Accidental City:
The Transformation of Toronto

226 pages,
ISBN: 0921912919

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Accidents Can Happen
by John Ferguson

In an essay published shortly before his suicide in 1940, the German critic Walter Benjamin proposed that Paris be called "the capital of the nineteenth century".
So many cultural currents had found their confluence in Paris, Benjamin suggested-so many sensibilities had been there shaped, so many seminal thoughts there thought-that Paris had become the capital more of an era than of a country. A great city could embody not just streets, parks, buildings, but events, trends, passions, even principles of action. And that, a hundred years ago, is precisely what Paris had done.
Which is not to say that Toronto is the capital of the twentieth century any more than this poor homeless century has managed to belong to Canada. But it might be argued that Toronto, like Paris, can be examined as a collection of urban artifacts, quirks of landscape and structure that somehow add up to something more than a city.
In such a manner, Accidental City-a collection of essays and occasional pieces by Robert Fulford-plays upon the outward aspects of Toronto, surveys the surface and nonetheless manages to convey the skull beneath the skin. The book becomes, like its subject, more than what it seems.
Now, if the deep reading of a city depends on some sort of subjective vantage-point that offers a view of the emotional undercurrents of the place-and it is tempting to define urban criticism as emotion recollected with a certain agitation-then Fulford puts his cards on the table. "Once I was astonished to hear myself utter the words `My beloved Toronto' on a radio program. These words were not false: like the fortunate partner in a happy marriage, I love Toronto and find my love steadily growing. But that sort of phrase is rarely uttered, by me or anyone else. A defensive ambivalence is our local style."
It is interesting that there has nonetheless been a recent spate of lovers' proclamations (although this may be a case of protesting too much, at a time when much of the superficial evidence indicates that Toronto is joining the descent into the maelstrom of American social disintegration). And it is more interesting still that these have come from writers who are, like Fulford, most visible as journalists, who ought to know, from a habit of looking into the implications of the ordinary, what the shape of the city spells out.
Last year, for example, John Bentley Mays's Emerald City: Toronto Visited was a comparative newcomer's ode to the city that has seduced him to stay in town forever. The year before that, David Lewis Stein's Going Downtown: Reflections on Urban Progress was a homeboy's ode to his civic mother.
It is now Fulford's unambivalent lover's eye, unshaken by the maelstrom, that can more clearly define the invisible in the visible, that can perhaps find a touch of nineteenth-century Paris in Toronto. The city, he discovers, is not shaped by its architecture and its urban fabric; for all their periodic excitements, these are just the visible manifestations of all that is invisible. No, there is something profound that is hidden and Fulford goes in search of it.
It has not always been possible, or even desirable, to see inside a city with a reputation for a coldness not entirely attributable to winters that once were winters. Only during the past thirty years has opacity approached translucency. Fulford dates this transformation precisely. The New City Hall opened in September 1965, bringing with it a public square that, if unremarked at the time, has established itself in Toronto's collective self-consciousness. From that moment, Fulford argues, "City-building has become an art of public revelation rather than private expression. Toronto is a private city that finally became public, and gradually acquired a desire to be seen and understood. Slowly, often by accident, sometimes with reluctance, it has learned to disclose itself."
Accidental City ranges liberally across the city in pursuit of all that has been disclosed during those thirty years. If it is at times an uneasy search-a result of stitching together disparate essays into a thematic whole, not of any failure of confidence during a sure-handed investigation-it nonetheless brings to light many obscure stories of the city. How anything happens in a city is, as Fulford points out, "as complicated as history and as subtle as human longing" but things do undeniably happen.
Here is the background, inevitably checkered, of the CN Tower, of the Gardiner Expressway, of Henry Moore's occupation of both the city's square and its imagination, of North York's soi-disant downtown, of the Toronto Island housing wars, of-simply-banks. And it has now been revealed that the new CBC headquarters is reputed, probably and no doubt necessarily undisprovably, to possess one toilet somewhere in the building to be used only by the Queen.
So much for the background, the surface. A bare architectural treatise might proclaim (for example) the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood a rare success in providing public housing that achieves integration with the streets and activities that surround it, that offers what the architects might call a tectonic aesthetic at odds neither with its own times, nor with the prevailing look of its neighbourhood. And leave it at that. But Fulford goes further: what is the underlying intellectual atmosphere of the place and its time? Where is the Paris in the Neighbourhood?
It is in thus going further that his subterranean Toronto begins to emerge and it is accompanied by the muse of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs, the iconoclastic urban critic of the 1960's, long ensconced in Toronto's Annex, informs much of Accidental City's questing mood. Peter Blake, an unrepentant modernist architect, notes in his recent memoirs No Place Like Utopia that she "did what Bertrand Russell suggested everyone should do at frequent intervals-pretend that his or her firmly held beliefs might conceivably be wrong, and that their very opposite might be closer to the truth."
With The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Jacobs turned urban planning on its ear. The dogma of planners-that cities require an externally applied regimentation of their activities-was pronounced heresy and the opposite view-that cities require organic growth from within to survive -began to take hold.
Fulford is at least the intellectual heir of this belief and, in a work in which a wise and perceptive intellect is both the mechanism and the real content of the message, that is heir enough. He sees that Toronto has grown, has transformed itself during its thirty anni mirabiles, by a series of happy accidents that the most careful planning couldn't have foreseen or, more to the point, ordained. His own childhood neighbourhood, the Beach, is as good an indication of this transformation as any with its continuing Californianization. Without planning to, "Toronto was changing from a city of mean corner restaurants to a city of cafés, from a city of silence to a city of conversation."
But Toronto may have discovered a remarkable principle one step beyond the benevolent organics of Jane Jacobs. It may be possible, by acute understanding of city life, to do the unthinkable: that is, to plan the unplannable. Not only, as Fulford notes, "where to live, where to pray, where to shop, where to attend school, how to spend spare time: when we make these choices we are all town planners."
Not only that, but on a larger and even civic scale it may be possible to conceive urban projects that predict, understand, and pursue the rich accidental nature of natural city growth. As Fulford says of a complex of art galleries hewn out of old industrial buildings in the west end, "creating an art gallery can be a major contribution to culture; developing new civic space where art flourishes can be more impressive, an audacious act of citizenship as well as commerce."
An act of citizenship. This is the principle that may be at the heart of Toronto in its glory, the Russell-like reversal of previous understandings. Architecture is not a stage-set in which acts of citizenship can be carried out. Reverse that: citizenship is an intellectual construct, upon which architecture can be carried out. Give a city the sort of thought that comes from a profound sense of citizenship and it might build itself beautifully yet. And if so, Toronto may be waiting to become the Capital of the Twenty-First Century. An accident waiting to happen.

John Ferguson is an architect waiting for an accident, but (recently) in Hamilton, not Toronto.


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