Making Toronto Modern – Architecture and Design 1895 – 1975 /// Reading List

I recently recieved a copy of Making Toronto Modern: Architecture and Design 1895-1975. The book is about the discourse and action around architecture in Toronto during some of the city’s most formative years. The author, Christopher Armstrong, lays the book out in different periods which relate to changing public opinions, global events and happenings. In all, Armstrong has written a really interesting book that shows the somewhat slow and, at times, quite apprehensive development of modernist architecture in the city, ending of course with the city’s move towards postmodernism in the 80s.

Reflecting on it, my main takeaway from the book was that Toronto has a clear and historical pattern of apprehension towards new trends in planning and architecture. From its early years, there seemed to be a number of outward-looking city-oriented people, forever in conflict with city bureaucrats, traditionalists and (at least from their perspective) an anti-aesthetic or provincial population. It seemed that people were always suspicious of the merits of modernist architecture. One of the very interesting points that were mentioned was that the relative lack of modernist representation in detached housing (except in the inner suburbs of today’s city) was in part due to people’s relative lack of interest in living in modernist housing – demand for older Victorian and Georgian forms were much more favoured.. For this reason, high-rise residential rental or public housing is over-represented as modernist housing was affordable and efficient for this building form and followed the interests of the developers.

Something else I noted was that, throughout the book, it seemed that Torontonians had been jealous of other cities, forever trying to emulate them. In some ways though, the constant back-and-forth between progressives and traditionalists, between outward-looking groups and more selfish individuals, between aesthetics and cost, led to some very stayed and cautious development. This is especially in comparison to many of the other cities of North America where highways, uniform suburbs and vast separation of uses are still being dealt with today (fashions in their time of development). Perhaps Toronto’s critical attitude, which everyone loves to complain about, is a blessing in disguise.

Another thing that came through in the book was the importance of Toronto’s very strong and active public. The people that would be inhabiting these buildings were often some of the harshest critics of the style. Through political means, through market means and through citizen activism, people made their opinions strongly heard. This is especially true of the activism surrounding the prevention of the Spadina Expressway – a highway project that would have cut through the central city and whose avid critic was Jane Jacobs. As mentioned, people also voted with their dollars.

It’s very interesting to contrast this to architecture in Berlin and many European and American cities where modernist architecture and modernist master planning was more openly supported. Toronto’s history seems much less tumultuous (to say the least) compared to that of Berlin in the same time-period. Still I have so many questions about how building happened in Berlin in the post-war period as a relatively new resident of the city. So many works I’ve read about the city conceptualize architecture as an independent object, rather than as a function of or relationship to history, markets, power, politics, and bureaucracy. I see this as one of the great strengths of this book, and as well with the general tone of discussions in Toronto about architecture and planning. Though perhaps not the most celebrated aspect of Torontonian planning discourse, you can’t read a book about Toronto without reading about the OMB (or at least subconsciously wondering how the OMB could have been involved).

As a last point, I noticed that Toronto relied a lot more on market forces to construct new buildings, and thus relied much more on the demand from buyers. In today’s Toronto, it does really seem like demand is more so for the property price rather than the structure itself, with so many new buildings mimicking modernist and corporate-modern designs in regards to condominiums, and (often quite strange) post-modernist forms in residential housing. With so many of these buildings attracting so much demand, I wonder if perhaps Torontonians have realized that our collective aesthetic taste manifests primarily in the form of a good-enough-form that puts the $$$ in our eyes?

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