More than a decade into what’s been called the urban century, Toronto has emerged as a global centre that has caught the attention of planners around the world. Despite gridlock and a scandal-plagued mayor, the city’s 24/7 downtown has attracted a sustained run of investment from commercial and residential builders, homeowners, employers, cultural institutions and research organizations.
It would be easy to assume, as many do, that Toronto’s boom is due to a mix of market forces and demographics. But the seeds of this renaissance were sown by a team of young planners in the early 1970s, chief among them Tony Coombes, an Australian-born architect whose fingerprints are all over the strategy that transformed Toronto’s stagnating core into one of North America’s most successful examples of mixed-use urbanism.
Mr. Coombes, whose career as a city builder took him to New York, Beirut and London, died June 10, 2013 at the age of 75.
After leaving Toronto’s planning department in the mid-1970s, he served as a senior adviser for Olympia & York, the Reichmann-owned development powerhouse that built New York’s World Financial Center and London’s Canary Wharf. He returned to Toronto in the early 1990s, and played a pivotal role in the creation of the tri-level agency now redeveloping the city’s waterfront.
Friends, family members and colleagues describe him as a quiet and deeply cerebral figure who never sought the limelight. He kept a quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein over his desk: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
“He was infuriatingly determined to get to the heart of any matter,” says planner Joe Berridge, who worked with Mr. Coombes at the city in the early 1970s and later in a consulting partnership.
Burton Kassell, an old friend in New York, recalls that he once asked Mr. Coombes for his advice on building a house. “Coombes said, the way to approach it was to first ask, ‘What is a house?’”
Yet Mr. Coombes also had a keen sense of aesthetics and place-making that informed both his personal style and his philosophy of city-building. “My Dad,” says his daughter Zoe, an architect, “understood beauty, understood and trusted beautiful objects, and atmospheres that exceed understanding.”
Patricia Goodwin, Mr. Coombes’ partner, says that whenever they visited a city, he’d pore over local maps before setting out on foot to explore. “Whenever you walked into a city with Tony, the first thing he’d notice was how the streets related to the buildings. He’d say, ‘this street works,’ and start talking about it.”
Anthony Christopher Coombes was born in Sydney in July 17, 1937, the younger of two children. His father, Ben, worked as a salesman for an Australian broadcaster and his mother, Enid, was a secretary. As a child, recalls Martha Shuttleworth – who was married to Mr. Coombes in the 1970s and later collaborated with him at the Neptis Foundation, a regional-planning think tank – he showed artistic ability, once painting a Madonna that was sold in a local gallery.
His parents sent him to a Jesuit high school. Mr. Kassell recalls that he disliked the institution, and would later recount with pleasure how he once managed to “corner” one of the priests in a debate.
Although his father wanted Tony to learn a trade, he obtained a degree in architecture at the University of Sydney. There, he gravitated towards a left-leaning intellectual salon whose members met in pubs and called themselves “the Sydney Push.” The group included art critic Robert Hughes and feminist Germaine Greer.
After he graduated, Mr. Coombes moved to Britain. But Ms. Shuttleworth says he so detested the rigidity of the British class system that he soon relocated to Stockholm, where he worked briefly in an architectural practice before enrolling in the graduate planning program at Columbia University.
New York, at the time, was ground zero in the epic battle between modernist planners and a populist movement, led by Jane Jacobs, to protect working-class neighbourhoods threatened with demolition.
In the midst of that tumult, Ms. Jacobs moved to Toronto, where a similar version of the same conflict was playing out with fights over the Spadina Expressway. In 1972, reformists led by David Crombie took control of city hall, and moved to ice plans to raze older neighbourhoods in favour of slab high rises.
Mr. Crombie knew he needed to completely rewire the city’s zoning rules and hustled to assemble a team of ambitious planners to create land-use policies that would encourage people to both live and work downtown – a radical notion.
Follow us on Twitter: