Architectural Observations of the City of Toronto in 2022
There is an abundance of opinions about what architecture should embody in today’s environment in 2022. Architecture is always a reflection of the times that relate to both local and global affairs. There is a high degree of turmoil around the world that has negatively impacted most economies. Rogue nations such as Russia continue to wage war on their neighbour with economic hardship being one of the major fallouts around the world, not to mention the devastation to Ukraine. Fires in California and British Columbia, hurricanes in Florida and flooding in India are ample demonstration that climate change must be addressed, and quickly. The pandemic among other things has created massive supply chain issues and labour shortages that have fuelled inflation.
This is the world that we now live in and where we continue to build despite the numerous challenges being faced. There are those that continue to believe that architecture should have some artistic merit to be classified as architecture. However, in challenging economic times the artistic characteristics of a building can be somewhat forgotten and replaced almost exclusively with utility and economic feasibility. Others believe that sustainable architecture is what is important today to address climate change realities. It is important when designing buildings to minimize the consumption of fossil fuels throughout all phases of a building, which will contribute to the reduction in its carbon footprint.
If we focus on downtown Toronto, turning a profit has been the driving force behind private sector building projects. Neither artistic merit nor the creation of dynamic urban spaces has been anywhere close to the top of the list of priorities. Condominium development has been the dominant building type in downtown Toronto for the past 30 years. It seems that turning a profit in architecture often means providing more of the same. Unfortunately, more of the same often means a mundane and boring built environment. There are other negative impacts from these developments including a loss of sunlight at street level given the outlandish height of new condominiums, a loss of most small-scale buildings in the city core and significant traffic congestion. The major aesthetic complaint is, for the most part, each storey is repetitive, and they all look the same with rare exceptions.
Who is responsible for this mess? The blame is widespread. Certainly, an apathetic public is a key problem. To combat insensitive development, you need a knowledgeable, organized and committed public with a clear vision of what a city should be. There really is no unified public voice in Toronto that advocates for a livable and dynamic city. This would not happen in any major European city because residents have a vision for what they want in a city - this vision is lacking in Toronto. Our politicians lack knowledge about architecture and urban planning; they eventually succumb to developers' wishes. Although politicians claim that they keep developers in check, the truth is that developers rule the day. The architectural community has also failed by being a partner with developers in creating numerous large and unattractive buildings.
There are university buildings and corporate high rises that do contribute to the streetscape and provide visual interest. Both the University of Toronto (Myhal Centre for Engineering, Innovation and Entrepreneurship School of Continuing Studies and the Terrence Donnelly Building Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research) and Toronto Metropolitan University (Sharon and Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre) have some world class buildings. The new Bank of Commerce building on Bay Street is one of the few innovative downtown towers with its diamond shaped façade that provides terrific reflections throughout the day. These buildings have thoughtful exterior façade selections and a high level of detail in terms of how materials interconnect and coexist with one another.
Is there any hope for the future? The public is now seeing the results of unchecked development of condominium development in the core. There is hope that there will be more public debate about how to improve developments going forward. The only way developers will improve the quality of architecture they provide is if the buying public shows a preference for high quality design. Public discourse about the quality of the built environment is the only way that the public will become more knowledgeable and more demanding; expecting politicians to lead the way will not happen. Architects can certainly play a role by pushing clients and the public to understand the merits of good design.