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Scarborough Town Centre‘s iconic balloons were removed during renovations.
Scarborough Town Centre‘s iconic balloons were removed during renovations.

The shopping mall - hallmark of my youth - turns 60 Add to ...

I don’t know when I first visited Scarborough Town Centre, but it was well before my family’s move to the then-borough of Scarborough in 1980. What I do remember vividly, however, was the cluster of Easter-egg-coloured hot-air balloons that gently rose and fell, rose and fell, like a giant Dr. Seuss-inspired metronome. I was mesmerized, and, over the next 30 years, I’d be sure to catch their reliable dance when I was in the neighbourhood.

The balloons were a landmark for me – a push-pin on my mental map of the city – and when they were removed during a recent renovation, I felt a small sense of loss.

Ask 10 friends to name a city landmark and you’ll most likely get something architectural (i.e. manufactured rather than natural), something large and outside. Perhaps that’s why there was no “Save the STC Balloons” group on Facebook: We don’t see interior elements as preservation-worthy because they’re not available to the passerby. More likely, when it comes to shopping malls it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to once-a-decade renovations to appease the fickle consumer.

This year, the enclosed shopping mall celebrates its 60th birthday. Vienna-born, Los Angeles-based architect Victor Gruen is credited with their invention in a 1952 article for Progressive Architecture, and then for designing the very first one shortly afterward, Southdale, which opened in Edina, Minn., in 1956.

Interestingly, Mr. Gruen always intended for his new architectural form to house landmarks. Writing in The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger notes that he “wanted these places to be civic centres as much as commercial ones, with day-cares, libraries, post offices, community halls and public art.” They would be “for suburbia what the public square was to old European cities.” (She also adds that he never intended to kill downtown mom-and-pop shops, either, but that’s another story.)

So, armed with this knowledge, I decided to survey which landmarks remained within the halls of the memorable malls of my youth.

In a 2007 column, I mentioned how little remained of the most significant mall of my childhood, Shopper’s World Danforth, after it was gobbled up by Zellers in the 1990s, so we’ll travel six kilometres to the south-west to Gerrard Square. Here, too, a massive renovation has wiped out most of what I remember; I had every intention of photographing the one thing that did remain – a sign over the building’s less-travelled north entrance spelling out the mall’s name in a very Battlestar Galactica font – but in the course of writing this column, it was replaced!

And speaking of distinctive typography, another mall I frequented in the 1970s was the Toronto-Dominion Centre; although we didn’t live downtown, my weekly allergy injections at Bay and Bloor were an excuse to explore the core. What struck me, even then, was how all retailers – including the movie theatre! – used the same font on their signs. Later, when I learned more about architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, I discovered this was a manifestation of his rigid design vocabulary, much like the yellow daisies in clear fishbowl vases on the counters of the banking pavilion, which TD faithfully continues to set out. Today, only two white-on-black signs remain (Laura and Bowring) but they’re worth a peek if you’re in the area; in a perfect world, these holdouts would be designated as heritage elements within the complex so they would always remind us of what was. Likewise, when the Eaton Centre opened in 1977 it was another destination. While today it’s easy to look up and see two familiar items – sculptor Michael Snow’s fibreglass flock, Flight Stop, against the backdrop of architect Eb Zeidler’s soaring glass roof – a look down proves problematic. As part of a recent refreshment, the original, curved pipe handrails and the terrazzo tile and pebbled floor surfaces have all been removed. Since the Eaton Centre was a custom one-off, this is akin to replacing the buttons on a hand-tailored suit with big red clown buttons: Sure, they do the job, but do they look right? Reacting in March, 2011, architect Ty Farrow and colleague Sharon Vanderkaay wrote in Built Heritage News: “Would citizens of Paris condone a facelift of the decorative grillwork of the Eiffel Tower? Or replacement of their art nouveau subway entrances with an updated structure?” Toward the end of their passionate plea, they ask why “designs of a hundred years old or more be preserved, while modern architecture is routinely being destroyed?”

Moving into my teens, I spent more time at Eglinton Square, especially when I landed my first job at the library in 1984. Today, the building still has the round terrazzo fountain (which converts to Santa’s home in December) near stalwart Watts’ Restaurant and the open stair to the rooftop-parking garage. And speaking of the parking garage, cars still enter and exit via two curved, floating Jetsons ramps outside (while not an indoor landmark, it’s noteworthy since it’s still in operation and very groovy).

While I never spent that much time at Toronto’s first enclosed mall, Yorkdale, the only artifact I can find from the mid-1960s is the “stalactite” ceiling, which was part of a much larger architectural composition that made up the Simpson’s forecourt (now the Bay).

Since retail and heritage make for strange bedfellows, I think I’ll be consulting my mental map more and more.

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