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the perfect house

A new style of understanding and enjoying urban reality has recently emerged in Toronto among certain artists, architects, writers and persons without portfolio. I am thinking particularly of the circle of young people around Spacing magazine, but lone-wolf explorers of the city such as Patrick Cummins, 52, also belong to this company.

These people can be recognized by their careful gaze at what most others ignore - the clutter of sidewalk signage and graffiti, construction sites, alleys - and by their meditative interest in odd rips in the city fabric, such as vacant lots, condemned buildings and other places where the smooth skin of urban propriety has been torn or worn away. They are all walkers, and many take photographs.

But none of these urban investigators, as far as I know, has undertaken the documentation of unimportant Toronto architecture with more energy or more interesting results than Mr. Cummins.

On many weekends over the last 30 years or so - he works during the week for the Toronto Archives - Mr. Cummins has taken the TTC to a place in Toronto's downtown core, then carefully photographed the pre-war houses and stores he finds there. So far, he has created some 50,000 images of ordinary buildings. And I do mean ordinary: His subjects include shabby corner stores on residential streets, old garages in laneways, Toronto's Victorian Gothic cottages, with their sharply pitched peaks atop symmetrical facades, shopfronts on busy arterial avenues, and so on - so many instances of the vernacular picturesque. (Important buildings, Rosedale or Forest Hill mansions and such, and most things postwar, do not interest him.)

For the first 10 years of this documentary project, which began in 1978, Mr. Cummins attempted nothing more ambitious than accumulating evidence of Toronto's everyday architecture, one building at a time. This treasury of design was being speedily diminished by development, and the thousands of negatives Mr. Cummins made during this early period constituted an archive of popular heritage in danger of being forgotten forever.

But in 1988, when the photographer catalogued his collection, he got a surprise. He discovered that, while not meaning to do so, he had snapped some buildings more than once. Lining up image after image of the same address, he found that, more often than not, interesting changes had occurred in the passage of time. A very plain, tattered bungalow he had depicted in 1980, for example, had bloomed by 1988 into a Chinese shop selling firewood and offering tree removal under a jaunty sign hoisted above a large new window.

Suddenly, his storehouse of architectural documentation had taken on the character of a cultural narrative. Mr. Cummins then made up his mind to turn his accidental re-photographing into a deliberate activity. So it has gone since 1988 until the present: a systematic retracing of steps, the re-finding of buildings photographed years earlier and the making of fresh images that now tell engaging little tales of the city's ceaseless transfiguration. (The bungalow from 1980, incidentally, has gone through several more changes, the latest into a general contracting agency with a garage door where the large window once was.)

One house on Richmond Street West, we see in Mr. Cummins's pairing of images, underwent few changes between 1983 and 1998, though its porch roof became a little more dilapidated and the sapling out front grew into a full-sized tree. But continuity is an exception. More common is the kind of thing captured in pictures (1983 and 1999) of a dowdy two-storey storefront on Berkeley Street, where the former plain-faced shop has been gentrified by the addition of a florid little pediment on the roof, a fancy striped awning and landscaping.

As you might expect, Mr. Cummins often returns to the site of an earlier photograph and finds his original subject has vanished. A well-proportioned Gothic cottage found in 1988 on Kintyre Avenue - a curious building, its windows filled in and completely shrouded in what appears to be fake brick cladding - had been replaced, by 2002, by a stolid brick house. In such images, we catch glimpses of cultural memories that Toronto has lost. Not significant monuments, of course, or even instances of architectural beauty - just places that make up the ordinary fabric of the city, and hence worth remembering.

Mr. Cummins has gone about his work with an attractive modesty that matches his topics, shooting with a simple 35-millimetre camera he bought in the 1970s. The individual images, most of which are black and white, are not arty or cleverly composed. But taken together, they comprise a huge, remarkable record of urban process and of the places in which Torontonians have lived and worked. "I document the constant rewriting of the city," he says; "a work that's never done."

More of Mr. Cummins' work can be seen here.

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