toronto modern to post-modern: panel discussion

Add "participating in a panel discussion" next to "getting engaged" and "eating a grapefruit without grimacing" to the list of things I've done for the first time this year. Each of the participants was given a question to discuss for five minutes at the start of the session, before the audience asked questions. Mine was "What lessons from the 1970s have been lost?" After making a disclaimer about my personal experience of the city during that decade (restricted to tagging along with my Dad along Queen West), I launched into the following...

Among the lessons we should revisit are appreciating architectural styles which fall out of public favour, which aggravates the spectre of doom looming over modernist buildings we’ve discussed in this series; and mobilizing greater public support for threatened sites.

Outside of heritage activists and some community groups, think of the preservation campaigns you hear about most in the media—it’s things that appeal to our nostalgic instincts, such as the signs for Sam the Record Man or Honest Ed’s (though it should be said that the Sam’s outcry has led to a creative approach for retaining it, via the work currently underway to honour the city’s musical heritage at Yonge-Dundas Square with a “neon alley” where, near the Sam’s sign’s new home, visitors will be able to view recreations of historic venue signage). Will there be an outcry if anyone notices the gradual erosion of the original design of the Eaton Centre, as the external vestiges of the old Eaton’s store and other elements of Eb Zeidler’s design vanish under new cladding, or do we treat it as the natural evolution of the site?

If it’s a building whose architecture doesn’t inspire fond memories, or doesn’t match a classic, pre-1950 style, there are people out there content to, in the words of preservation forum I frequented years ago, “tear that shit down.” Suburban sites have suffered in this regard—think of buildings like the Bata HQ in Don Mills.

Click on image for larger version.
As for changing tastes, remember that during the 1960s and 1970s there were people who felt structures like Union Station and Old City Hall had outlived their usefulness and impeded the march of progress. In both cases, the public screamed for their preservation. While not all modernist buildings will survive, it is worth the effort in some cases for the public and creative architects to pitch developers on adapting these buildings for uses that benefit both the community and the bottom line. A carefully considered approach makes a stronger case than simply yelling that we need to save the site.

One issue preservationists face is the limited resources which handle official requests for heritage listing and designation. While we are getting better at enforcing heritage regulations, oversights happen. If the public is truly concerned about pro-actively preserving our past, they should ask councillors and other officials to support increasing city heritage staff to process requests in a timelier manner, research sites, and fix the loopholes which result in eyebrow-raising demolition permits.

That said, although we still end up with bad examples of facadism and urban taxidermy, I think we’ve learned much about preservation since the 1970s. We’ve developed a strong collection of sites through the combined efforts of architects, developers, and public input. These sites honour the historical architectural integrity, fuse new creative touches in respectful or innovative ways, and serve the needs of modern Torontonians. Being flexible enough to recognize new cultural and commercial potential in heritage architecture allows these buildings to demonstrate the possibilities lurking within other, less appreciated sites.


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