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At risk are buildings that embody the potent mixture of architectural idealism and clear-eyed realism abroad in North America’s urban planning circles immediately after the Second World War (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
At risk are buildings that embody the potent mixture of architectural idealism and clear-eyed realism abroad in North America’s urban planning circles immediately after the Second World War (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Some thoughts on how to recycle Regent Park’s towers Add to ...

A few weeks ago, I invited readers to send in their proposals for repurposing one or more of architect Peter Dickinson’s Modernist residential towers in Regent Park. There was and is some urgency about this matter.

At risk are buildings that embody the potent mixture of architectural idealism and clear-eyed realism abroad in North America’s urban planning circles immediately after the Second World War. Toronto Community Housing, the landlord, has already demolished two of the five original Dickinson highrises, and, before this year is out, they will seek permission to level the remaining three. The public agency, which is currently supervising the $1-billion transformation of Regent Park from a social housing complex into a more varied development, insists the surviving towers are all beyond redemption.

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Among the numerous Torontonians who disagree with TCH’s decision to send in the bulldozers are the dozen or so designers, modernism-friendly preservationists and citizens without portfolio who responded to my invitation. None of their schemes is utterly fantastical, and each advances a practical argument against TCH’s claims to know what’s best.

Take, for example, the agency’s contention that the buildings, one of which is at 14 Blevins Place, cannot be freshened up and recycled as market-priced housing.

Not so, according to Toronto architect John van Nostrand, who writes: “In 2004, when Pat Hanson and I were partners working together in architectsAlliance, Pat prepared a detailed study of the current condition and cost of restoring 14 Blevins for residential purposes. … This study – which indicated that renovating and reoccupying the building as a residence was financially feasible – suggests that this building can be ‘adaptively re-used’ on an affordable basis.”

Mr. Dickinson’s spacious, two-storey apartments, Mr. van Nostrand’s message indicates, can be put back into service, perhaps not as high-priced condos, but surely as housing elements somewhere on the new Regent Park’s price spectrum.

But TCH’s inclination to knock down the towers is not merely motivated by a concern with the bottom line. When I toured 14 Blevins several years ago, my TCH guide told me the building (like the rest of Regent Park’s physical fabric) was branded with a “stigma” brought down upon it by its association with severe urban poverty, violence and other social ills. Nothing could bleach this stain from the architecture, I was told, so the buildings had to be swept away entirely.

In the 1970s, landscape architect Walter Kehm spent a year talking with Regent Park residents before producing a parks and recreation master plan for the neighbourhood – a blueprint that was eventually implemented. Today, he finds nothing wrong with the physical design of the place, but plenty wrong with the social and political follow-through needed to make the architecture work properly.

“In essence,” Mr. Kehm wrote me, “Peter Dickinson’s brave social experiment was to demonstrate that large families could live humanely in highrise apartments. People of modest incomes tended to have more children and these units were designed to meet their needs. … There is no reason why these units cannot be retained as family living spaces. There is a requirement, however, for greater social assistance and cultural understanding and adaptation. People working with people is the key to success. It is not a matter of more physical interventions, but rather a determined effort to spend money and provide caring human resources. … The future of Blevins Place apartments? Certainly they should be saved and renovated as required. The new physical introductions would see the ground floor units reconfigured as social, cultural and recreation areas with a strong indoor/outdoor relationship created with the core central plaza.”

Not every reply to my invitation limited the future of 14 Blevins and its companions to long-term residential uses. Inspired by the partial conversion of Le Corbusier’s famous Unité d’Habitation housing block in Marseilles (1947-1952) – a building that also inspired Mr. Dickinson – one reader suggested that 14 Blevins be turned into a hotel. Another saw it as a multilevel farmers’ market, trafficking in produce and flowers grown in the gardens of Regent Park. (As far as agriculture is concerned, why not turn the whole tower into an electrified vertical farm?)

By far the most detailed non-residential proposal I received, however, came from John Hill, who would use 14 Blevins as the headquarters of what he calls the “Toronto Urban Settlement Design Centre.” This combination of museum, school, workshop and research institute would examine and celebrate “the Regent Park story” and “the wider history of Toronto settlements, and the vibrant public policy debates which these have engendered.”

Mr. Hill’s scheme is a welcome rebuke to TCH’s determination to erase from the city’s memory Regent Park’s history between 1945 and now, and every architectural trace of its historic existence. This must not be allowed to happen. I appreciate all those who wrote to me, not just because they share my interest in sparing an old building, but chiefly because each of them wants to preserve a piece of Toronto’s imaginative landscape that is in danger of being lost forever.

 

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