Globe & Mail, Saturday, November 26, 2005

A modern tragedy
At long last, our mid-20th-century buildings are gaining popular respect.
But is it too little, too late? ALEX BOZIKOVIC reports


On the edge of Riverdale sits a collection of buildings that embody Toronto's history. There's the Don Jail, a monument to rough justice since the 1860s. Then there's the former Riverdale Hospital, an arc of glass, aluminum and concrete that dates to the 1960s. And if Bridgepoint Health gets its way, one of them is going to be torn down.
          It's easy to guess which. When the hospital company announced its redevelopment plans several years ago, the city naturally kept a close eye on the jail's classical columns. But some of the neighbours wanted to save the hospital, too. "I actually quite like it," says Jonathan Mousley, a civil servant who lives nearby. "I think it's a landmark building. I would hate to see it demolished for no good reason."
          He's not alone. Mr. Mousley, 38, joined several of his neighbours in defending the hospital at community hearings this year, and their effort reflects a shift in how many Torontonians see the city. The buildings of the mid-20th century, long disliked as cold and inhumane, are starting to gain popular respect. But in this case, as in many others, that respect is coming too late. The Hummingbird Centre, Inn on the Park, the CNE's Food Building: Modern Toronto is returning to the spotlight just as many of its relics face dramatic changes or demolition.

Earlier this month, the local community council approved the broad strokes of Bridgepoint's development plan, which will save the jail but replace the hospital with a new structure and condominiums. While the process isn't finished -- a detailed plan will come up for approval in December -- city planners are on side, and the building's future seems sealed. If it falls, that will be the latest in a series of blows to Toronto's 20th-century architecture. And to Michael Prokopow, a curator at the Design Exchange, that trend is "tragically short-sighted."
          "In the late fifties and early sixties, Toronto was internationally well regarded as a laboratory for distinct and aesthetically significant building," he says. "Our disregard for that heritage is a collapse of civic responsibility."

Modernism arrived in culturally conservative Toronto in the 1950s. While local architects made a gradual transition from more traditional styles and materials, the city welcomed the International Style. Mies van der Rohe's Toronto-Dominion Centre is the city's grandest example, with its perfectly detailed geometry, lack of ornament, and glass-and-steel façades.
          Leading the way were two English immigrants, Peter Dickinson and John C. Parkin, whose buildings have lately been back in the news. Mr. Dickinson produced buildings such as Inn on the Park and the O'Keefe Centre (now the Hummingbird Centre); Mr. Parkin did Pearson airport's highly innovative Terminal One and the former Bata headquarters in Don Mills. Today, Inn on the Park is being knocked down, the Hummingbird is planning to tack on a giant Daniel Libeskind condo tower and the Bata building is slated for demolition.
          In many ways, it's just like the late sixties, when the heritage movement was born. Mr. Prokopow quotes Eric Arthur, whose 1964 book No Mean City opened the city's eyes to its Victorian and Edwardian buildings: " 'In the march of progress, we have ruthlessly destroyed almost all our older architecture.'
          "Now, with modern architecture easily counting as 'older architecture,' the pattern of destroying significant buildings continues," Mr. Prokopow says.
          Joe Lobko, the former chair of the Toronto Society of Architects, makes a similar comparison. "In the late sixties, the city was under tremendous development pressure and there was little overall planning," he says. "Now, we're in a similar situation."
          Still, he sees signs of life for "modern heritage." One is the annual Doors Open Toronto program, which in 2004 focused on modern buildings such as the Toronto-Dominion Centre. "The staff spent full days giving people tours," Mr. Lobko explains. "There was a lineup for two straight days."
          Another is the success of a map published by the TSA, Toronto Architecture 1953-2003. Now in its second printing, it marks the city's important modern and contemporary buildings.
          "Toronto really came into its own in the last half of the 20th century, and our map tried to show that," Mr. Lobko says.
          He is quick to add that contemporary architects see a mixed legacy from the era. "Sadly, in the fifties and sixties, while we did a bunch of wonderful things, we did a bunch of terrible things too," he says. "Everyone thought Regent Park was a great way to build affordable housing."

But John Martins-Manteiga, the author of Mean City, a book about Toronto's postwar architecture and design, says there won't be much left for the next generation to revile -- or revive. "We're wiping the slate clean, and it's not a good thing."
          Mr. Martins-Manteiga, director and curator of the Dominion Modern museum, has looked closely at the era for over a decade. He sees "a huge awareness" of modernism, especially among younger adults who have seen the period's furniture and interiors come back into style. "For the baby boomers, it's too familiar," he says. "They've grown up with it."
          While Ontario's heritage laws were strengthened earlier this year, he worries that the city often fails to value Toronto's modern structures in its planning. In the nineties, Mr. Martins-Manteiga campaigned to save the CNE Grandstand, which won a national architecture award in 1948 but was replaced by a parking lot. Now, a professional soccer stadium will likely go up next door.
          "This is what happens when people are planning things in the dark," he says. "We had a stadium on the site, and we tore that down. Now we're going to tear down two buildings to build a stadium." He's convinced those 1950s structures, including the Food Building, have more to offer than memories of mini-doughnuts. "The postwar period had a different sensibility," he says. "The society that built them isn't the society I see now, and I want to try and learn something from that. We will never build like that again."

Catherine Nasmith, a local architect and preservationist, shares his concern for Exhibition Place. She studied the area 15 years ago and recommended that many of its modern buildings be protected. "At the time, [councillor] Joe Pantalone was opposed," she says. "He said, 'These are public buildings and we will look after them.' "
          Likewise, she's "extremely annoyed" that Riverdale Hospital is likely to fall. This year, she took part in a working group of local architects who decided the hospital can and should be reused, maybe as housing. "We're about to lose a very good building, even though it's a landmark in the community and the community values it," she says.
          Mr. Lobko, who agrees Riverdale Hospital is reusable, cautions that not every modern building is worth saving. "Some buildings from that period are seen as disposable because, frankly, they were poorly built," he says. "Having said that, I think we should be much less casual about the destruction of buildings. When you wipe the slate clean, you may be successful, but it's not nearly as interesting as allowing some of the history to remain."

Design Exchange curator MICHAEL PROKOPOW picks 10 buildings we need to save...

Regent Park Towers, Peter Dickinson, 1956

These 14-storey blocks of bright duplex apartments represent the British émigré architect's deep commitment to humane and livable urban housing. Threatened by redevelopment, Dickinson's tower blocks are both significant buildings and people's homes.

O'Keefe Centre (Hummingbird Centre), Peter Dickinson, Page and Steele, 1960

Dickinson's granite-and-limestone theatre exists in a great state of preservation, with its dramatic canopy, its exquisite interior details and York Wilson's mural The Seven Lively Arts. An ambitious development plan by the centre's management -- anchored by a condo tower from architect Daniel Libeskind -- threatens the integrity of the building.

Inn on the Park, Peter Dickinson and Peter Webb, 1963

Before his untimely death in 1961, the English-trained Dickinson reshaped Toronto architecture almost single-handedly. His plans for a hotel overlooking the Don Valley balanced high style with ample customer parking; perched on the crest of a hill, it evoked some just-landed and elegant starship. It is now being demolished.

Riverdale Hospital, Chapman and Hurst, 1963

The semi-circular tower is one of the city's most striking and innovative modernist buildings. Novel in shape and powerfully sited above the Don Valley, the design advertised widely held beliefs in science and the state as benevolent, progressive forces in society. Today, the owner plans to replace it with two unremarkable condo buildings, when there are real solutions for the structure's reuse.

Bata headquarters, John B. Parkin Associates, 1964

On a summit in Don Mills is this dramatic piece of baroque modernism, with its hard façade and tree-like supporting columns. Seeking to move beyond glass boxes, lead architect John C. Parkin welcomed more eclectic trends in sixties architecture. This hugely important building will be demolished to make way for a cultural centre and museum.

(New) City Hall, Viljo Revell and John B. Parkin Associates, 1961-65

The winner of an international competition, Viljo Revell's design is a triumph for civic modernism. Key to the plan was what became Nathan Phillips Square, bounded by an elevated walkway. Today, some see the walkway as blocking the complex. At the time of its design, however, it opened a conversation with the wrought-iron fence of Osgoode Hall and marked City Hall as an important civic precinct.

McLaughlin Planetarium, Allward and Gouinlock, 1967

A shell of its former self, the once cutting-edge planetarium served some six million visitors interested in the heavens. Its pedagogical and scientific mission was in keeping with the era's great interest in space and technological advance. It is now slated for demolition.

Ontario Place, Craig, Zeidler and Strong, 1968-70

A local variant of Expo 67, the park once originally offered extravagant, poetic architecture. With the constant updates, the socially sensitive vision of architect Eberhard Zeidler is being compromised and lost.

Hockey Hall of Fame, Allward and Gouinlock, 1961

Marrying the spare elements of international modernism with appealing decorative details, it was an elegant pavilion for Canada's national sport. Designed by the important firm of Allward and Gouinlock, the building balances restraint and flourish with its delicate pillars and complex wall patterns (like an abstracted hockey net). Now closed, it's likely to be demolished for the city's new soccer stadium.

The Food Products Building, Richard A. Fisher, 1954

Designed to invoke ideas about science, hygiene and social progress, it was both an exhibition space and a physical metaphor. Rationally composed with as much interior space as possible, the Food Building incorporated modern flourishes to make the point of its social importance: ramps, bridges, reflecting pools, dramatic external lighting and angular canopies. Its longevity in the face of the soccer stadium is doubtful.

...and two that deserve the wrecking ball

Simpson Tower, Parkin Associates with Bregman and Hamann, 1968-1971

While John C. Parkin was one of Canada's more visionary architects, this brown-grey tower is a depressing exercise in "late modernism," where glass, steel and soaring elegance gave way to hulking height, dense materials and a bleary palette. Attached to the Romanesque Simpson's (now the Bay) at Yonge and Queen, Parkin's tower is a blight on an important city street.

2 Bloor East, (Hudson's Bay Company), Crang and Boake, 1974

A lamentable exercise in the "brutalist" style, featuring prominent use of textured concrete, on one of the most important sites in the city. With a dull 35-storey tower and a lifeless tomb of a storefront, this structure needs either a complete remaking or the wrecker's ball.

Riverdale ripe for condo conversion: Globe and Mail, June 17th, 2005.

Critique of the meeting: Globe and Mail, July 9th, 2005.

Argument for demolition of Riverdale: bad plumbing?: National Post, Nov 11th, 2005.

History vs Healthcare? Or not...?: Eye, Dec. 8th, 2005.

Debate swirls around hospital's fate at Council meeting.: National Post, Jan. 18th, 2006

Riverdale Hospital for wrecking?: Star, Jan. 25th, 2006

Keep historic half-round around as it is: Star, Jan. 26th, 2006.

Demolition plan roundly criticized: National Post, Feb. 2nd, 2006.

Development arguments wanting for logic: Now, Feb. 9, 2006.

Demolition is environmentally unconscienable: National Post, Feb. 17th, 2006.

Locals want to know: Why give land away?: National Post, March 11th, 2006.

Citizens catch Bridgepoint hi-jinx: Now, March 16th, 2006.

Progressives on Council fumble the Bridgepoint scheme: Now, March 23rd, 2006.

Save Riverdale

Toronto Architectural Conservancy

e-mail: steve(at)