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Finding beauty in postwar Toronto architecture: Q & A with Michael McClelland of E.R.A. Architects

"What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend," wrote British author and TV host Alain de Botton. "The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love."

Standing in my grandmother's Mississauga condo I stared at the seemingly endless concrete high rises along the Hurontario strip.  Damn, those are ugly. So conformist. Those condo towers are definitely more frenemy than friend.

My knee jerk reaction is pretty common among those of us who live like sardines just to be in the downtown core. It's also glib and tunnel-visioned, according to Michael McClelland, a principal at E.R.A. Architects. ERA are probably best known for their conservation work on award-winning buildings like the Corkin Gallery, Wychwood Barns, and many other traditional jewels currently being restored and given new life with Toronto's on-going cultural renaissance (PDF). Beyond their heritage work, their latest project flips conservation on its head, questioning how we understand, and even misunderstand, the architecture of the suburbs. Rather than dismissing those same Mississauga towers as repetitive eyesores, they are working on a number of projects that champion their strengths. It's a groundbreaking idea, which is probably why it's spreading across North America. We caught up with McClelland at his downtown office to figure out whether we needed to give those conformist towers a second chance.

When I imagine preserving heritage architecture, I think Victorian houses. Is that correct?

That's the cliche, but what people want to preserve has radically changed over the years. One hundred years ago, people focused their energies on preserving ancient monuments. Then the conservations moved to Georgian and Victorian buildings. Now there are groups like Docomomo, which documents and tries to preserve our recent past. And our office is actually doing an extensive amount on buildings from the 1950s and 1960s.

Your book Concrete Toronto championed Toronto's architecture from the 1950s – 1970s. I know that my immediate reaction is that they are ugly. Why celebrate them?

Usually, even when people like a building, that initial appreciation declines and it continues to fall for several decades. After 40 years, it hits an all-time low. But if a building can survive past that 40-year period, then there will be a renewed appreciation of the building. Take Old City Hall. Today people think it's a wonderful Romanesque building but in the 1940s, they said it was fussy and overdone. Our purpose in addressing these concrete buildings is to examine whether that pattern of evolving tastes meant people were dismissing some architectural jewels. Not all these buildings are beautiful or interesting. But we really wanted people to look more closely before jumping to that conclusion.

Your idea of celebrating a city's concrete structures has now taken off in Boston. How did that happen?

The architecture of Boston is closely tied to its identity. The city has a sense of itself as being where revolutionary Paul Revere lived, with classic American colonial architecture.  That's how the city likes to think of itself. But if you visit Boston, there are a huge amount of very high quality buildings from the 1940s, '50s and '60s. There are these large concrete buildings, such as the Paul Rudolph's Lindemann Center, Corbusier's The Carpenter Center at Harvard and Gropius House.  These are very fine buildings and they are not appreciated and some of them are threatened. There's a group in Boston who wanted to celebrate this recent history, and so they published a book like Concrete Toronto called Heroic: Boston Concrete 1957 – 1976.

And has this idea spread elsewhere?

One of our staff went back to Cincinnati; and so they now have a Cincinnati book, 50 From the 50s: Modern Architecture and Interiors in Cincinnati by the university there. I know that we were in Montreal presenting this idea at a conference, Preserving Modern Architecture in Québec, Canada and Elsewhere and quite a few people were interested in taking it further.

Let's talk about the Tower Renewal project . When I see high rises in Scarborough or Mississauga, I immediately think depressing. What are the positives of these suburban towers?

When people talk about their immediate thoughts, those impressions are often prejudices. Some are based on observation, but it can also be based on not being observant. When those buildings were built, there was a huge amount of optimism. They were built in a time of economic boom; a post-war period of fantastic creativity and inventiveness. We need to return to that optimism, reinvest and understand it (PDF).

Having studied them, how do you think these suburban towers can be improved?

The biggest challenge is the zoning bylaws: often the zoning is so restrictive that it prohibits mixed use. Because you cannot open a little shop or have a little cart selling goods, there isn't the potential for more social networking. Those restrictions mean it cannot become a "complete community" where you have jobs, services and all sorts of other things happening. These bylaw restrictions make it exceedingly difficult for communities to evolve.

So we need more commerce for these areas?

It's partly commerce, but it's also other types of housing. It's a matter of making it more varied so these neighbourhoods can become better places to live. Another issue we're finding is the lack of political representation. Thirteen thousand people live in the Kipling and Steeles area, but at the last election there was only one polling station. Many are new immigrants, and we need to do as much as possible to help them understand their potential for a political voice. It becomes an issue of marginalization. It's not just the architecture -- how it's used is important.

Is this an idea that has also spread elsewhere?

The work that we are doing in Toronto is based on precedents that have already happened in Europe. In North America, we've been presenting this material to a number of cities: L.A.; Boston; Philadelphia; Montreal; and Vancouver. We've been talking it up quite a bit! Those buildings actually do an incredible service in housing huge numbers of people -- in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, one million people live in this sort of housing. So rather than dismiss them, we need to start by accepting that they are people's homes and figure out how we can make them really great. That's what's happening with the Tower Renewal Project. We started the project with the University of Toronto, but now others like the United Way are on board. The changes won't happen overnight, but there are a lot of people who are invested in taking this further.

Alexandra Shimo is an author and journalist based on the Ossington strip. Born in Toronto, she lived in several cities, including London, New York and Washington D.C. before coming home.

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