Book Review: Toronto Architecture—A City Guide

Even when it was first published in 1985, and  in 1989 when the second edition was released, I’m not convinced booksellers filed Patricia  McHugh’s Toronto Architecture: A City Guide under “Walking Tours.” Yes, the book is divided into geographical sections such as Front Street East, Yonge Street, Jarvis Street, The Grange, and Southeast Rosedale, but based on the huge swaths of territory covered and lack of walk-times—I once led a gaggle of architects up Jarvis Street from Lake Ontario to Bloor and it took the better part of a business day—or helpful suggestions for coffee break locations, my assumption was always that the book was more of an armchair guide. 

It was, however, packed with solid research: for each building entry, McHugh listed year  of construction, architect, original use, subsequent alteration(s) and use(s) and those architects responsible, and, finally, personal observations. For the iconic Gooderham Building (a.k.a. the “Flatiron”), she wrote: “This  theatrical endeavour owes its eye-catching  appeal to more than just shape. With a richly textured façade and kingly chateauesque towered roof that still dominates this busy corner, the building stands as an apt symbol of the Gooderham family’s powerful position in the community.”

Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, Alex Bozikovic
Toronto Architecture: A City Guide

As an architecture columnist with a particular passion for heritage buildings and adaptive reuse, I’ve turned to McHugh dozens of times during my 14 years at the Globe & Mail. And, after finding the address I’d needed to confirm, I’d usually (and willingly) let myself fall down her cheerful rabbit-hole for an hour or more…not for procrastination’s sake, but rather for the sheer optimism of her writing.

That’s why I’m a little disappointed with the 21st century reboot. With McHugh gone (she passed in 2008), the awesome responsibility  of adding hundreds of new buildings was handed to Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. While Bozikovic has done the impossible by writing about a city that continues to reinvent itself and has added entirely new sections for neighbourhoods McHugh hadn’t considered, such as “Suburbs West,” or ones that weren’t yet a twinkle in the developer’s eye, such as “South Core,” all that running around seems to have made him cranky.

Where McHugh came off as cheerleader, trying to infect readers with a “get out there and see it!” bug, Bozikovic sometimes treats his entries (each marked “PM,” “AB” or “PM/AB” if Bozikovic has added to original text) as a place for criticism that can border on cruelty. For example, he tells readers to “avert their eyes” when confronting The Berczy, the 2014 condominium across from the Flatiron.  By Young & Wright/IBI Group with heritage firm ERA, he calls the midrise building  a “muddle,” describing it as follows: “The base is precast concrete pretending to be stone, not convincing anyone; the brick middle tries to copy the neighbour lofts, not very well; the top is a cloud of pale, grim spandrel, perhaps trying to disappear into the sky. If only.”

His description of Aura, currently Canada’s tallest residential building, is equally fierce,  labeling it “titanically bad” overall, while describing the ground level retail spaces as “cramped and cluttered, overshadowed by an ominous cantilever.” He finishes by warning that the building “makes for a junky skyline” and that the “next round of very tall towers better improve on this.”

And it’s not just that I disagree with these assessments; who wants a guidebook that tells the reader what not to look at?

But perhaps my memory of McHugh is clouded by my tendency to wear rose-coloured glasses. So, to be fair, I randomly tallied 50 entries each by McHugh and Bozikovic as positive, neutral or negative. The results are telling: McHugh clocked in at 37 positives, 11 neutrals, and two negatives. However, even her negatives offered hope. While she criticized a 1903 factory at 469 King Street West for having “too many fussy light-coloured stone details” and an “unfinished” roof line, she still can’t deny the “charm of winged cherubs decorating Ionic capitals at the entrance.”

By contrast, Bozikovic’s positive reviews routinely add charcoal linings to silver clouds: after praising the 1978 Palace Pier condominium tower on the Etobicoke waterfront (for years the tallest thing west of High Park), he writes that the “grim jumble of high-rise condos that joined it a generation later…should have learned some lessons here.” Not surprisingly, Bozikovic’s count broke down as follows: 25 positives, 19 neutrals, and six negatives.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe Bozikovic is simply feeling a sense of urgency, since anything published about booming Toronto will be out of date within a few years (in fact, he writes about buildings that aren’t even a hole in the ground yet), or his harsh tone is nothing more than a rallying cry to build a better city.

Or perhaps the sad reality is that the only way to sell walking tour books in the 21st century is to favour arsenic over architectural lace.

Toronto writer Dave LeBlanc pens “The Architourist” 
column for The Globe and Mail. Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, is available for order here, as well as at bookstores across Canada.