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1920s house, Bromley, Kent. Photo courtesy Prestel. (Prestel)
1920s house, Bromley, Kent. Photo courtesy Prestel. (Prestel)

A guidebook to the built environment Add to ...

If you like to look at old Toronto houses, but haven't gotten around to figuring out the difference between an oriel and a mullion, Philippa Lewis's House: British Domestic Architecture (Prestel, $38.49) may be the book you've been waiting for.

Most residences built in downtown Toronto before 1945 were shaped by British originals and British cultural ideas, so a great many of 600 doors, windows, gables, pediments, wall-treatments and so on in this short architectural encyclopedia will seem quite familiar to Hogtown house-spotters. I wish I could recommend a systematic field guide to the fixtures and ornaments and materials of elderly Toronto houses that has the verve of Ms. Lewis's book. I can't, because I haven't found one. I hope that some day a Toronto fan of our residential architecture will produce such a work.

When that glad day comes, Ms. Lewis's House could serve as a model for what I have in mind.

It is pitched to the beginner and curious amateur, not the expert or professional. It is an entertainment for a cultivated aficionado, not a treatise for a scholar.

Though her examples are drawn from across 500 years of British building history, Ms. Lewis's book is not a style manual. (The introduction provides a potted outline of stylistic development in Britain that is far too sketchy to be really useful.) Rather, the author concentrates on the elements of human habitation that remain ever the same - we will always have windows and doors and roofs - but that are continually changing in appearance according to the evolving tastes of clients and architects and pundits, and the technologies of construction.

Into her 192 pages, the author has packed a large amount of alphabetically organized visual and historical information about British housing types (the cottage, the manor house, the vicarage, the apartment block and so forth) and building materials, from brick and stone to glass and terra cotta and iron. She has written brief illustrated essays on boundaries (hedges, fences, walls), on stone carving, drainpipes and the quaint structural treatment that North Americans call half-timbering.

She goes into greater detail than usual about some common features, such as the door and the window. (But I regret that she has rechristened as simply "Venetian" the immensely popular classical window-form - a round-headed opening flanked by two rectangular apertures - that I've always called "Palladian.")

Reading through Ms. Lewis's interesting entries, I was occasionally struck by a wish that Toronto's builders in the 19th and early-20th centuries had adhered more closely to the models available to them in the British homeland.

We have a few instances of terrace housing that have survived from Victorian times, to take one example, and we have some notable contemporary terraces that are cast in modernist idioms; but not nearly enough of either. Ms. Lewis reminds us that the prototype for such distinctively urban residential design was John Wood's 1728 multi-unit project for Bath. In this one architectural gesture, Wood got something exactly right: The terrace became the best scheme for injecting high population densities into urban cores before the tall apartment building.

As could some day happen to Toronto's 21st century apartment towers, British terraces eventually fell out of public favour due to the poor material quality, shoddy maintenance, and over-crowding of many of them. Terrace housing was a good idea with practical applications that turned out to be bad - but it was, and is, a very good idea indeed, deserving the attention of architects and urban designers seeking humane ways to intensify the downtown districts and slow the spread of suburbia.

Another of Ms. Lewis's intriguing entries has to do with conversions of non-residential buildings into housing. As the reader discovers here, British developers and designers have been busily overhauling and repurposing obsolete structures for residential use (including schools, churches, railway stations and farm buildings, and even shipping containers) since the mid-19th century.

But the author breaks off her essay just at the point when we find ourselves wanting some value judgments. Were these conversions durable? Were they attractive? Sound? Given the British experience, should we be hopeful about the verdict of future generations on the transformations that have swept through many of Toronto's old industrial and commercial structures during the past several years?

In this matter, as in others, House stops short of giving us what we want. That said, this little book is a handy first companion for understanding the historical fabric of the British and Anglo-Canadian built environment.

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