Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The City of Concrete

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What does Toronto stand for? Well, it’s a good question and one that I imagine has bugged more than a few contributors to this site. Ever since my earliest memories of moving to the city at the age of four, Toronto has been searching for an identity. At least in my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve never belonged to one of those lucky groups who rarely seem to lose sleep over questions of Toronto’s civic identity: the hockey players, the bankers, the immigrants. In fact, those groups are likely the best representatives of the city and the uniqueness it has to offer.

But for anyone who’s tried their hand at writing in, about or (as here) for the city, this doesn’t seem like enough. Is it too disparate? Perhaps. It’s difficult for the Toronto writer to crack the veneer, to get beyond the jarring multiplicities of the city, to create a work out of material so varied.

Is there a Toronto style of architecture, for example? The wonderful little book, Concrete Toronto: A Guide to Concrete Architecture from the fifties to the seventies (Coach House Press, 2007) seems to say there is. Unfortunately (for this writer at least), that style is hard, tall and grey. When the Minimalist revolution in construction came about in the mid-twentieth century (followed by its Jacobin extreme, Brutalism), Toronto joined in with gusto. What began with the plans for the groundbreaking new City Hall in 1956, eventually led to a decade of unparalleled growth in the city – and a concomitant explosion of grey monoliths. Soon, concrete became for Toronto what spires are for Prague. That is, they were everywhere.

The editors of Concrete Toronto (Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart – no, no, not that McClelland & Stewart), as well as the book’s many contributors, do an admirable job of resuscitating critical interest in these obsolete forms. The essays are well-written and, coupled with many photos (in greyscale, no less), extremely informative. For me, though, it cannot rescue the architectural style from whatever ring of hell is reserved for ugliness. There are exceptions, of course: most notably City Hall II and Kickstart feature Raymond Moriyama’s Ontario Science Centre, which manages to combine the works of man with those of nature as only the creation of an expert architect can. But these great buildings inspired others to countless lesser works.

So when we ask what Toronto stands for, let’s hope it doesn’t include those brusque stalactites that, unfortunately, stand in it.

- Alexander Herman

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel

Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel are the authors of Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started (Dundurn Press, 2008). Kickstart profiles over 30 prominent Canadians who explain how they started their careers.

Go to Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel ’s Author Page