The phrase “modern architecture” evokes many things: the industrial eroticism of Bauhaus; Le Corbusier’s attempts to locate the sublime in the uniform; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.
But some of the most striking Modernist structures may be right here in Toronto – crumbling, sprawling and perhaps soon to be gone.
Postwar social housing projects now run by Toronto Community Housing Corporation, such as Regent Park, which is now being rebuilt, and Lawrence Heights, the next one to follow, certainly fit the bill.
They speak to the Modernist primacy of a key idea: centrally planned communities with carefully delineated open spaces in which the underprivileged mind was left to exaltation free from, or kept from, the stress of urban life.
Or so they were imagined. But these idealized independent garden enclaves became isolated islands once they were densely populated by people of meagre means, cut off from the urban ferment around them.
TCHC CEO Derek Ballantyne says this is a priority to address in the rebuilding of the north Toronto Lawrence Heights property, slated to begin in 2010, on the heels of Regent Park.
“I call it ‘disruptive design,’” he says of the sprawling low-rises of that community. “The [development] created a lot of public space, but it’s not space you feel you have any agency over, because it’s just units dropped in a field.”
Community Housing plans a massive postmodern undertaking. Interior roads will be reconnected to the local grid, and a mix of income levels and of land uses will be fostered by adding condos to what has been exclusively rent-geared-to-income housing.
But whatever the stated purpose, the arm’s-length municipal corporation that took responsibility for public housing after it was downloaded by the Harris provincial government must be at least as motivated by Lawrence Heights’s repair backlog.
That backlog, now estimated at $300 million, is manifested in everything from broken sinks to missing doors to crumbling roofs.
Councillor Paula Fletcher, council’s representative on the board of city-owned TCHC, says that until the province “downloads the money” that should have come along with the responsibility for social housing, there’s little they can do but start from scratch, rebuilding the social housing and adding market condos to generate income and create an economic mix.
“If it costs $25 million to fix a property, and $30 million to rebuild, it’s a no-brainer.”
Fletcher say revitalization projects – of which there will be more – will be informed by the Regent Park model. There, a 1:1 replacement of subsidized housing was promised, as well as the right of every tenant to return.
She says of Regent Park’s redevelopment that it won’t be like the razing of public housing in Chicago or London. Rather, it will be like the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, where upscale and social housing exist side by side.
Connie Harrison is skeptical. “St. Lawrence isn’t that affordable,” she says. Formerly a TCHC tenant at Don Mount, which is now experiencing its own renewal, Harrison isn’t worried about low-income people living beside middle-class folks; she’s concerned about the effect those latter folks will have on the surrounding neighbourhood.
“I could never go back to Don Mount. None of us ever could,” she says. “Everything that made that neighbourhood is gone. The restaurants that used to cater to poor people on Parliament, they’re not there any more. The shops are gone.”
But while gentrification threatens to speed up, some worry that repairs will only slow down. Steve da Silva, an activist working in Lawrence Heights, says people tell him it’s the worst it’s been in years. “We had units at LH where there was no heat for a large part of the winter,” he tells me. “They’re letting the properties rot so people are starting to beg for revitalization.”
Fletcher says once a property is slated for revitalization, it’s “hived off” from the normal maintenance budget. This actually frees up money for repairs elsewhere in the system, but it may also make those repairs seem less urgent as revitalization becomes a more attractive option.
Most likely, it’s the crumbling that causes the redevelopment, and not the other way around. But to a tenant breathing in mould, there may be little difference. “If you’re looking at millions in plumbing costs, it might make more sense to just rebuild,” says Ballantyne, “which means we’ll have more leaks in some cases.” And rebuilding takes years.
In Regent Park, it’s not clear if everyone will come back, though they can. But the city continues to refine the process of resettlement, and Ballantyne says Lawrence Heights’s sprawling design actually offers a unique possibility: perhaps no one will be displaced, because new residences can be built before they start knocking down the old ones.
One of the oft-repeated reasons for the LH reno is ending its “isolation” from the broader urban fabric – though we never hear talk of recasting tony Rosedale, arguably just as “isolated” as Lawrence Heights.
“It depends how you understand isolation,” says da Silva. “People would appreciate some more strong local businesses, but it’s also a pretty strong community from within. I think this is maybe an outsider’s perspective on LH – that it’s isolated and needs to be rebuilt. It’s close to social services, malls, the subway, and it has some of the best green space of all the social housing projects in Toronto.”