University of Toronto: An Architectural Tour

By Larry Wayne Richards. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

In an age when most of us rely on our iPhone or internet-connected laptop to find our way through the city, it’s a delight to hold in your hands a good, solid guidebook that’s accessible, highly informative, and fun to read. Such is the case with this campus guide, Larry Wayne Richards’ architectural tour of the University of Toronto and its three campuses. Organized into nine walks, lushly photographed and illustrated with bird’s-eye campus views, the guide orients the visitor to U of T’s campuses and buildings, providing insights–from the trivial to the pithy into the history, form, material and spaces of the University’s architectural holdings.

Without being arcane or condescending, Richards’ affable writing brings us immediately into each campus, drawing us to understand the relevance of what’s within our gaze. Dense and informative, but not overwhelming, the voice of the guide comes through. Richards is no stranger to Toronto’s campus architecture. As former Dean of U of T’s architecture faculty, Richards championed high-quality design. Understanding that universities are laboratories for learning, he advocated design excellence in campus planning, landscape and building. From the hated to the beloved, Richards’ building narratives reveal a campus environment that has a great deal to teach us about our architectural heritage, reflecting the idea of the university and mirroring the cultural ambitions of the community that built it. The fact that almost all of the University’s buildings are not just the work of one individual, but have seen the hands of a multitude of designers over their long history, is the most compelling story told by this guide. Places of distinction evolve slowly, over time, and through the careful manipulations of many skilled designers. In the end, this is the message of our tour.

Introduced by Martin L. Friedland’s rigorous historical analysis–whose only failing may be the paucity of sufficient visuals to fully demonstrate campus evolution since 1827–the guide is illustrated with Tom Arban’s handsome photographs, capturing details and overviews in summer and winter, peopled and deserted, of the University’s campus and buildings. The consistency of Arban’s image-making reinforces Richards’ astute and studied observations, underscoring the value of capturing a place through one photographer’s studied eye.

The guide is one of a series produced by Princeton Architectural Press, and, importantly, it is the first Canadian university guide to be featured. A very high standard has been set. Reviewed by George Kapelos