Viewpoint (February 01, 2010)

Modernism is difficult to define. There are buildings that are quintessentially “Modern” with respect to their materiality, massing, and ornamentation (or lack thereof), but as for defining the philosophy of Modernism, considerable debate is sure to ensue.

When observing the renovations to Toronto City Hall and its concomitant Nathan Phillips Square, judging the correct approach to altering the original architectural intentions contained within one of the city’s most cherished Modernist buildings and its public spaces becomes difficult. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of Toronto’s most esteemed Modernists are uneasy with the precinct’s $40-odd-million renovation, especially the design of the 3,400-square-metre green roof on the podium level of Toronto City Hall, an area that was always meant to be public space. It is doubtful that any Modernist would object to the herbs, grasses, flowers and sedums being planted on the podium’s roof, as adding a 21st-century green roof to a mid-20th-century Modernist icon is what we might call progress in our continued efforts to further ecological awareness in the city. However, what has sparked some debate is the introduction of three Kentucky coffee trees on the green roof. Native to southwestern Ontario, these trees grow to a height of around 20 metres, and there are some who feel that the trees compromise the clarity and expressiveness of Finnish architect Viljo Revell’s original design.

But does the addition of these trees really contravene the rules of Modernism? To quote from Nurturing Dreams, a collection of essays by architect Fumihiko Maki, “The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once described modernity as an expression by each individual of how he intends to live his own ‘present.’ If that is so, then there are a thousand modernisms for every thousand persons, and in this century, modernism will no doubt continue to be the mode by which we express the present in which we live.” If we accept Maki’s comments, then perhaps we can accept the addition of trees on top of Revell’s icon–the trees could be as poignant a statement in today’s society as was the plasticity of Revell’s concrete when the building first opened in 1965.

Reinforcing the ineffability of Modernism while respecting the importance of architectural history and the evolution of our cities, Maki states: “The development of modernism is not dependent on a unilateral elimination of the past. In this, it resembles waves on the sea. Different waves collide and interfere with one another. Some waves disappear and others become even larger than before.” Here, Maki notes that even the most strident of Modernists can neither destroy the past for their own purposes, nor hypocritically hold onto their ideals as sacrosanct. For better and for worse, change will happen.

Deserving a separate discussion but worthy of mention is the recently launched book on the brash and unbelievably prolific architect Peter Dickinson. Simply titled Peter Dickinson, this extraordinary and lavishly illustrated 300-page volume was written by John Martins-Manteiga. UK-born Dickinson arrived in Toronto at the age of 24 and by the time of his premature death a few days before his 36th birthday, he had irrevocably altered the course of Modernism in Canada. The chain-smoking, hard-drinking Dickinson developed his own brand of Modernism through the designs of hotels, office buildings, and residential towers. When looking at the photos taken of him and of his architecture, one sees a world very different from that in which we live today. Similar to Maki’s comments on Modernism, the legacy of Dickinson’s work represents a wave upon the shore, and one that helps navigate us toward future architectural debate, rather than leave us stranded on the monuments of Modernism past. 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Revell’s birth, and Martins-Manteiga’s book celebrates the life of Dickinson while mourning his untimely passing. We might look at the lives of Dickinson and Revell as two of the thousands of mid-20th-century architects who inspire us to appreciate the vastness of Modernism while providing a foundation for future architectural directions.

Ian Chodikoff