With self-isolation, there isn’t much to do. Walk the dog. Walk yourself. All while keeping social distancing in mind, of course.
But for those of us who live in dense urban areas, there’s something that’s all around us, all the time: architecture.
But what do I do, I hear you ask, if I don’t have an architectural guidebook?
Go to the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s “TO Built” website, a database of more than 11,000 buildings, which span from the city’s earliest, Scadding Cabin from 1794, to multiple entries from 2017 – a Google search for “TO Built” should work, or type in www.acotoronto.ca/tobuilt_new_detailed.php – and type in the name of a street near you.
That’s all fine and good, you might say, but there’s nothing near me to justify changing my dog’s favourite sniffing route. Not true! Let’s look at my neighbourhood as an example. Using the site’s user-friendly search tools, I type “Coxwell” into the Street Name box and click Search. Up pop six entries, one of which is a building I remember from my childhood (because my mother worked there), the former Toronto East General Hospital (now Michael Garron Hospital).
While the wing-shaped, glass-blocked and speed-striped building looks straight out of 1935, I learn that it was completed in 1951 and that its architect was “K.S. Gillies.” I also learn it has no heritage status and is classified as “art deco.” I can choose to look at “more buildings in this style” or I can click on the architect’s name, which I do. This transports me to Gillies’s entry on the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada website, where I discover that Kenneth Stevenson Gillies was born in Guelph, Ont., and spent “nearly fifty years” working for the City of Toronto building department, where he helped pen the Waterworks Maintenance Complex at 505 Richmond St. W. (now undergoing restoration as a food hall and condominium by MOD Developments) and the Symes Road Municipal Incinerator (recently restored).
“I used TO Built a lot as a researcher so I understood the asset that we had there,” says Pauline Berkovitz, 27, who has recently become site co-ordinator while working on a master’s thesis in historic preservation at Boston Architectural College. “I use it as a sort of jumping off point … some of [the listings] have an immense amount of information right there, like something like Ontario Place or one of our research projects like Toronto schools or places of worship, and then there’s other listings that have less information but they have links to other resources.”
It was in early 2017, just after it was announced that the highly expressive, 1962 Davisville Junior Public School would be demolished, that the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) began its “research project” on Toronto schools. Since most don’t have heritage protection, the ACO felt it necessary to document them and speak up on their behalf at Queen’s Park (where they met with more than two dozen MPPs). The next year, the ACO focused their annual symposium on the issue. In 2019, with the help of student photographers and a research co-ordinator, the ACO announced it had added 900 schools to the TO Built inventory.
With that in mind, I change to TO Built’s map view, and zoom in to the section called “Danforth” to see what schools appear. I find my rival elementary school, Earl Beatty, built in 1925 (there are also 14 photographs to view), and the 1923 Danforth Collegiate and Technical School, which is where I thought I’d go when I was eight-years-old and wanted to be an auto mechanic. Sadly, St. Brigid’s Catholic School, where I dreamed those grease monkey dreams, is not listed.
So, clearly, there are still buildings to add and work to be done. And it should be noted that without the incredible work of Bob Krawcyzk, who began TO Built in 2002 as a personal project, there would be no site for the ACO to build upon. When I profiled Mr. Krawcyzk in 2007 in this space, he had just surpassed 8,000 buildings and was carrying a list of 1,100 more that he intended to add.
By 2014-15, the site had become too much to manage, so Mr. Krawcyzk handed it to the ACO.
“It’s been beefed up a lot, and also undergone a lot of website improvements” since then, Ms. Berkovitz says. “The searching mechanism is much more sophisticated than it used to be.”
It’s true: One can search by year, by architect, by location, by style, by building use, by demolished buildings only, or even hit the “Surprise Me” button for a random listing. As well as being “sophisticated,” TO Built is now more democratic: Any ACO member can add a single building or series of buildings if they wish, or edit existing entries if more information surfaces (there is talk of expanding this to allow non-members this sort of access, but right now the wish is to gain memberships).
As the world waits for normalcy, think of TO Built as a gift: “Almost everybody that I know has a intimate relationship with a building, whether it’s their house or the office building they work in, or a building that they always love as they walk past,” Ms. Berkovitz says. “One of the silver linings that comes out of the crisis that we’re in is that a lot of people are slowing down and they are taking walks … so we’re noticing things on this human scale and recognizing that there’s a lot of beauty around us.
“If everybody, with the time that they have, could leverage that to engage with their culture and their community by engaging with TO Built, I would be thrilled.”
TO Built will soon be sending weekly walking tours of neighbourhoods or parks to help keep Torontonians engaged during this period. Like the ACO on Facebook or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the mailing list.
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