Reviewed by Ian Chodikoff and Leslie Jen

Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide
By Harold Kalman and Robin Ward. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2012.

Since 1974, when Harold Kalman and Robin Ward first published their seminal guidebook to architecturally and historically significant landmarks located throughout Vancouver, the city has evolved considerably. Subsequent editions of their Exploring Vancouver guidebooks have documented new buildings and evolving communities–which, in many cases, have made Vancouver nearly unrecognizable from its relatively obscure existence in the mid-1970s. Since over a decade has passed since their last edition, it made sense for Kalman and Ward to update their essential and authoritative guidebook to ensure their coverage of Vancouver’s building inventory is as complete as possible.

Happily, the legacies of “Gassy Jack” Deighton and his famous 19th-century Gastown saloon, Canadian Pacific Railroad surveyor Lauchlan Hamilton, and sawmill operator Prescott Moody still have a place in the guidebook. No number of point towers or view-inspired community centres were able to completely eradicate the city’s rich history–one that is fundamentally based on timber, mining and shipping. Because of the guidebook’s conscious efforts to link the city’s history with its present urbanity, reading about the latest SkyTrain stations in the context of the inter-urban railway linking Vancouver to New Westminster as early as 1891 provides a much richer experience when exploring the city-region.

This latest edition’s expanded discussions of Richmond, New Westminster and Burnaby are noteworthy and reflect the changing dynamics of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. While Richmond has long been a bedroom community of Vancouver, it has evolved into something much more than merely a proximate site of affordable housing (relatively speaking) and shopping malls. The escalation of real estate prices, and an increasingly cosmopolitan population has enabled suburban municipalities surrounding Vancouver to evolve legitimate urban centres of their own.

Exploring Vancouver is organized into 14 chapters–or tours–where the mention of nearly every building features a photograph by John Roaf, along with the names of the architects and landscape architects responsible. How some of the heritage buildings have been altered, adapted or reused by subsequent generations of architects is of particular interest. And of course, new buildings are featured alongside older ones, which only emphasizes how the collective architectural inventory of Vancouver and its surrounding municipalities is both idiosyncratic in stylistic approach and rich in cultural history. IC 

Unbuilt Toronto 2: More of the City That Might Have Been
By Mark Osbaldeston. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2011.

The success of and positive response to Mark Osbaldeston’s first effort in 2008, Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City That Might Have Been, left the author feeling like he wasn’t quite yet finished with his research. As a consequence, in this second volume, Osbaldeston not only gives readers a more complete picture of how the city might be vastly different today, but also offers an intriguing behind-the-scenes account of the political machinations that either stymied or guaranteed the success of a number of undeniably significant architectural and urban design projects. They are grouped into three sections: Public Works, Commercial Buildings, and the last chapter–my favourite–Arts, Letters and Leisure.

Over the past decade, Toronto has enjoyed a cultural Renaissance of sorts with the construction of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, and substantial renovations and additions made to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Expensive marketing campaigns have firmly entrenched these institutions in the public imagination, and Unbuilt Toronto 2 provides a historical account of the architectural evolution of the latter two projects, detailing the schemes that preceded Daniel Libeskind’s current and much maligned “Crystal” scheme at the ROM, and Frank Gehry’s more successful interventions at the AGO. 

In the section dedicated to public works, we are treated to accounts of various failed or compromised transit initiatives, such as the 1910 subway plan, the 1915 radial railways plan, and the 1973 UTDC rapid transit system, which only proves that history is bound to repeat itself; we need only witness current Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford’s perpetual ham-fisted bungling with respect to the issue of public transit. 

The chapter entitled “Toronto’s New Skyline” is also of topical significance, as the skyline is presently awash in tower cranes, put in service to meet the apparently insatiable demand for high-rise condominiums. Despite global economic turmoil, Toronto seems curiously insulated in this regard, if the unfettered rate of development is any indication. Though the skyline in the book refers to the commercial skyscrapers erupting in the city’s financial heart around the King and Bay nexus in the late 1920s, it does bring to mind the current steroid-enhanced vertical growth of Toronto. We might learn a sobering lesson: a compelling and detailed drawing from 1928 depicts an aerial perspective of Toronto’s downtown core including all of the proposed developments of the day. However, with the stock market crash of 1929, many of these buildings were never realized. Others were built to different plans, and several have since been demolished.

The author insists there will be no Unbuilt Toronto 3, but given the city’s continuing and astonishing rate of growth and long-awaited emergence from an awkward and prolonged adolescence, I suspect Osbaldeston will be back with more stories to engage, enlighten and entertain us. LJ