Hume: Toronto a few bricks short of a cultural renaissance

The National Ballet School at 400 Jarvis is part of an unfinished revolution in the city's landscape.

Published On Fri Jan 07 2011

Christopher Hume

Whether it will be the long goodbye or the big sleep, 2011 could well go down as the year architecture in Toronto ran out of energy and out of town.

Aside from the waterfront, the Ismaili Cultural Centre, Ryerson University, Regent Park and a few projects here and there, the excitement and frenetic pace of the last decade has all but ground to a halt.

Though the city’s new mayor, His Worship Rob Ford, has nothing to do with it, his appearance on the civic stage sums up what the next few years will be all about: Two steps forward, three steps back; right now we’re taking the three steps back.

Architecture is what economists might call a lagging indicator; fewer buildings get built in recessionary times, but the backlog of projects keeps construction going for years after the axe has fallen. In other words, the effect of the most recent economic debacle won’t become evident until later in the decade.

But it’s clear that the days of a phenomenon such as Toronto’s cultural renaissance are over, at least for the time being. Fuelled by the SuperBuild infrastructure program, a cost-sharing arrangement between federal and provincial governments, the cultural renaissance changed the face of the city. Important institutions — the Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum, the National Ballet School, etc. — were expanded and reinvented by some of the world’s most admired architects, including Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Will Alsop.

Toronto even managed to build its first real opera house, a feat that had eluded the city for decades.

Though many have cheered the demise of so-called starchitecture, the criticism is mean-spirited or beside the point. For a city such as Toronto to have works by some of the finest practitioners on the planet has been transformative. Not everybody loves everything, it’s true, but that hardly matters. The point is that architecture, and beyond that culture and design, is more ingrained in the urban fabric than ever.

But in the era of Rob Ford, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Ontario Opposition Leader Tim Hudak and the like, these sorts of projects are just more evidence of elites running amok. Elites, as we all know, are the new enemy, responsible for the social and economic ill that plague us. Whether they’re talking about the five-cent plastic-bag fee, the long-gun registry or public transit funding, it adds up to an elitist conspiracy to rob the little guy of what’s his.

Worse still, unlike the first decade of the 21st century, the second will not be one that values the city as an idea or a place. Indeed, Toronto’s self-loathing tendencies have once again reared their ugly head. Though our anti-urbanism is never far from the surface, the last decade was one in which Toronto began to embrace the notion of itself as a city and think about itself in urban terms. Suddenly, the public realm was a serious issue.

Today, that has been recast as a “war on the car.”

The fact remains, however, that the world, let alone Canada, is being urbanized at a fast and furious rate. For the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population now lives in cities. For some, the shift from rural and suburban to urban densities will be difficult, even wrenching. But the process has started, and cannot be stopped. Given the growing environmental crisis, the need to intensify and make better use of our cities is more urgent than ever.

Ultimately, however, the significance of architecture and something like the cultural renaissance lies in what they reveal about the relationship between a city and its residents. SuperBuild accounted for perhaps 20 per cent of building costs; the rest came from the private sector, i.e. people with enough faith in Toronto to donate their hard-earned cash.

One can’t help but wonder whether that willingness to give to the city, that same level of civic commitment, will survive at a time when the city is viewed strictly as a problem in need of a solution, not as something worth celebrating.

For long-term schemes such as the redevelopment of Regent Park and the revitalization of the waterfront, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain momentum and desire for excellence.

If nothing else, architecture forms a record of a society’s view of itself; we get the buildings we deserve, if not always the ones we want. In Toronto, it seems, we’ll be getting what we asked for.

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A response to the above article I had to write for a Public Policy course:

Toronto Star Architecture Critic, Christopher Hume, known for left-of-centre views and sardonic opinions on the state of Urbanism, commiserates with like-minded leftists on the state of the current political landscape.  That civic engagement is important in how a city evolves and reflects its ideals in its built-form, supports my views. Mentioned are Rob Ford, Tim Hudak, and Stephen Harper—rightist political leaders in three levels of government, whose political agendas—focused on simplistic schemata rather than lateral-thinking, does indeed hold hostage—as this article claims—the potential of urban renewal and addressing the multi-faceted aspects inherent in that which those involved in urban studies wish to alter and improve in a city’s character. These politicians run government in terms of the bottom-line, not taking interest in analytical concepts of what makes a city great, but rather characterizing the debate as between the ideals of the “Elites” and “The Little Guy.” How the economy affects public policy with regard to urban architectural development is the underlying issue and not something new.

Government policy such as Superbuild—encouraging grand architectural visions by such architects as Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Will Aslop, is no longer to be expected. Hume’s cynicism, stating Toronto will get what it deserves in terms of a dark age in architectural thought and innovation, is valid.

Rudhro

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