- Making Toronto Modern: Architecture and Design, 1895–1975 by Christopher Armstrong
Toronto is having its moment in the spotlight. Lauded as a top ten international city by publications as diverse as Forbes, Fast Company, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, and The Economist; even the BBC is asking ‘When did Toronto become so cool?’ Given all this attention, a book that sets out to explore Toronto’s architectural legacy could not be more timely.
It was with great excitement that I agreed to review Making Toronto Modern. My father was an architect who had studied art and design in Germany and as a refugee chose Toronto to establish his practice. My sisters and I grew up touring buildings, discussing streetscapes, and listening to laments about Toronto’s serious lack of historic modern buildings. While the Bauhaus was busy at work, Toronto had been building and rebuilding architectural styles from the previous century.
Armstrong argues that the creation of the modern in Toronto was a protracted and hard-fought campaign. He divides the book into seven chapters, each focusing on a span of 10 to 15 years. Starting with the early city reformers and the City Beautiful Movement, Armstrong shows that Toronto didn’t really embrace the modern until the 1950s. In this period of postwar growth and affluence, both developers and consumers desired new forms and new expressions. Confining his focus to only buildings which were ‘actually proposed and constructed’ (p. 50), he does an excellent job of profiling major public and private commercial and industrial buildings and residential and mixed-use architectural developments. Armstrong based his research ‘primarily upon printed sources such as professional journals such as Canadian Architect and popular magazines such as Canadian Homes and Gardens’ and did not examine ‘archival collections and records of architectural firms’ because, he states, not all firms kept records and many ‘consist exclusively of plans and drawings … which often require much information to place them in context’ (p. 367). While there remains much to be done in documenting Canada’s architectural legacy, his work would have benefited from a greater variety of sources, including tracking down some of the principals involved or interviews that were undertaken with [End Page 144] them in various sources from newspapers, TV, or film. Moreover, because Armstrong chose ‘black and white photographs … that are contemporary with the opening of the buildings’ and decided not to use colour photographs for postwar projects ‘as it would not be possible to place them in the text alongside the relevant written text as had been done with the other pictures’ (p. 367), the resulting feel is static and prosaic. For a book about architecture, which is after all a profoundly visual medium, this is a disappointment.
Commissioned as part of the McGill-Queen’s/Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation Studies in Art History series, the book is too text-heavy and narrow in scope for most casual readers, and too limited in sources to make a compelling historical argument. In Making Toronto Modern, Armstrong has catalogued and synthesised Toronto’s modern architectural legacy but falls short of bringing the grand vision and passion of architecture and city-building onto the page.