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Urban Experience

Pug pundits at odds over Toronto city beautiful

Awards for T.O.'s best and worst architecture draw out the critics

By Stefan Dubowski

Toronto may well be undergoing an architectural renaissance: a handful of important landmarks have been redesigned lately. But that doesn’t mean residents have come to consensus on what makes the city beautiful – or even what makes it ugly.

This became clear during a panel chat on T.O.’s architectural situation, held at the Gladstone Hotel the evening of June 6. As part of the Pug Awards ceremony, some of Toronto’s premiere built-form thinkers discussed the city’s current and future aesthetic prospects.

The Pugs represent the people’s choice for the best and worst architecture in town. Held annually, the event collects votes online for the top (and bottom) residential, industrial and commercial edifices. This year the Gardiner Museum by KPMB Architects was the commercial winner, and Stanford Downey Architects Inc.’s hotel-condo atop the old Dominion Bank building at 1 King West came first in the residential category.

Worst? The “Be Bloor” condos at Lansdowne Avenue and Bloor Street – all but 3% of the votes were thumbs down.

These are subjective rankings, and heaven knows most of the 40,000 individual votes that the Pug website (www.pugawards.com) gathered probably came from amateurs who have little more than a minor interest in architecture. But subjectivity infuses professional debates too, as the Gladstone discussion showed.

The panel consisted of Mark Kingwell, one of the University of Toronto’s best known philosophy professors, Lisa Rochon, The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic, and John Bentley Mays, an architecture writer whose columns have also appeared in the Globe. Although they were good-natured about each other’s opinions, they disagreed often.

Most of the discussion focused on the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and its new addition – Daniel Libeskind’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, which spikes over Bloor and lives an uneasy peace with the early 20th-century buildings that comprise the original institution. People either love it or hate it. Kingwell said he was concerned about the edifice from the beginning, and now that it’s up, “it’s a worse building than we could have imagined.”

Rochon derided the crystal as “a worrisome experiment” displaying “a profound lack of understanding of how you put together a building.” She said “starchitect” Libeskind missed opportunities to create sightlines that would aid ROM visitors. “The ego of the architect was unleashed on the city,” she said.

Mays said “the construction standards are not what they should have been,” but the crystal has grown on him. “It’s very unusual,” he said, adding that it lifts the “humdrum” surroundings near Bloor and Queen’s Park.

Commenting on Rochon’s “worrisome experiment,” Mays said the ROM might be an experiment, but it’s a public institution, and as such, perhaps better suited to experimentation than private endeavours are.

Rochon countered that most of the funds for the ROM came from the private sector, which puts its “public” status in question. And regardless, she said, architecture is no medium for off-the-wall conceptualizing. “It’s not like singing in your shower….It comes with a kind of responsibility.”

The discussion turned to the effects buildings such as the crystal have on surrounding areas; the ROM, the Sharp Centre for Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, the Gardiner Museum and the soon-to-be redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario are touchstone developments that some say herald a new era of architectural sophistication. This fed a discussion about neighbourhoods, where disagreements among the pundits continued. Panel moderator Gary Berman, managing director of merchant bank Tricon Capital Group Inc., argued that Toronto is terrible at building neighbourhoods, even though it’s known as a city of neighbourhoods, and despite the new landmarks.

Rochon agreed, deploring the townhouses being built south of the Gladstone, in the King West Village area. “It’s a challenging issue, because the city is intensifying,” she said, adding that the drive to house newcomers can clash with good urban planning practices.

But Mays said “it’s people who make neighbourhoods,” not buildings. There’s nothing stopping King West Village or the forest of CityPlace condos sprouting near Spadina Avenue and Front Street from becoming vibrant neighbourhoods, he said.

Kingwell questioned that, however, describing tower condominiums as “vertical gated communities” for people who want little to do with community-building.

The panelists did agree that city hall has failed to live up to certain planning standards, be they preservation, density or building height restrictions.

Mayor David Miller was criticized for allowing condo developers to bulldoze artist enclaves on West Queen West (see “Queen Street West is dead…”), and for letting condos propagate on the waterfront, where they might block pedestrian access to Lake Ontario.

“It’s about leadership in the public eye,” Kingwell said, arguing that Miller should at least make statements about improper development, even if he’s powerless to stop it. Rochon agreed: “The mayor should have held a press conference at 48 Abell ….He needs to lead.”

The panelists also agreed that the “green” trend towards environmentally sustainable architecture is a “fad” that doesn’t inherently beautify Toronto.

They may as well have come to a concluding consensus in one, overall aspect: that beauty is a struggle, and perhaps consensus itself is unwarranted. As Rochon noted, “the idea of creating an entirely beautiful city is an idea…that belongs to regimes.” It’s oppressive and at odds with Toronto’s democratic, diverse nature.