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john bentley mays

When will Toronto allow itself to have a good, old-fashioned fight about architecture? Judging from the current level of public architectural argument, the answer is never.

Well, almost never. Every so often, a citizens' group gets up in arms about something, usually a tall building proposed for a low-rise part of the city. These little explosions of displeasure generate heat, which is a good thing, but rarely raise the dialogue beyond the local issue at hand, and take us into a discussion about the larger questions of what kind of city we need and want.

Apart from these occasional outbursts and protests, controversy is thin on the ground in Toronto. Why?

One reason is a superstition widespread among local architects.

According to this opinion, members of the Ontario Association of Architects, the legally constituted body that oversees the province's architectural profession, are forbidden to criticize the work of their colleagues in public.

I find nothing in the statute or body of regulations governing the OAA that supports this view. The provincial statute under which the OAA functions does indeed proscribe "conduct or an act relevant to the practice of architecture that, having regard to all of the circumstances, would reasonably be regarded by members of the Association as disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional."

This is obviously a good general rule. But it's quite a stretch to assume (as too many architects apparently do) that this law muzzles well-reasoned public argument and criticism, which is essential for determining civic and creative goals in an open society and finding ways to achieve them. We certainly need to be hearing much more criticism of the city and the buildings in it from architects, and there's no basis in law, as far as I can tell, why we shouldn't.

Another reason, more subtle this time, is a certain reticence that seems to go deep, like a bad stain, in our urban fabric.

Occasionally, however, this self-serving mask of timidity falls away, with delightful results.

Some time ago, to take one example, there was a Toronto public forum at which Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne spoke about his first project in the city, called Graduate House, a student residence at the University of Toronto. At the end of Mr. Mayne's address, some local critics and designers were called upon to respond. Surely the most memorable remarks of the afternoon came from Toronto architect A.J. Diamond, who ripped into Graduate House in vivid terms.

Talking with architects and university academics after the event, I found that some thought Mr. Diamond "impolite," "rude," even "uncivil." He had been nothing of the sort. While I didn't agree with half the things he said, Mr. Diamond's unsparing commentary transformed what could have been an insincere love-in for Mr. Mayne - many observers at the time didn't like Graduate House, but were hesitant to speak out or had no arena in which to do so - into a contentious and altogether useful conversation about an important building. If that's incivility, then we need a lot more of it.

But we also need, even more, larger and more numerous public forums in which Toronto architecture's present state and future prospects can be thrashed out.

Here are my nominations of a few people who could make that happen.

Adam Vaughan, city councillor for Trinity-Spadina, is taking an informed interest in what's being built in Toronto; so is councillor Kyle Rae (Toronto Centre-Rosedale). It's time for these architecturally savvy politicians to press the city to open up new spaces for the conversation: Not new buildings - we've certainly got enough venues - but new opportunities for people to gather, talk and, if it comes to that, knock heads over recent and new construction.

Richard Sommer, the new dean of architecture at the University of Toronto, has a role to play in broadening and strengthening the university's engagement with its city. This could be done by sponsoring more frequent and more widely publicized intellectual rodeos meant to inspire controversy: public confrontations, for instance, between developers and architects, citizen activists and urban planners.

Finally, financier Gary Berman and other organizers of the annual Pug Awards should go beyond their after-school programs for students and launch a series of lively adult discussions aimed at educating the public about what's right and wrong with this city's architecture, which is, after all, what the Pug Awards are all about.

Toronto has nothing to fear from such critical discourse and confrontation, and a great deal to learn.

jmays@globeandmail,com