Already, a cold April rain had pelted the city for 24 hours. That morning, a temperature dip had turned those drops into razor-sharp ice pellets. The sky the colour of a battleship, the sun a memory, Southern Ontario drivers and pedestrians had been warned to stay indoors; hopefully, ice-caked power lines wouldn’t come down to steal precious electricity.
It was the perfect day to go hardcore and take in Toronto’s Brutalist architecture, that oft-maligned sub-genre of Modernism that celebrates raw concrete.
Donning parkas, anti-slip boots and take-out coffee, the Architourist and his spouse spread the hot-off-the-presses Concrete Toronto Map over the steering wheel. While both were aware of many of the buildings featured – the CN Tower, Uno Prii’s Jane-Exbury towers, Robarts Library and Scarborough College – there were others that didn’t come immediately to mind.
“I’ll stay here in case the parking guy comes along,” said Shauntelle as the Architourist opened the door to allow tiny, sideways-flying ice balls to pepper the dashboard. Stepping out to take in the towering, 43-storey Sheraton Centre (John B. Parkin Associates, 1972), sidewalk footing was still somewhat solid despite the pedestrian pantomime of walking on wet glass. While it’s hard to believe today, period newspaper reports stressed that the architects had made great efforts to build a complementary structure to Viljo Revell’s 1958 competition-winning masterpiece, New City Hall (matters of scale weren’t important to the Brutalists, which is totally hardcore), but, other than the raked concrete walls, there wasn’t much supportive evidence.
Driving past the Hilton (also on the map), the duo turned north onto University. At Elm Street, the pair found parking a block away from the Industrial Alliance building (built as National Life, John B. Parkin, 1974) but, although they’d driven by this background building a thousand times, it warranted a closer look.
“I’ll just take it in from here,” Shauntelle said through a tiny crack in the window as the Architourist leaned onto the hood for stability and waited for the traffic light to change.
“Would you look at those massive, flared columns?” he shouted against the wind. She nodded vigourously before looking back down at her Facebook feed.
East along Elm Street one of Estonian-born architect Uno Prii’s most controversial projects, the Alan Brown Building, awaited; some wags have labelled it “The Nightmare on Elm Street,” while others have held it up as an excellent example of the expressive uses of concrete. “There’s this one spot you can stand and you don’t even know what you’re looking at,” the Architourist said excitedly as he shifted the car into park. “Let’s go!”
“Oh, I know the spot,” she replied, “but I just got a work text I have to take care of.”
The Polish Combatants Building on Beverley Street (Wieslaw Wodkiewicz, 1973) was valiantly fighting off invading ice-sheets as the couple pulled over. Intimate and low-rise, the Architourist commented that he’d often fantasized that this sturdy, squat building would make for one heck of a hardcore Brutalist home, just like the only, actual, single-family home on the map, “House on Ardwold Gate,” which there wasn’t time to see.
“Mmm-hmm, look at all the sheltered parking underneath the building,” Shauntelle said longingly as she watched the Architourist get out to take photographs.
Close to busy Bloor St., it was difficult to find parking, so in order to inspect Fairfield & Dubois’ Central Tech Art Centre (1962) Shauntelle stayed behind and hit the four-way flashers as the Architourist marvelled at the geometric-patterned walls. Similarly, as passersby focused on their footing in front of the OISE Building on Bloor (Ontario Studies in Education, K.R. Cooper, 1969), the Architourist noted how the triangular forms around the upper windows recalled the Pearson International-adjacent Regal Constellation Hotel (now demolished) while his own co-pilot stayed behind.
Heading south, the couple wasn’t sure if they could remember what the University of Toronto’s John M. Kelly Library looked like. With increasing fog and precipitation, it wasn’t until they were upon it that the Architourist said: “Oh, yeah, I know this one! There’s a great sculpture out front – you know, by that guy who does all the rotund businessmen? – that you should come out and see.”
“Oh, yeah, big fan,” she said as she stayed in the car.
After photographing the Kelly’s prominent window brows and squinting at William McElcheran’s sculpture between waves of pellets, the Architourist decided to finish the tour with the only building on the map that features more brick than concrete, the former Sears Canada headquarters on Jarvis Street. (Maxwell Miller, 1971). Its thick base, inverted pyramid shape and slit windows, however, make up for its dainty use of masonry, he thought, as he stepped into thick slush and gave himself a soaker.
As he climbed back into the warm and toasty car, he reminded his wife of the lunch and cappuccino he’d promised her. Her eyes lit up for the first time.
* * *
Concrete Toronto Map is the latest in a series by Blue Crow Media’s Derek Lamberton, who tapped local experts, ERA Architects, for content. A Washington native, the 40-year-old, former print journalist is now based in London. He began with Brutalist London Map, which did well, so he followed it up with Constructivist Moscow Map and Brutalist Washington Map.
“Despite my social media feeds … the world doesn’t care much for Brutalism,” Mr. Lamberton admits. “But hopefully our maps are helping to open and change people’s minds about it.”