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A Toronto that might have been Add to ...

If things had worked out as planned, Torontonians might now be wrapping up the year-long celebration of our first centenary in the business of tunnelling subways. It was back in 1911, after all, that the city invited bids on the construction of its very first underground railway, slated to run up Bay and Yonge Streets from Front Street to St. Clair Avenue.

The bold scheme was squashed in 1912, when municipal voters refused to authorize the $5.4-million expenditure.

If high-rise engineer John Maryon had seen his dream come true, many Torontonians might be working or living in one of the tallest buildings on earth. Mr. Maryon’s slender modernist skyscraper, announced with much fanfare in 1971 for a site near the corner of College Street and Yonge Street, would have topped out at 140 storeys, a world record for height at the time.

A few days after the launch, however, the visionary project was scotched by the Eaton family, owners of the site, who said they hadn’t heard a thing about it.

Had the subway or the tower been realized, we would today have a city different from the one that actually came to pass. This difference, illustrated by these and numerous other examples, is the theme of Mark Osbaldeston’s fine new portfolio Unbuilt Toronto 2: More of the City That Might Have Been (Dundurn, $26.99).

As thoroughly researched and fluently written as the original Unbuilt Toronto album that the lawyer and lay historian published in 2008, Mr. Osbaldeston’s fresh compendium of history, lore and imagery is enough to make the reader weep or cheer, depending on his or her taste in architecture and urban design.

Take, for instance, the civic building drawn off by the London-educated Toronto newcomer John Howard in 1834 (when he was just 31) for a King Street location west of St. James’ Cathedral. Had it been translated into brick and plaster, Mr. Howard’s design would have produced an immense neo-classical heap of pedimented façades, symmetrical wings, a high attic and a great ornamented portico.

Architectural historian Eric Arthur hated the building, and dismissed it (in his landmark book /Toronto, No Mean City/) as a “grandiose” embodiment of nineteenth-century classical revivalism’s worst excesses. For his part, Mr. Osbaldeston regards it as something “better-suited to the imperial capital where he had trained than to the colonial outpost where he was now practising.”

I disagree with both authors. Mr. Howard, I think, wanted to anchor Toronto’s urban psyche and form in a classical idiom that, to his patriotic mind, eloquently represented the values of the British Enlightenment in revolutionary North America. Had it been constructed, the building would have become the centrepiece in a large, central public space of the kind woefully missing in the eighteenth-century layout of Toronto--and absent thereafter, until the creation of Nathan Phillips Square.

This disagreement is not a criticism of Unbuilt Toronto 2, by the way. In fact, the best thing about this book (apart from the fascinating pictures and stories its author has dug up out of the archives) is the power of Mr. Osbaldeston’s examples to provoke thought and strong opinions.

Few readers will be unmoved by the tale, well-told here, of the salvation of Fort York from destruction by the Gardiner Expressway during the post-war urban highway-building boom. We came within a whisker of losing this important piece of Toronto history, and certainly would have lost it, had not some very stubborn, public-spirited citizens come to its rescue. Until the day arrives when city politicians no longer feel free to push their oversized whims on Toronto--as Metro chairman Frederick (“Big Daddy”) Gardiner tried to do in the 1950s, as councillor Doug Ford tried to do more recently--the Fort York episode will be a good lesson for us all in civic gumption and what can be accomplished by outspoken people who cherish the city’s built heritage.

Flipping through these pages, some readers will likely feel sorry that Toronto didn’t get Chicago architect Daniel Burnham’s beautiful 1912 proposal for Eaton’s flagship store, but glad that all the home-grown plans for the CBC’s big broadcasting centre on Front Street West came to nothing. (U.S. architect Philip Johnson’s postmodern CBC building isn’t perfect, but it sure beats the competition.) I, for one, regret that the 1993 conversion of the industrial silos at the foot of Bathurst Street into a music facility never got off the drawing board, but I’m mightily relieved that none of the proposed designs for the Toronto Dominion Centre, except the magnificent one by Mies van der Rohe, was dropped into the city’s core.

Nobody studying Mr. Osbaldeston’s book, I suspect, will come away from it feeling neutral. I can’t imagine a Torontonian who would be completely unimpressed, for example, by that 140-storey skyscraper John Maryon dreamed up in 1971. People who share the widespread Hogtown hostility toward tall buildings will surely thank their lucky stars this monster never happened. Those of us who find the idea of high-rises interesting and exciting, on the other hand, may decide that Toronto missed out on a grand experiment in engineering and design. The most alert reader of this book, however, will avoid knee-jerk reactions in either direction, and welcome all the projects featured here as occasions for thinking anew about the Toronto we didn’t get, the city we did, and the one we want.

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