John Bentley Mays reviews Concrete Toronto

By John Bentley Mays
Globe and Mail
November 9, 2007

Among some architectural savants and much of the general public, concrete gets no respect. The stuff may be tolerable in big, broad-shouldered infrastructure projects such as bridges and expressway ramps and decks, where its toughness is a definite asset. But, unfortunately (according to this opinion), concrete has snuck out of its utilitarian pigeon-hole and found its way into all kinds of buildings, ranging from libraries and universities to downtown office towers and suburban high-rise apartment blocks, that people have to look at, work in and live in on a daily basis.

I prescribe Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture from the Fifties to the Seventies, a new book from Coach House Press, as a $29.95 remedy for this dour point of view. In its 360 tightly printed, illustrated pages, this fat little volume argues forcefully and effectively for a fresh appreciation of Toronto's built heritage in concrete.

Assembled by Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart, respectively principal and designer at E.R.A. Architects, the book features an annotated field guide to 52 projects in or near Toronto, and contains interviews with creators and observers of concrete Hogtown, including engineer Morden Yolles, architects Macy DuBois and Uno Prii, among others.

It includes short, incisive essays on myriad buildings every Torontonian knows, such as the Manulife Centre, the Sheraton Centre, the notorious John P. Robarts Library at the University of Toronto — a building I love, though less because of the architecture than the books in it — the much-despised but very handy Gardiner Expressway, and, of course, Viljo Revell's new City Hall.

These texts, by many architecturally well-informed hands, offer spirited analyses meant to shake up the wide-spread complacency about concrete, and sharply confront hostility to it by pointing out its rugged beauty and versatility, and the occasional high style of buildings designed with concrete in mind.

That said, I do not expect this book to cure the antipathy to concrete overnight. Many a reader will likely find himself, at first anyway, in the position of contributor George Baird, dean of the U of T's architecture school.

He admits to "mixed feelings" about concrete's suitability in a northern climate like Toronto's, where "sunlight is rarely intense, and ... there are substantial parts of the year when we have no sunlight at all." He is bothered by the mediocrity of many concrete buildings put up here during the post-Second World War decades.

Then — again like other observers, I suspect — Mr. Baird remembers a concrete structure that stands out from the rest, impressing itself on the imagination. For him, this persuasive piece of architecture is John Andrews's original Scarborough College of the U of T, "that amazing icon of the '60s that is one of the few internationally consequential modern Canadian buildings. And once the Scarborough building — an extravaganza of cast-in-place concrete — had come to mind, I had to ask myself if I was as sure of my position as I had once thought."

This book will have done its work if it moves readers to a similar skepticism about their dislike of concrete. It's hard to hate the Gardiner, for example, after reading architect Calvin Brook's thoughtful meditation on the old expressway.

Torontonians have long viewed the Gardiner as an ugly obstacle dropped between the financial district and the margin of Lake Ontario, and many citizens long for the day when it will be demolished. While acknowledging the Gardiner's heavy stomp across the downtown cityscape, Mr. Brook still finds much to admire about the structure, even its shadowy underbelly.

"With relatively little effort," he writes, "its simple sculptural elegance suddenly becomes apparent. Driving through the arches early in the morning, with the easterly light illuminating the rows of columns, it becomes possible to love the space created by the expressway. ... Could it be that the expressway is beautiful — both in its form and its demonstration of a modernist ideal that is even more relevant today?"

Even if you are inclined to answer Mr. Brook's impassioned question with a loud no, and don't much care for what's being argued elsewhere in the book, Concrete Toronto still stands up as a rich and useful gathering of knowledge about an architectural topic that's long needed such thorough treatment.

I was especially glad to see the brief essays about technical matters, and the note by James Ashby of Parks Canada about concrete conservation. Such texts remind us that, despite their often massive appearance, concrete buildings suffer from wear and tear like everything else, and, unless cared for, tend to fall apart.

Related Content
Related Contributors: 
Related Titles: