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My most recent book was this one, about my home town Toronto, that I got shipped to Berlin. This book, written originally in 1967 and updated in 1979, traces Toronto’s history from a small hamlet to a bustling North American metropolis. The author, Bruce West, was a columnist for the Globe and Mail (one of Toronto’s main newspapers), and writes the book in a very personable tone.

There are several things that were fascinating about this book, and which I want to reflect on, especially as I now live on the other side of the ocean.

The first overarching point which I found interesting was the realization that so many books about Toronto are written by columnists and journalists. One could even call it a tradition. Journalists are actively engaged in trying to capture the essence of Toronto and to then communicate it to a wide audience. Be it through (as in this case) an extensive history of the city, or through more subjective reporting from the modernist suburbs by Shawn Micallef, or understanding the nature of the municipal political system like Dave Meslin, or even the steamy political exposé by Robyn Doolittle – the city seems to be overwhelmingly written by these individuals.

Regarding the content of the book, I found it extremely interesting to see the city through the eyes of someone for whom the 1970s was ‘present day.’ The hot topics that were on the mind of the author at the time comes through in his tone and the choice of which local histories are worth telling. Some controversial views about mayors, historical figures and bank towers made for an entertaining read.

Yet even with this view from the past, there are several themes that still hold true for the Toronto of today. West talks at length about traffic, provincial attitudes towards architecture, diversity/multiculturalism (as a positive thing), and the sense that Toronto was a peaceful (albeit somewhat boring) place to live and grow.

Even more persistent seems to be the typical Torontonian Inferiority Complex (The TIC) which I keep encountering in books about the city. This is especially true of West’s historical analysis in more contemporary times – historically, a certain class of Torontonians have preoccupied themselves with worrying about not being up to par with the other world cities. Yet as all the books I’ve read about Toronto seem to say, most other residents (and certainly all the cities these Torontonians coveted) couldn’t care less. When residents are told that Toronto has the biggest this or the longest that, people seem to often say “Oh really? Toronto?” This bewilderment produced conflicts over the ages especially in regards to architecture – avant-garde architecture that should have catapulted Toronto into the global stage was often met by a confused and skeptical public. Perhaps Toronto has paid for it’s high quality of life by not being able to see it.

The strongest point of this book was that it was written with very many stories of individuals place in context with larger global  events of the day. This was especially interesting since Torontonians, as I am increasingly realizing, love their local personalities. This is something that seems to cut across West’s history, that there were, throughout Toronto’s growth, a set of strange, staunch, stubborn, dangerous, flamboyant or otherwise remarkable personalities that would catch the attention of citizens and urban politics (arguably this is why Torontonians are so politically engaged at the local level!). The examples from the past and present are numerous and include such characters as Willaim Lyon Mackenzie, Ambrose Small, Banting and Best, Harold the Jewlery Buyer, Rob Ford and more or less all Toronto Mayors, Frederick Gardiner, Billy Bishop, Zanta, the Jesus guy at Dundas Square, Hazel McCallion, Desmond Cole, Jennifer Keesmaat, Jack Layton, Adam Vaughan, etc. etc. – the list goes on.

I think these themes – the voice of the journalist, the TIC and the eagerness for personalities – blare out to me mostly because I have not noticed these things here in Berlin. Local politics seems to give way to national or international politics, leaving many local politicians seemingly unknown to those they represent. As well, I would be hard pressed to name a local journalist or character who is at the pinnacle of local fame (except for, perhaps, techno viking – but that was externally imposed…). What the reasons are for this difference, or whether this really even is the case,  I am not sure, and will certainly be something I seek to better understand in the future.

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This was really a tough book to read partially because it was quite philosophical, and, well, it was also in German! Still, it’s amazing what you can accomplish with some patience. I thought I’d write some of of my thoughts on this book in German as well.

In diesem Buch geht es um vier großen Themen bezüglich Raums: Kultur, Medium, Politik, und Wissen. Es ist eine sehr gute Einleitung von vielen sehr wichtigen (Raum)theoretiker wie Harvey, Castells, Lynch, und viele mehr.

Eigentlich war es sehr schwer zu lesen, außer den Texten, die ich schon gelesen hatte. Zu der Grammatik war die Satzstruktur in vielen diesen Kapiteln sehr kompliziert. Die Autoren dieser Kapitel nutzen die passiv Formen der Verben und vielen sehr lange Sätze. Der übersetzte Texte klingt auch inrgendwie seltsam.

While there were many insights that the book provided, in a more general sense it was amazing to see how many different disciplines these theories extend into, as well as showing how the question of the understanding of space has remained a hot topic for centuries. Theories range from the 16th century to present day, showing that there is still a need for many disciplines to understand how space works or how it relates to different disciplines.

Es ist schwer zu sagen, was eigentlich meine Meinung über dieses Buch ist. Es gibt vielen kleinen Kapitel, jeden mit einem neuen Rahmen, durch den man Raum sehen könnten. Statt einer Rezension, liste ich die Bücher und Autoren, die ich jetzt noch lesen will!:

Kognaitive Karten und Verhalten im Raum – Roger M. Downs/David Stea (1973)
Die Straße und die unendliche Ferne – Johannes Linschoten (1954)
Nicht-Orte – Marc Augé (1991)
Raum der Ströme – Manuel Castells (1996)
Eigenschaften der Soundscape – R. Murray Schafer (1977)
Orientalisierung des Orients – Edward Said (1978)

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I recently finished this book, The New Urban Agenda, by Bill Freeman. Freeman writes about the current state of politics and city planning in Toronto, giving a great overview of contemporary issues in the post-Rob Ford city, as well as outlining a few recommendations about what the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) should focus on in the coming years.

One of the things that I thought was really wonderful about this book, was that it concerned itself not only with the city of Toronto but also with the whole region, extending far enough out to include Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area. Freeman outlines his idea of the general conceptual structure of the region as being constructed with downtown Toronto as a core, surrounded by the inner and outer suburbs, with Hamilton as a separate, but connected, city to the west. I think this is a great step out of the very Toronto (old city)-centric way in which many authors discuss the region, and one of the few authors I’ve read who was trying to see problems from a variety of different perspectives.

One thing however that I wondered was, who was this book really made for? I’ve encountered this with other Toronto-related books, especially information-heavy ones, that there is a kind of conversational tone in the writing, but when it comes to details, there is a lot of use of complicated terms to discuss planning and politics. For example, discussions of the OMB, or detailed information about planning process may seem second nature to someone tuned into the political life of the city, but to others, these are unclear concepts and processes that are never quite clear. I wonder if it would be boring for someone who is not in planning and politics in the city to read such books. Still, Toronto does have a relatively large group of people who are attuned to the nuts and bolts of the functions of the city.

Having studied city planning in Toronto, I was already quite familiar with the debates that Freeman was discussing. Still I see a lot of value in this book as being a general introduction to the practice of planning in Toronto – it basically covers my whole first year of my planning program. His suggestions are, for the most part, the current trend in Canadian (Torontonian) planning discourse, including: advocating for public-private partnerships, preventing greenfield development, increasing mixed-use development, disbanding the OMB (planners often passively or implicitly wish this), increasing affordable housing, retrofitting older buildings, investing in alternative energy sources and green technologies, and advocating for non-automobile transportation modes.

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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?