Circling the Square

Reflections on a city that destroys its own history


Toronto is, more than most cities, defined by its constant state of becoming, of reinventing and reconfiguring itself in pursuit of a distinct identity that may never actually arrive. 

At best, this is intoxicating: there’s a freedom that comes with perching on the precipice of destiny, unbound by preconceptions. The city can become whatever you want it to be, as though you’re the first to imbue it with meaning. You are Toronto as much as anyone else is.

But at worst, it’s toxic. In practise, a constant state of becoming often involves a continuing process of erasure. You may be Toronto as much as anyone else, but what good is that when others don’t accommodate you in their vision?

The Idea Of North: The Paintings Of Lawren Harris was a touring exhibition curated by the actor and writer Steve Martin that ostensibly concerned the Group of Seven painter and his impressionistic depictions of mountains and ice. But its final stop, which closed at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Sunday, September 18, was something different altogether.

Harris’s famous landscape works, the apparent focus of Martin’s interest, were here little more than a central metaphor. Around them, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, Andrew Hunter, crafted a show that could easily have served as the basis for a museum of Toronto.

Harris’s early paintings showcased The Ward, Toronto’s pre-War immigrant neighbourhood – largely Chinese, Jewish, Black and Italian – that existed in the shadow of Old City Hall from Yonge to University and Queen to College. These and other documents of the community formed the first part of the AGO show, which made the argument that Harris’s pursuit of transcendence through nature was at least partly a response to the dense, polluted messiness of a diverse and industrial city.

But even Canada’s North was not the pristine antithesis that Harris portrayed it to be. The exhibition’s title was almost mocking – Harris’s idea of the North may have been an honest reflection of his own perspective, but it was nothing more than that. Setting the canvasses alongside some of Harris’s original source photographs, the show clearly illustrated how the artist de-peopled populated areas, erasing the Inuit in service of a vision of an untouched frontier: purity as transcendence, cleanliness as godliness.

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Eventually, Harris’s artistic fascinations departed the earthly realm altogether, and by the final stage of his career he was painting geometric abstractions. One of these, 1936’s Poise (Composition 4), resembles nothing so much as Toronto’s new City Hall, built 29 years later on the former site of The Ward, which was demolished in the 50s in the name of urban renewal.

“The stark architecture of the new city hall site,” reads an accompanying panel, “appears to be foreshadowed by Harris’s vision of an empty, cool, modern landscape, devoid of human presence.”

The show’s final movement looks at the cultural history of the civic core that had been subsumed, clear-cut in pursuit of a narrow, particular vision of the modern. 

We tend to romanticize and rationalize Toronto’s ongoing redefinition because the alternative view is too depressing: that Toronto’s landscape is built by and for a mercurial elite, and the rest of us can only hope to massage it that Toronto’s dislocating character stems not from an abundance of possibility but rather from a dearth of it.

“Did they just build Toronto?” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson asked on Twitter when he came here for TIFF two years ago. “Everything here feels like it was hastily made…. There’s an entirely empty skyscraper. No lights on.”

In mid-2010, city council voted to proceed with creating a “Ward Gallery of Immigration” on City Hall’s vacant third-floor mezzanine – a miniature prototype of the kind of civic museum the city has long discussed but never seriously pursued. Rob Ford was elected mayor two months later, and the project disappeared.

More recently, a wealth of artifacts from The Ward, including the remnants of Toronto’s most important Black church, were discovered during excavation of a parking lot northwest of City Hall. But there are no plans to preserve or present them on or near the site, which is set to become a new provincial courthouse. In a city that seems hellbent on destroying any sense of its own history, the past and the future are too often judged to be mutually exclusive.

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By 2007, 42 years after its opening, Nathan Phillips Square’s gleaming modernist ambitions had been weathered by time and neglect, by changing tastes and an acknowledgement that its grey concrete moonscape was at least somewhat anti-human. But instead of starting over, the city embarked on a project it pointedly called a “revitalization” – not a “redesign” – selecting Plant Architect Inc. and Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners (now Perkins + Will) to breathe new life into it. Theirs was arguably the least radical of the finalists’ proposals, tweaking the original square just enough to warm it through new elements of plants, glass and wood. 

The reconstruction finally wrapped up earlier this year (despite some aspects remaining incomplete), and on Tuesday, September 20, the designers were presented with a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture.

“Carefully balancing Viljo Revell’s original design with new additions to support active uses in all seasons, it has become a hyper-democratic place,” wrote the medal’s five-person, mostly international jury. “With purposefully designed spaces allowing people to unwind or be active, engage in collective experiences or seek solitude, the square accommodates many different users and uses. What makes this project so great is that it preserves the essentials of this historic square while adapting it for future generations.”

Each new future becomes a new history we must embrace both what came before and what will come after.

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Steven Evans

I am unusual for a Torontonian in that I was born here both of my parents were born here all four of my grandparents – the last of whom passed away last week – were also born here. This is especially uncommon for a person who is not Protestant (but rather Jewish).

“Peggy was born in Toronto in 1921,” read what for me was the most resonant line in my grandmother’s death notice, “growing up on Grace Street and in New Toronto.”

I was fortunate to have her as a vector through time, linking the city’s past to its present.

Every Torontonian – including those without personal histories here – deserves a connection to its urban fabric. 

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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