Research Diaries: Entry 1

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Kind of funny how coincidences work out… no sooner do I sit down to finally reflect on my recent experience digging up the history of some bridge in my hometown than a blogger I follow does kinda sorta the same thing. I guess we both hopped on the zeitgeist.

I recently embarked on a personal project, the kind of thing that indie filmmakers like to pretend also leads to unexpected love, a heartwarming cast of quirky characters to fill in the margins and some kind of personal revelation about the small yet fulfilling pleasures life holds. It also makes for great blog fodder, which I suppose is a good consolation prize in case that other stuff doesn’t work out. Stupid reality.

There’s this bridge near by grandmother’s house. It spans one of Toronto’s many ravines, has a wooden deck and is pedestrian-only. I’ve always enjoyed biking over it for the earthy clatter my wheels make passing over the beams, and passing under it for the view of its gently curving support trusses on tapered concrete pillars.

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About a month ago, I started wondering about it. When was it built? Why is it pedestrian-only? It occurred to me that with a topography of ravines, valleys and creeks, Toronto is more likely than most cities to have bridges. A relatively high number of builders, architects, developers and politicians are going to point to where a bridge currently isn’t, declare “No, this will not do,” and start putting one there. What this winds up meaning is that Toronto, for my money, contains a huge number of small, humble bridges and a relatively small number of world-class megaprojects. No Golden Gates or Brooklyns for us; maybe the Bloor Viaduct qualifies. Invisible bridges that get the job done, sans muss and lacking fuss.

So, my grandmother’s bridge. Glen Cedar bridge. I figured there had to be a story behind it, and when you want to look up civic history in Toronto, there’s really only one place to go: the Toronto Archives.

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You want a hardcover book of City Council minutes from the 1970s that’s thicker than your thigh? The Archives has that. Fancy a banker’s box of historic Toronto postcards from the 1930s? They’ve got that too. How about a view into a filing system that looks like the inspiration for Indiana Jones? Archives.

I’ve visited a few times now, and learned the following: this kind of research is hard. In my mind, a bridge represents a fairly significant investment. City Council has incredibly fractious debates over them. Of course, back when Glen Cedar was built in 1912 (I found out that much), record-keeping was a bit more… haphazard. What is now Toronto was several independent towns, each with its own governance structure and rules about records. Few of them have a handy document entitled “Everything you need to know about that bridge a developer is building in a part of town nobody lives in.” Following the annexation of these town into modern-day Toronto, records were invariably collected, mis-filed, moved, and perhaps most distressingly, lost and destroyed.

A senior archivist took pity on me that first day, showing me the ropes of this kind of research. You don’t dive in; you nibble around the edges. Look at historic maps, many of which show a street grid that has either changed over time or was only hypothetical and never actually existed. Search for historic street names in the vicinity; at one point, he showed me a multi-volume set of Township of North York historic by-laws. Spanning over a century. He recommended I search for ones related to bridge repairs and maintenance; maybe I’d find some mention of the bridge there.

Yeah. Maybe in a century’s worth of research. In the meantime, I’m learning an incredible amount about topics I never expected to find: massive folios containing detailed development plans for far-flung parts of the city, timelines of when various townships coalesced into modern-day T.O. The fact that streetcars used to be called “civic cars,” and that proximity to them was considered a plus in real estate advertisements.

I’ll be keeping a research diary here on Inspiared. Even if most of what I find is completely unrelated to that damned bridge, it’s entirely engrossing, and I can’t wait to get back there. As it stands, I can only schedule it in every other Friday afternoon, so this promises to be a slow-cooker of a project. Because when all you’ve got to go on is a gorgeous, undated landscape architect’s plan for the neighbourhood that clearly didn’t pan out as documented, you take any semblance of a clue you can find.

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~Mike!

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The Evolution of Condo Design

It’s interesting to see how cities evolve, what elements they retain over time and which ones they erase. Torontonians in particular feel they’re special in having razed many historical structures in favor of bland modernity and in having a dozen or more failed plans for every one that sees fruition.

And yet, that’s got to be just about every city everywhere. Some years back on a trip to Seattle, tour guides cheerfully mentioned their city’s history as pretty much one bad idea after another, years of political wrangling for every inch of progress made… sound familiar, Toronto? Company may not make us any less pathetic, but it does mitigate our civic misery.

So, condominiums.

Developers are quick to point out the various reasons why condos are they way they are. Local by-laws are partially to blame; as much as the city professes to desire mid-rise buildings, the zoning rules actually make it much easier to build tall ones. Developers swear that they build what the market wants and will bear. The people want floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize natural light, so they get glass boxes in the sky.

And yet there is variation. The plain glass box has given way to slightly different glass boxes. Hardly a massive leap in architecture, but still, an indication that nothing is stagnant. For a great example, look at the Distillery District, where the Pure Spirits development went up in the early 2000s:

pure_spiritThe tower is your basic glass box; at the time, the promotional literature described the podium as paying homage to the historic district, while the use of glass on the tower was a deliberate attempt make it transparent and unobtrusive. The point of the Distillery District is the history in its bricks, not the towers above. Let’s not kid ourselves though; glass box fever was all over Toronto at that point and it’s not like the developer was about to try and build anything else.

The two towers going up on the Distillery’s east end are also made of glass, but the design now includes glass fritting and articulated balconies that add some visual punch:

gooderhamStill glass? Yes. Arguably dull? Less so. But it is a new take on the box. Design evolves.

One aspect of condo design getting a lot of attention these days is how they “meet the street.” Will it have a deadening effect, built as close to the edge of the sidewalk as possible? Will there be stores or walk-up townhouses, or some visual appeal? Will it draw in pedestrian traffic? Many critics correctly point out the fact that developers will always seek out the most staid, boring and reliable retail tenants, such as banks and dental offices.

My main criticism is that no condo retail space offers the kind of personality that more interesting stores would want to occupy anyway.

Let’s talk streetscapes.

kensingtonJane Jacobs was a big fan of old buildings. They are flexible, varied spaces, inclined to host any number of enterprises over their lifetime. They also make for a street that is, well, interesting. The signs are different heights and colours. Some storefronts protrude into the sidewalk, others recede. Some spaces have high ceilings, others are cramped. Every city block offers a different mix.

movadaThat’s where I live, and I’ll be the first to say that the retail at the bottom is boring as all get out, and I’m more than prepared to say that the reason is uniformity. The signage is the same colour and the same height. The doorways are all the same design. The entrances are all at the same depth. The only personalization permitted is on the interior of each space.

berwickWhy can’t the same go for townhouse developments? The above rendering is for a development going up near me, and while I personally feel that these townhomes actually look quite pleasant, I wonder if there’s a specific need for them to be so uniform. Obviously it saves on construction and design cost, but at the same time, imagine the premium a developer could charge for unique units, each with its own personality built in. Not unlike boutique hotels with each room assembled by a different designer, a single development could lend vitality and value to an entire block.

My hope and prediction is that the next evolution of condominium design will be to break up the street-level engagement with pedestrians. Treat the lower portion of each building as a block plan, with varied height and depth to add some visual punch. This would certainly make for an uneven floor inside the building, but that could easily be worked into an asset. A multi-level party room perhaps. This is not to say that every condo has to do this (mandated differentiation can be as tacky and overdone as anything else), but it would be nice if a few did. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

There’s a world of possibility out there, and design can welcome it with open arms or send it running for the hills. Condos, it’s time to think about your next leap forward.

~Mike!