Blog: entries tagged with "architecture"

Life in the valley

Evergreen, where I work in Communications, has now upped stakes and moved to a brand new office at Evergreen Brick Works.

Lower Don Trail

This is my new commute (via my preferred biking route, Beechwood Drive).

The Centre for Green Cities

And this is our new office, still under construction but taking shape fast.

A century ago the Don Valley Brick Works began churning out the bricks that built a good part of Toronto. After it shut down in the 1980s, the city and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority filled in the yawning open-pit clay quarry and eventually created a naturalized park in its place. The factory buildings, meanwhile, lay abandoned and became a magnet for urban explorers (try looking up “toronto brick works” on Google or Flickr).

Over the past few years Evergreen has been restoring the old buildings to create what we’re calling a “community environmental centre” – a place for urban-dwellers to get in touch with nature, as well as an event venue, a destination for schools and families and a hub for like-minded organizations. There’s art popping up all over the site: giant flowers bursting from windows, historic photos, diagrams from our patron saint scientist, geologist A.P. Coleman (1852-1939) – there’s even a sculpture of Coleman’s muddy boots.

Grand Opening is this weekend, with the ceremony and tours on Saturday, and a big Community Festival on Sunday. Be there!

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Nature, cities and brains

Table and chair on Ward's Island. Photo: Sean HowardMy copy of Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life arrived in the mail today (I’ve written here previously about his book A Pattern Language). It’s the first of his four-part opus The Nature of Order, an attempt at a grand theory of architecture and aesthetics.

You might have read Jonah Lehrer’s Boston Globe column about the impact of urban versus “natural” environments on cognition. In a University of Michigan study, participants spent an hour walking through the streets of Ann Arbor, or through U-M’s botanical gardens, before undergoing tests to gauge the effect on their memory and attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who walked through the gardens did better.

Chalk one up for nature, then—or at least for superficial science writing. I’d like to see a lot more exploration and research, to give us a more detailed idea of the effect of different types of urban environments (bustling or empty, immaculate or run-down, a hip, bohemian neighbourhood versus a Fifth Avenue, the financial district, the suburbs) and more natural ones (a park, a formal European or Japanese style garden, a vegetable patch, a swamp, a farm, a mountain, an old-growth forest, a riverside)? How about some brain imaging?

Alexander’s research has been an attempt to build such a picture—to draw out the elements that give one place or thing more life than another. Much of his study boils down to simply presenting a subject with two objects or photos, and asking: which of these makes you feel more alive? Which makes you feel more whole? Which more closely reflects your own inner being? He concludes that there are actual, universal principles that underlie our affinity for places, things and other beings. Erich Fromm (and later E.O. Wilson) called this affinity biophilia; Alexander offers a possible structure for understanding it.

The Phenomenon of Life describes 15 essential qualities that contribute to the integrity and life of a system or structure, largely concerned with how the parts of such a system interrelate and support one another: interlock and ambiguity, strong boundaries, local symmetries—essentially extending and generalizing his work in A Pattern Language.

I’m looking forward to examining the world through this new set of lenses, and applying it to other fields (interestingly, while many architects have understandably been cool to his ideas, a number of enthusiastic computer programmers have found ways to apply them to their practice). Alexander only discusses physical objects, so relating his principles to music, for example, is going to be a fun exercise (for instance, “interlock” has strong parallels with counterpoint, and “levels of scale” applies very naturally to rhythms) and one that may finally inspire me to get back to composing.

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As cities go, Detroit is pretty much the ultimate American example of what can go wrong. From its height during the heyday of the auto industry, the Motor City fell hard, strangled by freeways, unbalanced by “white flight”, and battered by the decline of US automakers. Attempts at jump-starting the ailing downtown were mostly miserable failures, in particular the fortress-like Renaissance Center.

It took until the 1990s to see any serious signs of recovery, including major investment in renovation and new construction. Today, downtown Detroit is still full of abandoned buildings - shacks and mansions, skyscrapers and factories. (Visit DetroitYES and Forgotten Detroit for a photo tour of some of the most remarkable of these. And perhaps most poignant of all, see the photos from Sweet Juniper of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, still full of rotting books and educational materials - “a warehouse full of abandoned hope.”)

Naturally, all this has made the city a magnet for urban explorers in search of “lost” places to discover, and others drawn by the peculiar romance of urban decay. Writing in Metropolis magazine, Camilo José Vergara put forth a fanciful but entirely serious notion:

Cloud Gardens Parkette

“I propose that as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley.”

Not surprisingly, preservationists and downtown boosters were aghast. “If you allow nature to win back man-made objects you are being anti-urban,” one argued. “It’s an insult to America, to what America stands for,” another told the New York Times.

Personally, I love the idea (though I can understand why Detroiters, ever-sensitive about their city’s reputation, would be especially touchy about it). Ruins serve as a sort of memento mori on a grand scale, reminding us of our mortality. They’re not tidy or comfortable. They nudge us toward thinking about time and life, on a scale that’s bigger than our own lives.

And when ruins become overrun by the wild again, they can also be reminders of the endless abundance of nature, that power of rebirth I wrote about a while back. And, as Vergara argues, “Such buildings need to be preserved as symbols of the aspirations they represented when built.”

Gardiner Expressway pillar during demolition (City of Toronto Archives)Thinking along the same lines, artist John McKinnon headed a project here in Toronto to preserve the concrete pillars from the eastern leg of the Gardiner Expressway. The kilometer-long elevated spur, a vestige of a plan to extend the expressway all the way through Scarborough, was torn down in 2001, but the pillars remain as a peculiar tribute to the spirit of “Big Daddy” Gardiner’s Toronto (I’m sure he would have been livid). Stripped of the dangling bits of rusted rebar, tidied up and refinished (how very Toronto), the pillars are slowly being overgrown with ivy.

Another “deliberate ruin” here in town is the Cloud Garden Parkette near Bay and Adelaide (pictured above). Architects Baird and Sampson, together with artist Margaret Priest, took inspiration from Giovanni Piranesi, whose etchings of Roman ruins had captured the imagination of 18th-century Europe. They set out to design and construct a Modernist ruin, with beams and rough bits of wall peeking through here and there. It’s a bit contrived, but the park itself is delightful, somehow creating all kinds of intimate, contemplative spaces all packed onto a relatively tiny lot - dense without feeling crowded. All that and a greenhouse with a little rainforest conservatory too. But I digress.

The Bay-Adelaide Centre, circa 2002The parkette was built as a concession by the developers of the Bay-Adelaide Centre. However, before the office tower was completed, the 1980s office-building boom in Toronto staggered to a halt, and for years a vast concrete stump loomed over the Cloud Garden - a real ruin next to a fake one. (The story is told in more detail in Robert Fulford’s book Accidental City.)

Now, at last, a tower is being built on the site. It fills in a significant gap, but I’ll miss the Bay-Adelaide Stump. Okay, as a memento, it was more a reminder of financial folly than of impending doom, but it was like our own tiny, tidy version of Vergara’s historic ruins park.

Even ruins aren’t forever.

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Glimpses of the past

(It’s been a whole month since I last posted, and what a month. Lots of things are up in the air, but in general it’s been going well. There are promising job leads, I’ve had time to reorganize the studio at last, and resume work on some projects, both musical and electronic - more about those soon. Meanwhile…)

Claremont Confectionery - photo: Sean HowardThe other day, while Sean and I were out for a bite to eat, we noticed a store sign across the street proudly announcing “Claremont Confectionery - Smoke and Gifts - Complete Line of Guns & Fishing Tackle” in handsome hand-painted lettering… might have been forty or fifty years old, by the look of it. The building is now a restaurant, but the owners had apparently liked the sign enough to keep it around. It’s not the only such “historic” sign on Queen Street, either.

I like this sort of nod to the past. I’ve heard it criticized as pretentious and empty - like “façadism” in architecture, where the front of a historic building is kept, and attached to a brand new, usually much larger building. You’re appropriating a cultural artifact that has its own layered history, the argument goes, presumably hoping that some of its essence carries over into your new enterprise.

But nah… it’s pretty neat that elements like this are being kept, however superficial they might be. If it’s done with a bit of reverence and respect, they can help connect us with our surroundings, and remind us that we’re all part of this vast stretch of history.

I once designed a logo for a friend, which was eventually made into a sign that hung over her storefront on Queen West. I’d designed logos before, and web sites and business cards, but this felt different - the first time seeing something I’d created become such a visible part of her shop’s public face, physical and permanent.

Well, not that permanent, of course. It’s been gone for years now. Dozens of signs appear on and vanish from that block alone every year, only slightly more permanent than the cards, posters and other ephemera that flutter through it. It’s cool that every once in a while one survives.

(Next: decay, ruins, and aesthetics.)

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Bringing back the Don

Artist's conception of a renaturalized Don River mouth, from the MVVA proposal.Monday night I caught the presentations by the four design teams chosen as finalists in the TWRC competition to create a plan for the Lower Don Lands - the area west of the Don Roadway, between the railway yard north of the Gardiner and the shipping channel. All four presentations had some great elements, and some were downright inspiring. (It was a stark contrast to the city’s street-furniture tender, a shabby excercise that seems to get worse the more we hear about it.)

The mouth of the Don River was once the largest wetland on the Great Lakes, according to one of last night’s presentations. 19th-century development and industry reduced it to a cesspit, and engineers finally confined it to a narrow concrete-lined ditch to prevent floods and channel sewage straight into the lake. Goal one of the competition, therefore, was to renaturalize the river mouth - a task that most of them handled well.

Here’s a rundown of the four proposals:


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Along the streets

Aerial viewTook a couple cool walks through the west end, down the hill north of Davenport that marks the ancient Lake Iroquois shoreline, past the old Wychwood streetcar barns and the Tollkeeper’s Cottage, a couple of souvenirs of Toronto’s transportation history. The former site is slated for conversion to artists’ studios, greenhouses and parkland, the latter for restoration as a national heritage site.

And there were other neat things along the way - parks and neighbourhoods and friendly cats, and other stuff that may provide inspiration for the radio scripts I’ve been working on.

Down on Bloor Street, we passed by the trio of construction sites at Varsity Stadium, the Royal Conservatory and the ROM, and wandered down Philosopher’s Walk past the Conservatory and the U of T music building, there to check out the second lamppost bass installed by Richard Bishop (who ran across my post about his earlier installation, the Kensington Bass, and was kind enough to alert me to the arrival of its new sibling). A bit tough to play, but fun! I’ll have to come by with my contact microphone and an amp or recorder sometime.

Eucan megabin Speaking of the urban landscape, city council is now seeking proposals to provide street furniture citywide. One side effect of this is that the Eucan “monster bin” project (see left) is dead. Good thing too - but we’d better keep an eye on the proceedings and let councillors know we want ads kept under control.

There’s also one really maddening bit: those three-sided “ad pillars” that AstralMedia have installed in parks are exempt from all this. They’re just off the sidewalk, and therefore within the jurisdiction of Parks and Rec, not Urban Planning.

More about this via Spacing Wire. Also, a Star article by Christopher Hume.

Also, on Friday, Newmindspace (instigators of Bubble Battles, subway and streetcar parties, and other revelry) are having a big mobile party they’re calling Flight Of Fancy, somewhere close to downtown. Route to be annouced via email. I’m gonna be there, hopefully playing some music!

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Dan Gibson, nature sound recordist. He actually died over a month ago, but I hadn’t heard until now. When I was a kid, we had the very first Solitudes LP, back before his son talked him into adding music (a smart commercial move, I’ll grant you, but no thanks - I’d rather have just the sounds).

Jane Jacobs, author and champion of neighbourhoods and cities as vital entities. Her book The Death and Life Of Great American Cities spurred me to study urban planning (I discovered it, in turn, through Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn). (via Spacing Wire)

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Yesterday I popped by the Royal Ontario Museum to visit the library and photocopy a few articles for an out-of-town friend. I’d never been to their library, so it was a neat adventure. Little did I know that in the month since I was last there, they’d moved the main entrance around the side of the building to the group entrance (soon to be the “back” of the building, once the renovations are complete).

Inside, I signed in and since there was no direct route to the library, what with the renovations, I had to wait a bit for someone to escort me through the labyrinthine back corridors to the library, where a very nice lady (who looked startling like an Indian version of my mother) fetched the required books.

One of them was a seventy-year-old German bibliography and list of hominid fossils, with a terrifyingly brittle cover bearing the title Fossilium catalogus. I: AnimaliaEditus a W. Quenstedt. I couldn’t find the proper pages at first, and it turned out that the pages hadn’t been cut apart. “You must be the first person to read this book,” the librarian remarked as she went to fetch the Page Cutting Knife.

Once I’d copied the articles, it was back to the outside world, which seemed to be an even longer way, including going up a flight of stairs and then down in an elevator. Very mysterious. Must remember this all for future writings.

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The Walker Terrace, 2003It’s been really weird watching them tear down the central part of the Royal Ontario Museum to make way for what they’re calling the Lee-Chin Crystal. To me, the Walker Terrace (the mild-mannered 1980s addition that they’re now demolishing, pictured above) was always there, like the CN Tower or Maple Leaf Gardens. It’s pretty weird to see it torn out.

The Crystal is a jagged explosion of metal and glass designed by Daniel Liebeskind, the flashy musician-turned-architect dude who did the Holocaust Museum in Berlin and is now working on the New York World Trade Center site. (His entry in the ROM’s so-called redesign ‘competition’ was scribbled on napkins from the museum’s chi-chi upstairs restaurant.)

I have some pretty strong reservations about the new design, most of which boil down to maintenance. All those weird angles and custom-fitted panels are begging for leaks. And they’ve already had to revise the plans, replacing a lot of the glass with metal. Memo to architects: windows that face up collect dust, snow and bird poop and look like hell in pretty short order. I forsee great gobs of money having to be spent annually just to keep the thing together - money which could be better spent on running a good museum. On the other hand, it does a lot of good things, starting with re-orienting the building to face Bloor Street (a ritzy shopping street) rather than Queen’s Park (a relatively barren car thoroughfare).

I had a bigger shock a few blocks away, where they’re building a new expansion to OCAD, the Ontario College of Art and Design. There, rather than extending horizontally, perches an entire new building a couple floors above the roof of the existing building, propping it up above the park to the south (so as to keep it sunny). People have likened it to a matchbox standing on toothpicks, and it’s completely true. I’d seen renderings of the building-to-be, but to actually see It looming several stories above McCaul St was pretty damn freaky.

The architecture critics tell us that this is all a good thing, that these audacious new buildings will get people excited about our city and its institutions. And I suppose that’s true - people do have a certain fondness for our New City Hall, which was built in the 1950s and still shows up in movies as some sci-fi government or corporate HQ. I have to feel sorry for the people that are going to have to work in these places, though. (I could go on and on about this, but Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn says it better than I could.)

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Our current building on King Street had a façade that was painted turquoise. It was garish but distinctive, and made it a good landmark for pointing out for visiting friends, cab drivers and whatnot.

About a week ago we found out we’d landed a new place out in the Beaches, practically at the eastern end of Queen Street. The very same day, our old building turned white - as if the colour and uniqueness had drained out of it.

545 King West, before 545 King West, after

It’s been good to us, though, and we’ll miss it.

I will not miss the Indy, which we had to put up with this past weekend; it’s probably a half-mile away, but the droning of engines all day made it sound like we were living next to some bizarre nest of motorized bees. And the crowds that packed the Bathurst streetcar back from the Ex were… a little different, shall we say.

The house itself is in a neighbourhood known as the Beach (or the Beaches), on Neville Park, the easternmost stop on the entire streetcar network. If we lean far enough out the window, we’re probably in Scarborough.

J wrote to the rest of the house:

i think we should call the house, by virtue of its distance from the city

land’s end

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