Why we should care about architecture in Toronto

 Photo: Lauren Clewes

Photo: Lauren Clewes

The task of persuading the public to critically think about the buildings which surround them is a hard task. Undoubtedly, the majority of us don’t think twice about the aesthetics of our classroom or the structural dimensions of the restaurant at our next dinner date. It seems, like most things, caring about architecture isn’t a huge deal.

I argue that we should care, and offer a point of view that might make us rethink what we’re building and living in. One must first come to the realization that, for better or for worse, architecture shapes our lives in ways that might not be obvious. A example many of us could relate to; our own campus’ centrepiece is a beautiful Elizabethan-style manor that resonates with our small population and proud sense of community. I’m surely not the only one who becomes if not the slightest bit happier when seeing our class being scheduled in the manor. It is also the home of Lunik, our campus community co-op. In many ways, the Glendon Manor symbolizes our campus’ sense of a home away from home. Something would be missing in our collective perception of Glendon without it.

A shuttle ride to the main campus only draws out this example further. The newly-constructed Bergeron Centre at Keele is the home to the Engineering School at York, it’s design drawing inspiration from clouds and nature. It’s an ode to how the discipline in which it houses aims to harness nature by using the materials from which it came. Some argue it is the most architecturally significant building at Keele, noticeably contrasting the Brutalist, imposing monoliths of the rest of the campus that enforce the idea of education as more of a factory of mass-production rather than a personal learning experience (an idea decidedly helped by the over 60,000 students that roam about it daily). For those in charge of giving the green light to the construction of the Bergeron Centre, their decision was surely an effort to push York into the realm of cutting-edge innovation and design, shaking off the drab, yesteryear image of their bleak and sleepy campus. Sometimes architecture’s task is to render vivid ideals of who we strive to be.

We should start caring more about the structures in which we share some of our fondest memories. They hold memories and ideas of self, shaping us and our community in ways that aren’t thought about enough. I truly stand behind that last word “enough”, because I cringe at modern skyscrapers and the dense glass jungle our city has encased itself in. There’s a notable decrease in various forms of aesthetic tradition and a sharp uptick in chic, minimal, modern condos. Architecture like the Victorian revival styles in Cabbagetown and post-war cottages in Etobicoke are scarce; there’s precious little of what makes Toronto in Toronto buildings anymore.

Early Modernists wet their pants with glee if they glanced our city’s way. Local styles, to them, should be phased out of architecture completely as we enter a rational age of cookie-cutter suburbs and downtown core condos. But not only are these buildings distasteful, they skewer and warp our sense of community. A downtown culture almost doesn’t exist at this rate of erecting glass offices and apartments, and thousands of people lack communal and green spaces, having to venture outside their community for a peaceful weekend.

I understand we can’t have Glendon manors as the predominant style of buildings downtown (although that image warms my heart), but we shouldn’t eschew our obligation to our better nature and sense of community to allow those in power to build for big profit. For example, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) struggles daily with the City of Toronto to provide for better living conditions and basic rent protection to people in need of community housing, while John Tory approves project after project designed to attract foreign (Chinese) investors and profit. Let’s start by providing buildings for those in need, shall we?

A critical analysis of buildings that surround us can perhaps shape us for the better. Supporting ideas and efforts like architect Alejandro Aravena’s, who offer inexpensive yet structurally sound public housing for the masses, will help architecture to reach it’s full potential. We can move away from big capital shaping our local communities like we see downtown and more towards a responsible, humane face of architecture that would hint at the idea of home and a sense of belonging we don’t find in a great number of buildings we populate today.