When I was young the Toronto of my imagination was not Victorian, precious or gingerbread in anyway. It was concrete. Slabs of it. Along the ground, up walls, flying into the air defying gravity or sliding down a ravine. It was the future — or a vision of the future — and as solid and eternal as the pyramids or Greek ruins. It was these modern concrete buildings that stuck in my head and first suggested that Toronto was a good and interesting place to be, and a place I would eventually move to.
I’ve been reconciling that sexy utopic image in my head with the actual Toronto since I moved here. The city with Annex’s and Little Italy’s, wooden telephone poles and bungalows. Yet it’s impossible to shake that concrete image because this entire city is filled with a remarkable amount of fantastic buildings built from the 1950s to the 1970s. Sometimes that feeling surprises me in unexpected places. Maybe a fountain in front of a 1950s apartment building on Bathurst north of the 401 or in the lobby of the first building I lived in at Yonge and St. Clair. From New City Hall to suburban library branches, we have perhaps one of the best collections of concrete buildings in North America.
A new book by Coach House and E.R.A. architects called Concrete Toronto — launching today at City Hall and in Yorkville at night — is the first major volume to celebrate what we’ve got here. These great buildings have often being overlooked or disdained in a sort of knee jerk way over the years. Thus concrete (and mid-century modernism in general) is at the same place our celebrated Victorian and Edwardian architecture was in the 1950s — at risk of being forgotten and torn down.
This book gets as close to articulating the feeling Toronto’s concrete gave when I was young and continues to give me. Something a bit utopic in a space-age sort of way sure, but more specifically it indicates a time when there was investment in cities and infrastructure in a major way. And in a daring way — some of the designs that reached fruition in Toronto belie this city’s reputation as being a conservative, boring place the last 40 or 50 years. Where did that motivaton to invest come from? Where has it gone? How can we get it back?
Concrete Toronto might help us figure that out.
I wrote about Sidney Smith Hall in Concrete Toronto, and a number of Spacing writers have contributed essays, including Graeme Stewart, one of the Editors.