red lines. At a glance it seems to be a depot for depositing Red Cross parcels.

Mies, Stone, Pei, Johnson: these are all outsiders brought in to create the character and skyline of Toronto. A stranger, quickly glancing down a list of major buildings, might imagine that the city has few architects of its own. In fact, a good many Canadian architects--including Eberhard Zeidler, Raymond Moriyama, and Arthur Erickson, to mention just three--not only practice effectively in Toronto and across Canada but also work in Europe and the United States. In Toronto, Zeidler has made an especially powerful impact, above all with the Eaton Centre, a building that is unexpected in several ways: it is a gigantic shopping centre built not in a suburb but in the city core, a peculiar combination of downtown energy and suburban retailing. In a graceful version of high-tech style, Zeidler created a late-twentieth-century echo of the Galleria of Milan, on a much grander scale. The tone reminds some visitors of a World's Fair, which is not surprising: it was one of the buildings created in the wake of Montreal's Expo '67, the most remarkable event in the history of Canadian architecture. Next to it, carefully preserved, is the 1840s Church of the Holy Trinity, once a Gothic Revival building of some eminence, now looking slightly Disneyish when framed by its enormous neighbor. Here commerce has allowed faith and good works to maintain a certain presence, but not an important one.

Culture has a somewhat more significant place among the modern downtown buildings. Raymond Moriyama's Metropolitan Toronto Central Reference Library, a block or so from the bustle of Bloor Street shopping, remains one of the most surprising contributions of the 1970s. The library unabashedly asserts the importance of its contents by sitting rather grandly on its Yonge Street site and welcoming students and other readers into a bright and open atrium-like space that features a glass elevator and a fish pond. Miraculously, it even works as a library, by including enough nooks and corners to provide its users with a sense of privacy in the midst of bibliographic riches. Recent architecture has not served music quite so well: the mirrored circular roof of Roy Thomson Hall, designed by Arthur Erickson in 1982, flamboyantly imposes its presence on King Street and makes it clear that this is no ordinary concert hall. Inside, it has a visual intimacy many of us enjoy. Alas, its acoustics seldom draw raves.

These Canadian and U.S. architects, well-known or anonymous, have created the modern Toronto symbolized by the towering CN Tower. But at street level another and much more diverse element has transformed the look of the city during the last fifteen years: many thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean, Hong Kong, Latin America, India, and dozens of other places. Their storefronts and in many cases their houses have suggested that yet another new Toronto is being built. There are now four distinct Chinatowns, for instance, and the densest of them, on Dundas Street in the core of the city, looks at a glance like one of the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong.

Only a few blocks away from that phenomenon stands the building that began the transformation of the city nearly three decades ago. In the late 1950s Toronto expropriated a large section of prime real estate for a civic square and a new city hall, and decided to pick the designer by an open international competition. The winner turned out to be Viljo Revell, from Finland, and his 1965 New City Hall still surprises visitors because, unlike most of downtown, it does not look like an illustration in a geometry book. Its two gracefully curved towers, wrapped around a giant clam shell shape where the city fathers meet, evoke nature rather than science: it seems to have grown here, or perhaps been deposited by some gentle race from another planet who left their spaceship. Toronto took this unlikely structure to its heart immediately, as do many visitors to Toronto. As the Russian poet Andre Voznesensky said, "Its two vertical planes float like two folds of a shell placed at a distance--and it seems that the air between them will hum at any moment." It stands at the head of Nathan Phillips Square, the central gathering place for Torontonians--a place to ice skate in winter, wander happily in summer, and hold protest meetings in almost any season. Here architecture fulfills its ultimate function: to define public space and give it meaning. Here the real Toronto of the twenty-first century had its beginnings.

Robert Fulford, a well-known Toronto journalist, writes regularly for The Globe and Mail and Toronto Life magazine. Tim Peters is a widely-published U.S. photographer whose work has been featured in Studio Magazine and Communications Arts.
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Title Annotation:Toronto, Canada
Author:Fulford, Robert
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1993
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