Starchitects are like Prometheus - they steal the fire. They steal the fire away from the neighbourhoods where people reside, where houses and retail shops regularly suffer nasty design overhauls, and where, after years of architectural exaltation in the world's metropolises, people should know better. Is it a problem of access? In the ancient myth, the fire is delivered to all mortals. These days, the joys of architectural enlightenment end up in the hands of a particular group of mortals: elite downtowners, who toil in the gleaming office towers and attend the heart-stopping art galleries and concert halls by day or night. Walk around your neighbourhood and tell me what you think. In the Beaches where I live in the east end of Toronto, there's an ongoing, disconcerting bungling of architecture and wrecking of historic jewels. It's as if well-crafted, intelligent and daring architecture only belongs to a 10-block downtown zone - not to where the regular people live. To see the really good stuff you need to head downtown, or travel abroad.
The Promethean architects produce mesmerizing buildings wrapped in skins of glass stretched over complex curved timbers, in chameleon-like titanium, in countless sheets of aluminum, the way that Prometheus hid his fire within the hollow stalk of a fennel plant. Downtown, an institution rebrands itself by flaunting a contemporary, technologically driven skin. Compare that to what goes down in the neighbourhoods, such as the routine use of cheap, sprayed-on stucco to sterilize the aesthetic of new residential houses and apartment buildings. Consider the residential additions typical of our neighbourhoods where existing houses are greedily expanded to become overscaled Sumo wrestlers on narrow streets. Compare the rude hip checks delivered by residential developers working without a dedicated architect to the sensitivity with which the historic, ruddy-faced Royal Conservatory of Music has been seamlessly reinvented by Toronto talent Marianne McKenna of KPMB Architects to allow for fresh dialogues in stone and wood graced with newly discovered natural light.
My neighbourhood spreads north from the sandy beaches of Lake Ontario, offering a cacophony of semi-detached houses, fourplexes and both imposing and modest single homes on tree-lined streets. The century-old density has created a neighbourhood for walking along the streets, the boardwalk and through the parks. There's a fine convergence of nature and urbanity, which might help to explain a tight community of friends regularly meeting up at the coffee houses, the school playgrounds and the ice-cream parlours. Several hundred of us assembled at the Balmy Beach Club at the edge of the lake to cheer and sweat through the Canada-U.S. Olympic hockey game. For inspiring that feeling of sustained camaraderie, I'd rank it one of the best neighbourhoods in the world.
My neighbourhood is the kind where people sit with architecture while kicking back on Saturday morning at a local café; it's where architecture is observed while people stand waiting for the streetcar on Queen Street; it's the stuff they walk by while taking the dog for a walk or chaperoning their kids to school. Architecture captures the attention of passersby. It fills up the eyes, and conversation.
But if Toronto has just experienced a so-called cultural renaissance, why isn't more architectural sophistication showing up on the streets of my 'hood? Why can't people feel the vibrations from the architectural lodestones being built downtown?
I wondered this while stopped with my dog in front of "Virginia," the stately residence originally built in the Edwardian classical style at 11 Munro Park Ave. People in the Beaches have swooned over the romance of the house and its cornerstone inscribed in cursive script to the wife of the Swiss cloth merchant Ernest Brupbacher. The house, designed with subtle asymmetry and beautifully proportioned living rooms, featured a discreet side entrance, a simple, columned veranda and generous bay windows overlooking a gracious street. The delicate mullioned panes of glass in the back garden room made it one of the most romantic rooms from which to gaze at the lake. In less than a year, however, the house has been sold and irrevocably destroyed. I hope that the previous owners have truly moved far away. Virginia has been gutted and thoroughly dissected. All of the wood-lined rooms have been ripped apart, the window openings blown open. A clunky, multi-arched room is currently, unforgivably, being added to the front, another up on top. Bizarrely, without any reference to the original historic lines, a major peaked addition now looms over the back of the house. In short, it's like an architectural cyclone has taken place.
Another foible-under-construction occurs on another coveted Beaches street: Balsam Avenue. In this location, a grand three-storey clapboard house with double verandas belonging to an earlier era of lakeside fairs and summertime hotels has been deemed too small to be livable. The house was originally the site of the neighbourhood's first lawn-bowling green and is a couple doors down from the grand home originally owned by R.C. Harris, Toronto's powerful public works chief, and the force behind the magisterial R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant.) To the chagrin of many of the neighbours, and despite a temporary stop-work order, additions are now proceeding on both sides of the already large house. A garage previously built at the back of the property is being replaced by a bigger garage located suburban-style closer to the street. The additions skim both the north and south property lines, blocking light and views down the street with new walls of construction. It boggles the mind that a building permit was granted. Another grande dame has been knocked out by a gorilla.
Some property owners - and they exist in every neighbourhood - consider it their right to build what they want, how they want. That's absolutely right, but only if they own 100 acres on which to erect their own private eyesore.
When you move into a neighbourhood, you sign on to be part of a small continent. There are responsibilities that come with belonging, and there are also ways to declare that you'd rather operate as an island and the rest of you be damned. I know of a folly of a house in the Beaches that's been under construction for about a decade. Nice piece of advance planning. Another more grievous, more visible project is the one that has destroyed a perfectly charming turreted Victorian building on Queen Street East in the heart of the Beaches. Once upon a time, there was talk of a martini bar going into the renovated space. That was two years ago. A bargain-basement addition with aluminum windows and dark orange stucco has been constructed to the rear of the building. The city put a stop-work order on the project after inappropriate cladding was thrown up on the front. Instead of a martini bar, the Beaches has acquired architectural junk.
Enough said. To grow in complexity, a city must intensify and densify. For those who want to build, the responsibility to do so with grace and integrity must be assumed seriously. Build out of a desire for greatness, not greed. Steal the fire back from the Promethean architects who lord over the downtown. Ignite something that will burn bright for a long time in your beloved neighbourhood.