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A reverence for the old that stymies the new Add to ...

Toronto's mood swings with regard to its architectural heritage have long been extreme.

In the years immediately after the Second World War, nobody much cared when some old building was knocked down. Whole Victorian districts were bulldozed to make way for social housing and apartment towers. And as recently as the 1970s, Toronto even gave serious thought to destroying Union Station and our gruffly Romanesque Old City Hall.

For many good reasons, this kind of reckless erasure is unthinkable today. But over the last few decades, Torontonians have speedily gone from flagrant contempt for our pre-war building stock to obsession with it. Every Victorian brick and plank, every beaux arts and art deco façade, is now viewed as holy by planners, citizens' groups, and even developers - however artistically or structurally worthless it may be. A new building in an old neighbourhood is always expected by the urban designers at city hall to nod politely to the historic fabric around it - even when that fabric is indifferent or downright awful.

This new public attitude of unquestioning reverence for everything old is bad for architecture, because it thwarts the free imagination of contemporary designers. And it's bad for the city, because it means that the architects designing for Toronto are too often asked to look backward for inspiration, into Toronto's deeply provincial creative culture of the past, instead of opening toward the cosmopolitan future where this city's destiny surely lies.

Two towers, both proposed for the urban core and both designed by Toronto architect Rudy Wallman, serve as cautionary examples of what I'm talking about.

The 21-storey Post House, developed by Alterra Group, is scheduled to go up at 105 George St., near Toronto's original 1793 townsite. Almost all the Georgian buildings in the area were swept away by Victorian and later industrial development, but one instance, the sturdy neoclassical Bank of Upper Canada (1825-1827), has survived near the Post House site. Some other three-storey structures, perhaps from the 1870s (though they could be earlier), stand along George Street just south of the condo location.

Mr. Wallman's scheme is basically a union of two glassy condominium blocks, one a little shorter than the other, outfitted with balconies. Tall metal elements, widely dispersed and affixed to the balcony fronts, provide vertical accents on the façades. If Post House were no more than that, it would be a fairly straightforward piece of tall-building infill, along the lines of many other condo projects sprouting up across downtown Toronto.

But the architect has chosen to insert into his plan one of those annoying, obligatory historical references I complained about above. It is an entry pavilion, the height of which has been determined by the cornice line of the adjacent Victorians. This little curtsey to the utterly unimportant buildings that stand alongside the tower - performed for no artistic reason I can make out - spoils the coherence of Mr. Wallman's otherwise modernist design.

The second of Mr. Wallman's two new towers is called Tableau, and is set to rise at the intersection of Peter Street and Richmond Street West, in the old warehouse and garment-making zone just east of Spadina Avenue. This 36-storey mixed-use structure is being developed by Urban Capital.

Like Post House, Tableau is essentially a tall modern condominium building, though the edifices are different in detail. The tower portion of Tableau will sit atop a massive colonnaded podium, four storeys in height, that shelters a plaza and a large abstract sculpture - it looks like a fistful of green pick-up sticks - by artist Shayne Dark. While the podium may seem ponderous and overbearing after it is built out, this element has the virtue of opening up public space in a congested neighbourhood.

Yet in the Tableau scheme, as in the Post House plan, the heavy hand of history shows itself. In this case, it takes the form of an inconsequential warehouse façade that will be incorporated into the building's west face.

If the warehouse were important in the architectural story of Toronto - it isn't - the city should have withheld permission to build on its site. But if the warehouse has outlived its usefulness, as it apparently has, and the city believes a modern 36-storey tower is desirable on the corner it occupies, then the old structure should be demolished. Either option would be preferable to the fate now being planned for it: to become the ghostly image of a dead building attached to a work of living architecture. This is preservationism run amok.

 

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