Books (February 01, 2009)

Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City That Might Have Been

By Mark Osbaldeston. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008.

Living in Toronto is a bit like buying your groceries at Price Chopper; you might get what you absolutely need, but the overall experience is a relatively joyless exercise. That Toronto is so much less than the sum of its parts can be partially explained by Mark Osbaldeston’s Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City That Might Have Been, an impressively researched exploration of dozens of neverrealized architectural and masterplanning projects intended for the city. Spanning two centuries, the projects include roads and highways, transit systems, towering skyscrapers and civic buildings that, if built, would have undoubtedly given shape to a very different city than the one we know today.

Surprisingly, Osbaldeston is not a trained architect or planner–but is, in fact, a lawyer for the Ministry of Finance, with a background in municipal and land development law. His passion for the history of Toronto is clear in this endeavour, and the numerous maps, historical photographs, and evocative drawings contribute to a highly compelling read.

Certainly, we can be thankful that some of these schemes were never carried out, such as the Spadina/Scarborough Expressway, which would have unequivocally scarred the city, decimating many vital neighbourhoods and the natural ravine landscape. But at other times, we can only muse wistfully over some of the projects that would have been utterly transformative, facilitating the creation of a Toronto that could rightfully be called a worldclass city.

Take, for example, Federal Avenue, a scheme initiated around the end of the 19th century, in which a grand Europeanstyle boulevard would have linked Union Station to a formal civic square on Queen Street–a site currently occupied by the underwhelming Nathan Phillips Square. Federal Avenue was ultimately and stupidly thwarted by the City’s issuance of permits allowing the construction of two buildings on land which was intended for the boulevard. But in 1929, the resurrection of Federal Avenue in the form of Cambrai Avenue was accompanied by the presence of Vimy Circle, from which several significant axial conduits would have radiated. With a memorial to Canada’s war dead in its centre, Vimy Circle would have been Toronto’s greatest monumental public space. We are witness to the power of such masterfully conceived moments in stunning drawings provided by the City of Toronto Archives, and in them we see traces of grandeur from our collective memory of other cities, other continents. We are tortured by the prospect of what could have been.

The waterfront is probably Toronto’s most hotly contested urban design issue in present day, and perhaps it’s not surprising that the debate began as far back as the 1850s, when legislation permitting the construction of railway tracks shattered the dream of a waterfront esplanade. Over 100 years later, in 1968, Buckminster Fuller threw his hat in the ring with Project Toronto, in which he proposed a 3,000-foot enclosed galleria flanking University Avenue, linking King Street to the waterfront, next to a 400foot Crystal Pyramid and a Gateway Tower–all of which would have given Toronto a muchneeded global identity.

Ideally, this book will give necessary perspective to the bureaucrats, planners and architects who contribute to the evolving form of the city. One hopes that Unbuilt Toronto will inspire a sustained collective vision that will ameliorate a Toronto that at times seems nothing more than an amateurish aggregation of merely “goodenough” interventions. LJ

A companion exhibition to Unbuilt Toronto was organized by the Toronto Society of Architects, which ran from November 2008 to January 2009 in the Royal Ontario Museum, itself one of Toronto’s most highly controversial building projects.

The Phaidon Atlas of 21St Century World Architecture

By the editors of Phaidon Press. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2008.

Embarking on a world tour of buildings beyond the de rigueur visit to Ronchamp or an allinclusive package tour of Herzog & de Meuron’s greatest hits is likely impractical–especially if it’s done all in one shot. After all, it’s expensive and timeconsuming to trot the globe on an architectural pilgrimage seeking the masterpieces of the design world’s rock stars. Fear not, for Phaidon’s latest mammoth offering will more than make up for it.

Following their 2004 effort The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, the equally hefty The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture distinguishes itself from its predecessor with over 90% new buildings completed since 2000. The images in this book will make you weak in the knees: 4,600 gorgeous colour photographs of 1,037 buildings by 653 architects from 89 countries are grouped into the six geographical regions of Oceania, Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America. Buildings featured range from singlefamily residences to international airports, railway stations to art galleries and museums. The striated cladding of Foreign Office Architects’ Carabanchel Housing in Madrid titillates, the highly kinetic and graphically arresting Keith Haring Art Museum in Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture inspires, and the expansive, simple purity of the Shark Alley House on New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island soothes.

This is not just a glossy coffeetable tome to impress your friends: specific information valuable to architects is provided, such as client, cost and geographical coordinates. Moreover, thousands of plans, sections and maps offer a level of detail that architects seek, along with fascinating graphic data on carbon footprints by country and climate change, construction growth and national wealth, and global population densities relative to the location of featured projects. Fleshing out and giving greater context to the work are short essays accompanying each of the projects–which, incidentally, are designed by both emerging practitioners and seasoned veterans with decades of practice under their belts.

Considering the bang for the buck, it’s worth every penny of the substantial $225 list price. An added bonus: repeated lifting of the 14.5-pound volume will supplement your New Year’s resolution cardio workout. LJHTO: Toronto’s Water from Lake Iroquois To Lost Rivers to Low-flow Toilets

Edited by Wayne Reeves and Christina Palassio. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2008.

Despite the manipulation of ecosystems to accommodate our growing cities, the rivers that exist beneath the morass of urbanity can never entirely disappear. This recent publication contains 34 essays to delight the reader, with stories about Toronto’s natural systems and manmade infrastructure pertaining to the provision, purification and protection of its water. Reading about watersheds has never been so engaging! This book, divided into four sections (foundations, transformation, explorations and directions), loosely traces a narrative from the prehistoric era to the founding of the Town of York in 1793, and from the destructive powers of Hurricane Hazel in 1954 to current waterfront and riparian management policies.

The story of Toronto’s water begins with Ed Freeman’s article on the city’s geological origins and continues with Nick Eyles’ article on the city’s various ravines, lagoons, cliffs and spits, describing the history of the city from the Laurentide Ice Sheet 25,000 years ago to the eventual formation of our Great Lakes. Other transformations have been caused by civilization. As outlined in Chris Hardwicke and Wayne Reeves’ essay, the alterations to Toronto’s Lake Ontario shoreline, especially over the past 200 years, repeatedly involved lakefilling and the concretization of the waterfront–a situation that is only now beginning to be addressed with any serious intent.

As the city grew, deforestation, pollution and sprawl ensued, while issues of public he
alth, safe drinking water and adequate sewage treatment remained significant challenges. Mahesh Patel’s article describes how the city has improved the health of its citizenry over decades, after periods of typhoid and cholera. During the glory years of improving public health–the late 1920s and ’30s–Toronto built modern waterpurification plants, notably the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant which opened in 1938. It was a veritable “palace of purification” that continues to inspire Torontonians with its ambitious architecture. Other essays describe some of the painful side effects of urbanization, like Gary Miedema’s article on the early river mills of Toronto. These mills were responsible for the development of communities like Malvern, Hogg’s Hollow and York Mills but they also contributed to deforestation and flash floods. And when Toronto became a large coalburning city in the 1850s, its ravines and valleys would make for convenient disposal sites that lay beneath many apartment buildings, houses and schools today.

This book is a poignant reminder to any citydweller of the cultural, historical and environmental importance of fresh water, public health, lakes, rivers and streams to any urban system. IC