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the architourist

Screenshots from Driftscape, an app that helps illuminate the built environment around you.Driftscape

On my iPhone, there exists a graveyard for architecture apps.

Going back almost a decade, these apps once held such interest they were carefully placed in a folder called “Cool Architecture/History Maps.” However, just as the sands that surround Las Vegas will reclaim that pulsating city with the absence of human intervention, that folder now has digital tumbleweeds blowing across those once-colourful logos.

It’s not that the applications weren’t good. The problem, as I see it, was twofold: Like most of us, I’m busy, so without reminders of their existence, I forgot about them despite that specially created folder; second, in most cases, once their initial content was uploaded, they remained static. In other words, things got pretty stale pretty darn quickly.

That’s why I think Driftscape will be different. Launched in November, 2017, for iPhone and May, 2018, for Android, it has found a way to keep content fresh. By outsourcing to other organizations, chiefly arts and culture groups, it avoids “the issue that sometimes happens when an organization takes it upon themselves to do their own app,” Driftscape chief executives Chloe Doesburg says. “It can be very onerous to maintain and market, so even when you build something fantastic, sometimes people don’t use it as much as they should.”

Better still, with a few simple user agreements, Driftscape will bug you, via push notifications, whenever you approach something interesting. For instance, on one of my daily 17-minute walks to work, I received an alert about Osgoode Hall. The next day, it was Rogers Batteryless. That’s because the app “remembers” the past 20 notifications it has sent to avoid repetition (unfortunately, because of Apple’s internal restrictions, Driftscape is limited to a second pop-up only after the user has moved at least 500 meters or five minutes has elapsed).

In other words, this app has legs, so I took it for a test walk.

Even before I’d closed the door to my condo, Driftscape was kind enough to remind me, via the Toronto Public Library’s “Toronto Poetry Map,” that the former city morgue (1907) was a few doors down. While I already knew this, I’d never encountered poet George Elliott Clarke’s words about how he sneaked in at night to “punctuate my woes on an I.B.M. Selectric,” so it was fun to read while standing on the sidewalk out front.

Further north, at the intersection of Queen and Church – I was inside the app now and looking for pushpins rather than waiting for notifications – the Toronto Historical Association trumpeted that the 1913 Scotiabank location at 79 Queen St. E. was designed by John Lyle, who also did the Royal Alexandra Theatre and parts of Union Station. As I neared Yonge, I noticed a Queerstory pin on the Confederation Life Building (1892), so I walked over while listening to a three-minute audio clip about the Saphire Tavern and how it contributed to the “Toronto Sound” in music. Here, Jackie Shane, “a cross between Prince, Little Richard and Eartha Kitt” arrived to “add glamour” in the early 1960s. No doubt, as she was not only flamboyant in makeup and dress, she was also a he and, as the audio clip concludes, “challenged boundaries.”

A model of Toronto City Hall from Spacing's ‘50 Objects That Define Toronto’.Driftscape

Passing the monumental Old City Hall, Cancarta Historic Sites treated me to a write-up on what was “for years the largest municipal offices in the country,” while Spacing magazine delivered one on its neighbour, Viljo Revell’s masterpiece – plus a photo of the competition-winning 1958 architectural model – as part of their “50 Objects that Define Toronto.”

On the advice of Ms. Doesburg, an architect by training, I walked over to the “un-gentrify-able” Kensington Market to listen to the 49-minute long, 13-stop walking tour (voiced by Ms. Doesburg) that features songs about the Market. At Stop 9, I listened to Andrew Cash, former NDP member of Parliament, speak about his 1980s band L’Étranger over a snippet of the song One People.

Interestingly, it was while working on an app called Track Toronto more than three years ago – which would have contained only song-related pins placed around the city – that Ms. Doesburg was inspired to create Driftscape. She realized that many “cultural producers that have the same need … would benefit from the same platform,” so she began reaching out to various groups to gauge interest. That’s how she met Fred McGarry of the Centre for Community Mapping, who was “literally already working on a nearly identical project and had a software prototype,” so the two joined forces and added more staff.

While there are plans to roll out Driftscape in other cities, right now, the effort is to increase the content in Toronto, where there are around 20-plus groups providing content. During summer, that number swells, as some pins are time-sensitive tours and festivals that disappear once concluded (unless the user has “past events & tours” switched on). However, momentum is building as organizations, both small and large, realize Driftscape’s potential. Personally, I can think of a half-dozen small neighbourhood walking tours I’ve encountered during my years at The Globe and Mail that exist only on small, printed brochures; wouldn’t it be great to see them represented here? Or, says Ms. Doesburg, big players, such as Nuit Blanche, now ask attendees to download an app for one day “and then never look at it again.” Why not, she asks, piggyback on Driftscape?

“We want to take all of this fantastic content that’s already being produced and make it easier to get to,” she says.

And, in the process, eliminate digital graveyards on smartphones everywhere.