Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Destroying the Past to Create A Future

In the wake of the Second World War Toronto became one of the most progressive cities on Earth, if in this context "progress" is defined as "a willingness to destroy one's heritage." Throughout the downtown core and elsewhere grand old buildings came tumbling down and were ground to dust, and it wasn't until the slaying of the Spadina Expressway and the salvation of Campbell House in the 1970s that urban preservation began to gain strength in this city.

I'm of the opinion that Toronto has no choice but to be a city of the future, because it's already destroyed most of its past. Yet, in this headlong rush toward the future, this city may yet demolish some of the last shards of history it has left.

Today, the 102-year-old Royal Canadian Military Institute is the odd structure out on University Avenue. A small, historic, architecturally stylish building, it's perpetually in the shadow of the skyscrapers that occupy every other scrap of land along the road from Front Street to the edge of Queen's Park. Two nineteenth-century field artillery pieces flank it. It includes a museum that contains, among other things, the seat of the Red Baron's Fokker triplane. It's absolutely unique in the city and the only evidence left that University Avenue was ever anything other than a canyon walled by glass and steel and stone.

I'm pretty sure you can see where I'm going with this.

The Toronto Star recently reported on the tribulations of a new condominium project - shocking, a new condo in Toronto, I know, but please try to suppress your amazement - that is drawing controversy because it is planned to be built without permanent parking spots. The 42-storey building, if completed, would be a middle finger upraised at the car-centric planning that's dominated in North America for the last sixty years, a brash and bold statement that it's possible to live a good life in this city without four wheels underneath you.

Normally, I'd be all over this. I wouldn't mind living in such surroundings myself. The only problem is that for this condo to be built, the Royal Canadian Military Institute must first come down.

Because, you know, there's no other scrap of land anywhere in the city, and history is just for nerds anyway, right? Why does this city have to build my hopes up so much, only to destroy them so swiftly?

What I find most disturbing about the article is its blunt progressive triumphalism, its brash assumption that absolutely nothing will stand in the way of this construction and, by extension, progress. Opposition to the RCMI's demolition isn't mentioned until the last quarter of the article, and where the building is acknowledged as a historical property, it's described as "decaying." That's a word that carries a lot of charge and power, stronger even than "dilapidated" because more people know what it means. Besides, who cares if this one-of-a-kind structure, this building that is a listed heritage property, is bulldozed when it will be replaced by a structure "that maintains elements of the façade," eh?

The article says that City Council is going to vote on final approval of the project later this month - assuming they haven't already done so. Personally, I intend to get in touch with my councillor about this. Toronto may have to be a city of the future, but there's no excuse for building it on what shattered fragments of its past we have left.

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