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Toronto's small deco gems continue to shine Add to ...







Classical temples have the power to awe a viewer.

Gothic churches are able to put even a devout modern pagan into a reverential mood.

High mid-20th-century modernism can thrill, and the dramatic moves of Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry can surely delight (or appall, depending on one's tolerance for contemporary architecture).

But nothing in the history of the building art seems to enthrall the sensuous imagination quite like art deco. Its aficionados are passionate about the horizontal speed stripes that whip around the curved corners of deco edifices; the carved or cast reliefs of streamlined birds, exotic flora, gazelles and whatever else that adorn architraves and spandrel panels; the plucked-eyebrow chic of stone skyscraper façades that rise to the sky in elegant setbacks.









Every city has its deco devotees, but few of these fans ever get around to doing much that's useful with their fascination. Toronto's Tim Morawetz is a notable exception. He has written and self-published a handsome little book called Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A Guide to the City's Buildings From the Roaring Twenties and the Depression (Glue Inc., $39.95). I'm not the only person in town who thinks this illustrated portfolio is good, by the way: Earlier this month, Mr. Morawetz's work garnered a 2010 Award of Merit from Heritage Toronto, the city agency most concerned about our built inheritance.

As the subtitle of this documentary effort indicates, art deco had a relatively short career - just the 20 years or so between the world wars. But that was quite long enough for architects to dot large cities across the world, and many small ones, with myriad stylish houses, office towers, hotels, post offices and much else in the last great decorative scheme to come along before anti-decorative Bauhaus modernism swept all before it.

Toronto didn't get much of the really exuberant interwar stuff - nothing, for example, like the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building in New York. As Paul G. Russell explains in his introduction to the book, some proposed stunners got squashed by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. (The most famous casualty of the crash was the tower scheduled to soar above the T. Eaton Company's College Street store.) Others were never built, or even dreamed of, because of Toronto's notorious conservatism: While art deco styling was admired by a small circle of the elite, including the Eaton merchant princes, few investors or developers, it appears, wanted to startle the little folk by dropping daring modern buildings into their midst.







That said, some noteworthy deco structures did get put up in Toronto, about 70 of which are featured in this book. Mr. Morawetz's wide-ranging view takes in office towers, warehouses and bank branches, libraries, apartment blocks, movie theatres and so on. Images of each project are accompanied by explanatory notes, and the reader is supplied with handy biographical sketches on each architect or office involved in Toronto's brief deco romance.







There are several small masterpieces here. Sproatt and Rolph's 1935 Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario (now part of the Princess Margaret Hospital) is a splendid set-back tower on University Avenue that is rich in water imagery: rippling across aluminum spandrels, plunging at the front entrance, undulating in a glass-brick wall. The Automotive Building (1929), on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, is a very attractive étude in what Mr. Morawetz (following others) calls the stripped classical mode of deco design - a simplified riff off more florid beaux arts precedents. And I was particularly glad that Mr. Morawetz decided to celebrate J.J. Woolnough's Horse Palace (1931), also at Exhibition Place, one of my favourite Toronto buildings. The architect furnished this sprawling complex in light stone and buff brick with a sleek program of equine imagery - including a motif that represents, in a tastefully abstract way, a horse's rear end.

Art deco residential projects are rather thin on the ground in Toronto, but Mr. Morawetz has discovered some pleasantly decorated, tony houses and apartment blocks here and there. The Everglades (1930), on Tyndall Avenue, offers a fine instance of the style's characteristic play with vertical and horizontal ornament. And Bayview Avenue's Garden Court (1939-1942) is a durably charming example of deco building strategies married to thoughtful landscaping.

But this volume is more than a guide. It's also an on-time warning to be vigilant. The structures commemorated here are getting old and expensive to maintain. Developers hungry for land may already be looking at them as potential teardowns. But, as the distinguished Toronto architect Eberhard Zeidler notes in his foreword, "perhaps because of this book buildings can be saved and also we can fully appreciate another layer of our complex built environment."

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