Three photographs of different architectural styles in downtown Toronto
From humble 19th-century homes to postwar Brutalism and outlandish 21st-century works, the city hosts an endlessly impressive range of architectural moments. Mark Byrnes

An interview with Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic and co-author of a guide to the city’s expansive building stock.

The American journalist Patricia McHugh arrived with her husband and children in Toronto in 1972 and quickly took to its charming and diverse 19th-century neighborhoods. An obscure but beloved member of the community, McHugh dabbled in heritage activism and advocacy, became a member of the Toronto Historical Board, and wrote Toronto Architecture: A City Guide in 1981 before issuing an updated version in 1989.

A lot has happened since.

The Greater Toronto Area, with 3.7 million residents at the time of McHugh’s last update to her guide, is now home to 6.4 million people. After the city merged with its suburbs to form one government in 1998, neighborhoods of Old Toronto that came to know inside and out have become “perhaps too well-defended against modern change, while other areas have become improbably lively.”

That’s according to Alex Bozikovic, author of the long overdue update to McHugh’s guide and architecture and urbanism writer for the Globe and Mail. McHugh died in 2008, and Bozikovic has had her book on his own bookshelf now for 20 years, referring to it as “the bible” of the city’s architectural history. In his update, the buildings of Old and New Toronto are explained in short, insightful blurbs and organized into a series of walkable tours—just as McHugh had structured her guide. Bozikovic covers 30 years’ worth of new construction and has added a section on the waterfront (which was hardly residential at the time of McHugh’s work) as well as a section on the suburbs.

CityLab caught up with Bozikovic recently to discuss his city’s architectural ambitions since 1989 and how a new generation of Torontonians view the buildings that remain from past decades:

What would someone who hasn’t seen Toronto since the last edition of this book take away from a visit to Toronto now?

On the surface, people will say that there’s a lot more development going on now than back then. There certainly are more high-rise condos. Hundreds of mid-rises and high-rises have gone up over the last generation. The shift to high-rise living in the old city is absolutely a new thing.

A view from the Gardiner Expressway outside downtown Toronto. (Mark Byrnes)

On the other hand, it’s easy to believe that Toronto is changing simply because it is changing dramatically around downtown. But if you go to the suburbs—which comprise a larger portion of Toronto’s population and land area—I don’t think things have changed that much at all.

How have the suburban high-rises from the ‘50s and ‘60s adapted to Toronto’s demographic shifts since the last edition of this book?

It’s funny, what is now the city of Toronto [since the ‘98 amalgamation], has pockets of mid- and high-rise apartments from the ‘50s into the ‘70s. Their history is peculiar because their development was driven by a metropolitan planning system which was responding to a swelling, sprawling city. Developers wanted to build detached houses but they also ended up building thousands of rental apartments. These were built for the middle class and they were very much built as a Tower in the Park model where the assumption is that everyone benefits from a formula where people will drive to get to wherever they need to go and come home to a tower surrounded by green space. But that only worked for a few years. These types of buildings eventually became less prestigious and therefore more affordable. It has been a change for the better.

During the immigration booms over the last few decades, many people have found affordable places to live in those high-rises. The apartments are reasonably comfortable and cheap, but the downside is that a lot of the residents don’t have cars so they’re stuck with extremely long commutes in car-oriented suburbs that have never been well-served by public transit. So in that sense, the quality of life isn’t that good.

Today, the city is well into a Tower Renewal plan, which it started about 10 years ago. Heritage architects have been pushing this effort, trying to figure out how to get these buildings retrofitted in ways that make them work better for the residents while being more sustainable and cost effective for the developers. These towers are 50, 60 years old—so you have window systems and facades coming apart in a lot of these places. There’s also a social element to this in regards to the privately owned open spaces: Planners want to see a loosening up of the zoning in these areas because you can’t even open a business on the ground floor of these towers or sell things on the street and you need that kind of life to serve the residents and activate these spaces. That will all be part of a new zoning policy, called RAC (Residential Apartment Commercial zone), which is just getting started now.

Uno Prii seems to be the one architect associated with these high-rises who could consistently design something memorable…

What he managed to do was solve that riddle of making good architecture in the context of developer-driven construction. His buildings have an expressionistic quality with curves and ornament, which make them visually interesting. They were similar to the other apartment buildings going up at the time but had just enough flourishes.

There are other architects who might not have same current relevance but who were doing the same thing. Prii was from Estonia, but there was also Peter Dickinson, who came to Canada from the U.K. as young man in 1950s, and managed to do likewise for developers. He also made some interesting public buildings like the O’Keefe Centre, which is now SONY Centre for the Performing Arts. That’s a grand expressionistic building. Dickinson managed to do some work that was structurally interesting and innovative and created modern buildings that stand up well to this day.

A lot of people were pursuing interesting designs in 1950s and ‘60s. There are a bunch of good buildings still here from that era, but they’re not necessarily well appreciated. If you’re an average person over 50, you don’t think about the 1960s as being history, whereas for younger people it absolutely is. The basic battle about whether or not these things are worth saving is still in progress. People who actively love Toronto as an urban place have mostly been downtowners who live in old, pre-Modern houses from a time when Toronto was a low-rise city, so that’s how they think of Toronto. But it’s equally a city of high-rises and it’s taking a while for that to sink in, culturally. You’re missing a lot of Toronto’s story by not paying attention to the modern city because that’s when everything really happened here.

The glass condo tower seems to one of the most defining visuals of modern Toronto. Are these buildings generally seen as inconsequential or part of a trend that needs to be corrected?

Historically, Toronto has been a rather conservative city and very reluctant to think of itself as a special place. For younger people now though, self-confidence comes naturally. This is Drake’s city now, “The 6ix”—I hate saying that [laughs].

Toronto has a vibrant economy and an interesting culture. It needs to use its prosperity and its talent to make the best future for itself, and it’s not like there aren’t good designers or clients out there. The overall bar for average development is getting better. People are starting to demand more and developers are beginning to understand that quality has value. I’d say in the last five or 10 years, you’re seeing better and better developer buildings in the pipeline.

When it comes to the built environment, it’s still a city that is negotiated between two forces: neighborhood groups consisting of people who live in houses, and developers building towers. Building great architecture here isn’t easy, but more and more attention is being paid to making the public realm come to life. There’s a lot of good landscape architecture bringing the city to life and rethinking some of its older parts. The Bentway, a new park underneath the Gardiner Expressway, will appear in an area dominated by high-rise condos. This project is a bold, genuinely innovative public space, and that comes from people thinking about how to activate a dead space and make it accessible.

Frank Gehry’s renovation and expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario was completed in 2008. (Mark Byrnes)

Toronto’s cultural elites really seemed to take an interest in getting big architects for big projects in the early 2000s. How would you say those projects are aging?

That Starchitecture period really increased people’s engagement with design, so that paid off in some ways. The city got a couple of really great, new cultural buildings like Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario. One of my favorites is the renovation of the Royal Conservatory by KPMB. It’s a sophisticated blend of old and new, which is something Toronto is good at.

There are a number of excellent of buildings from that period, but the idea of the icon building has lost relevance. Money and clients for projects like that aren’t around these days and there’s more of a focus from the city on how to build a lot of housing and upgrade older buildings. It’s valuable that architecture is part of the conversation now and there’s no question in my mind that even Libeskind’s ROM addition, flaws and all, has made people think more than they used to about how a city gets built and the role architecture plays in that.

What’s a new project you’re really excited about?

There’s a developer project that’s actually really interesting, The Well. It’s an enormous mixed use complex where The Globe and Mail used to be. The architecture is fine, but what’s more interesting is how it’ll define a new kind of urban district.

The complex will be surrounded by pedestrian-only space, and all the parking and deliveries will be underground. The landscape for that will be done by Claude Cormier, who’s an incredibly talented and clever designer. He also did Sugar Beach Park. This project is a whole new idea of what the city can be, and you see that in how its density is meant to encourage people to walk everywhere. The idea that people in Toronto are willing to give up their car is still exciting. People are consciously thinking about creating a place that’s pleasant to walk around now.

How’d you like that new music video by The Weeknd? It really showcased some buildings I can’t imagine an older generation of Torontonians would think to play up.

It’s amazing! The video was shot inside the Toronto Reference Library and the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, which is an iconic and globally recognized example of Brutalism. Those buildings are a product of another generation and for people who have been in the city for 40 years or so, places like that are just part of the background. That The Weeknd looks at it and sees something gorgeous and poetic? That’s really exciting. Younger people here are seeing the beauty and genius in what Toronto is.

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