Books (January 01, 2008)

Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture From the Fifties to the Seventies

Edited by Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart and designed by Steven Ho Yin Chong. Toronto: Coach House Books and E. R. A. Architects, 2007.

In this well researched and complete guide to concrete architecture of the 1950s to the 1970s, readers will gain insight into a defining period in Toronto’s architectural history. Interviews and essay contributions by architects, historians, academics, city planners, and journalists are complemented by a plentiful assortment of maps, drawings and rare photographs. From this, a rich discussion emerges on several defining landmarks in Toronto, and on the identity of the city itself.

Organizationally, the book is divided into sections, variously entitled Downtown, Infrastructure, The Modern Suburbs, Beyond Toronto, and Building with Concrete. In canvassing this broad array, the editors succeed in their task of making the invisible visible, these concrete structures that are seen every single day in the city and which are taken completely for granted. We crawl, lurch or blast along the massive concrete Gardiner Expressway, pass by the CN Tower and the Sheraton and Hilton Hotels as we head north towards Bloor Street, where we find luxury apartment buildings like the Colonnade and the Manulife Centre. Heading a bit further north, we might even be treated to the fanciful and embellished expression of Uno Prii’s controversial high-rise residential structures.

Communities outside of Toronto are not ignored, nor are the suburbs in this comprehensive overview–as many of the city’s most important buildings are located in historic Don Mills, just northeast of the downtown core. John C. Parkin’s Ortho Pharmaceutical (1955) and Moriyama & Teshima’s Ontario Science Centre (1969) are discussed, as is the iconic Bata Headquarters (1965) by John B. Parkin Associates, currently under demolition.

As architectural fashion has shifted from the heaviness of Brutalist concrete structures of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to the sleek evanescence of glass-and- steel towers erupting around us everywhere, it is easy to dismiss the architecture of past decades that has very much informed the image and identity of Canada’s largest city. Concrete Toronto provides a useful countering force to this idea of progress, and engenders a discussion of the intent, knowledge and ambition of previous generations of architects, offering guidance and perspective to architects practicing today. LJ

GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto Edited by Alana Wilcox, Christina Palassio and Johnny Dovercourt. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007.

GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto is the third volume in this locally popular uTOpia series. The books are comprised of short essays in which local architects, artists, planners and activists identify problems, describe solutions and present ideas– both real and utopian– about the ways in which the Greater Toronto Area ( GTA) can improve the quality of its built environment. GreenTOpia regales us with many possibilities for Toronto’s bicycle lanes, green corridors and park activists, but could easily be criticized by those who do not live in the GTA as a navel- gazing indulgence written by local urban thinkers. After reading through the book, detractors might come away with the belief that there is nothing Toronto can’t possibly achieve. However, it is more likely that anyone who reads this book– whether they hail from the GTA or not– will derive great insight into the myriad challenges, successes and possibilities leading to the improvement of the ecological standards of any city.

The variety of ways in which a city can reduce its ecological footprint is vast and this book eschews any kind of doctrinaire methodology. The 42 essays increase our awareness of Toronto’s watersheds, ravine systems, tree canopies, recycling propensities, food production, improvement of transit systems and environmental factors such as heat islands, noise and light pollution, intensification of land use and the protection of our built heritage.

Of notable importance is the 56- page directory of resources promoting sustainability throughout the GTA. Links to web pages, telephone numbers and a list of various organizations provide a useful guide as to what the GTA currently offers in terms of sustainable programs. An FAQ section provides the reader with answers that he or she may not even have considered, such as ” How can I get paid for going green?” and ” Where is my closest community garden?” Asking the right questions should be at the beginning of every responsible citizen’s list when considering how to improve the quality of life in his or her community. This book provides the necessary guidelines to help focus our resolve in increasing the sustainability quotient of our cities. IC

Hybrids: Reshaping the Contemporary Garden in Mtis Edited by Lesley Johnstone. Vancouver: Blueimprint, 2007.

In recent years, there has been nothing short of a renaissance in landscape architecture–at all scales of intervention. For example, with so many different ways of experiencing and defining a garden, Hybrids: Reshaping the Contemporary Garden in Mtis provides an invaluable guide in which to explore a range of contrasts and even contradictions resulting from the creation of highly evocative and inspirational contemporary gardens.

Divided into several themes–Looking Inward, Looking Outward, Recounting/Referring, Seeing, Activating, Affirming and Discovering–this catalogue illustrates roughly 40 projects that have been built since the annual International Garden Festival began in 2000 at the Reford Gardens in Mtis, Quebec. The only garden festival of its kind in North America, this publication is a testament to the conviction of its co-founder and director, Alexander Reford, who opened up his family estate to foster a dialogue about contemporary landscape architecture. (Other co-founders include Denis Lemieux and Phillippe Poullaouec-Gonidec). Since its inception, the festival continues to garner significant international attention and critical acclaim.

Hybrids also contains a motley collection of projects and texts written by 22 designers who have participated in the festival. The various essays seek to challenge our expectations relating to the variety of possible sensory experiences gained while visiting a contemporary garden, as well as debating topics such as memory, consumerism, and nature versus artifice. This lavishly illustrated book also contains an important essay by its editor, Lesley Johnstone. Possibly a parallel argument to James Corner’s well-known edited compilation entitled Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, Johnstone’s essay entitled “Recovering the Garden” suggests that a contemporary garden can be examined in the same way as music, art or dance, and can also comment on issues of sociology, politics and culture. This book is an important document representing the great accomplishments of an ambitious and successful annual festival celebrating the contemporary garden. IC

Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis Edited by Giovanni Borasi and Mirko Zardini. Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture and Corraini Edizioni, 2007.

Commemorating the measures taken by architects and designers during the energy crisis of the 1970s, Sorry, Out of Gas is the third in a series of thematic exhibitions organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) to explore contemporary issues in architecture and follows the previously published Environment: Approaches for Tomorrow (2006) and Sense of the City (2005). Sorry, Out of Gas is a remarkable catalogue of essays and illustrations pertaining to the exhibition currently on view in the CCA’s main galleries until April 20, 2008.

The energy crisis began in October 1973 when oil-producing Arab countries imposed an embargo on oil
exports, causing the price of oil to practically quadruple in four months. It is therefore not surprising that an overriding theme of the catalogue is the political context in which the energy crisis occurred. Using everything from architectural drawings, photography, archival television footage, and historical artifacts such as board games and ephemera from popular culture of the day, the catalogue is divided into four central themes–Sun, Earth, Wind, and Integrated Systems. Sorry, Out of Gas examines everything from passive and active solar heating, underground architecture, recycled materials and experiments in wind technology to reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy. Illustrated by British author and illustrator Harriet Russell, a magnificently and specially commissioned children’s story entitled “An Endangered Species” opens the book’s various discussions, exploring non-renewable energy and the ways in which children can conserve our planet’s valuable resources.

The ideas of sustainability have certainly evolved over the past 30 years. A useful resource that revisits the ambitious, radical and scientific approaches to conserving energy in our built environment, this book provides a wonderful sense of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the 1970s while drawing pictures of solar houses on his or her dining room table. IC