Mark Kingwell

2005 03 30

Architecture and Utopia - Part 1

imageMy graduate seminar this year investigates the theme "Architecture and Utopia." Every week we gather in a fluorescent-washed room, under a cheap suspended ceiling, on mismatched chairs, and discuss big urban dreams, the visions of sprawling hope. Cities transformed into vast Edenic gardens, with sweeping throughways and radial residential blocks as far as the eye can see. Cities razed and rebuilt in futuristic layers, with floating railways stations and razored, hundred-story office towers. Dreamy cities, with snaking flaneur-friendly walkways and arresting juxtaposed street-culture. We read Le Corbusier, Sant'Elia, Benjamin. We entertain visions, images, pictures. We sit under the harsh electrified gas, our heads bent together, a dozen of us, architects and philosophers, probing to the logic of dreams.

Outside, with these north-facing windows, there is only the watery winter light of Toronto. The vista is bleak, a scene of nothingness. A parking lot. A snow-covered field where a stadium used to be. To the left, a small daycare centre and playground. Straight ahead, across Bloor Street, the banal concrete brutalism of the OISE building, one of those edifices apparently constructed to convey hatred for the street on which it sits. You must sidle down its edge even to get in. It could be a courthouse or security-conscious consulate. Next to it, a windswept and pointless parkette, a red stone wall blocking any decent view of a private club.

Inside the room, we look at pretty pictures and discuss big ideas. Tales of Paris, Milan, New York, Shanghai. We try not to look out the window, but it's hard, not least because someone has permanently removed the curtains from the windows, something we discovered only when we attempted to screen "The Fountainhead" in class. The dim light, those beige and grey structures under colourless sky, undid that dream.

2005 03 31

Architecture and Utopia - Part 2

imageThe utopian impulse is so often foolish, or dangerous that is sometimes hard to take it seriously; it is, indeed, a ready shorthand for the reckless ideologue, the heedless architect of change. The critic Mark Lilla calls this overweening desire "the lure of Syracuse": the desire to make a shiny political idea real, as Plato tried -- and failed -- to do with Dionysus the Tyrant, leaving the scholarly safety of Athens for the hurly-burly of ancient Syracuse. Dionysus was a ruler who, despite his sobriquet, struck Plato as proto-philosophical, noy tryannical: mouldable clay for the master of the transcendental Forms. He was wrong, as most utopians have also been wrong.

And yet, we need utopia. Its energy and drive, its optimism that things could be better than they are. Once transcendental, as in Plato or Augustine, then geographical or spiritual, as in More or Butler, the impulse now seems largely temporal: the future as the site of our dreams, the notional undiscovered country of time, now that there is no physical country left to discover.

Of course, a desire that big is not to be trusted. There is too much associated destruction, too much associated faith in staamroller ideas like reason or technology or socialism. Good cities, as we know, are less planned from the top down than they are grown, from the bottom up. Utopian desire, given too free rein, reveals itself as a kind of inner tyrant, a dark overwhelming form of hope, that pecuilar desire to be, as the critic Wayne Koestenbaum has said, "somehow simultaneously avant-garde and dead."

In the seminar, we read Jane Jacobs for the usual cure to soaring urban ambition. We note that she lives not far away from where we sit. Also, however, that her ideas, so often celebrated, are actually confused and vague. She lauds street life, but only at one scale; she doesn'tseem to know what inspires or edifies, only what merely functions. So much here is about blocking things, keeping things from happening, halting the imagined. A distrust of the grandiose pervades. Fine for Boston's North End or the West Village, maybe, but here, looking out, we feel the need for large scale, not small. Big ideas, transformations, something to enliven the dead zone of our gaze, the junkspace of Toronto.

We cannot ignore the thought, too, that the North End is nowadays a virtual theme park, artificial and tourist-addled, with gangs of college-logo'd teens lining up for pizza or cannoli. The West Village, meanwhile, has become a supermodel haven, priced into the stratosphere by Gwyneth Paltrow and Helena Christensen, pushing their babies along Hudson Street in limo-expensive prams. Before her incarceration, Martha Stewart bought a floor in the new Richard Meier building at the corner of Perry Street and West. Martin Scorsese too. The building was featured in a recent New York Times spead, its unihindered view of the Hudson rendered as a two-page photpspread of lifestyle porn. Good neighbourhoods, kept good, just get expensive: gentrifiction without regulation, or rather with the dominant regulation only, the one of money. Even the hippy Annex, with its futon stores and used-record shops, is too expensive for any of us, including me, the only one in the room with a job.

I lived in the West Village when I was teaching at the City University of New York, and people would always ask me how I could afford it. The answer was, I couldn't. It was a dream, a wishful thought, a vacation from reality. I loved it even though -- or maybe because -- I knew it couldn't last. I used to go running down Perry to the river and see the Meier building, its two perfect towers framing the intersection. I would imagine myself there, somebody else, with somebody else's life. Not a nightmare, but a bad dream.

2005 04 01

Architecture and Utopia - Part 3

imageThe university blocked a deal to build a new football stadium on the site right outside our classroom. It was considered a great victory for sanity and scholarship, as against money and mass culture. No roiling crowds of drunken Argonauts fans would soil our cloister! No overhang of luxury seating would cast a shadow on our quiet streets!

The architects of the original design tried hard to modify their plan to allay these fears. They reduced the number of seats, rejigged the distribution so that more of them stretched over Philosopher's Walk instead of Devonshire Place. They were not the arrogant monomaniacs of the popular imagination, half-pint Howard Roarks designing without heed or scruple. They wanted it to work, it seemed.

They might as well have banged their heads against one of our dark stone walls. The deal was queered, the contract lost, the imagined stadium sent packing up to York University -- where, now, the principals are embroiled in lawsuits and financial inquiry over shady land deals. This, naturally, makes the stadium's opponents feel even more smug.

Every time I look out the classroom window I think how great it might have been. To have a genuine downtown stadium, a subway-access park, for the Argonauts and the Blues alike. Earlier, sitting in a meeting of the college Senate, where the stadium deal was mocked and denounced, I wondered if I was the only one there who had ever sat in the stands of old Varsity Stadium, on a dreamy September say, and watched a football game. Probably. Even at the time I was usually by myself because no one else I knew liked football.

I miss the old Varsity Stadium, and I wanted the new one. But here, in this town, victory means keeping things from happening, not making them happen. Not dreaming big, but dashing dreams. Pass incomplete...

2005 04 02

Architecture and Utopia - Part 4

imageIt can't be surprising that academics blocked progress, since so many of them see that as part of their job description.

In his satire of academic politics, Microcosmographia Academica, published almost a century ago, the classicist Francis Cornford noticed the obvious fact that most reasons given in academic debate are not for doing something but for not doing anything.

These include The Principle of the Wedge, which says you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you will act still more justly in future; The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, by which it is decreed that no thing shall ever be done for the first time; The Principleof the Fair Trial, which argues that the current system, whatever it is, has not been given a chance; and The Principle of Unripe Time, which states that "people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived."

Time, Cornford adds, "is like the medlar; it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe."

We sometimes forget that Toronto is, among its other identities, very much an academic city. Not as obviously so as Cambridge, Cornford's home town, but sufficiently to give the political discourse of this city a distinct overtone of academic wintryness. Reasons given are most often for not doing things, not for doing them. Blockage is progress; resistance is self-evident; ambition is suspect. The old thin-lipped Puritan disapproval of ostentation has merged smoothly with the grievance politics of the multicultural moment, forging an alliance of surprising resilience.

The time is not ripe; the time is rotten. The stadium site is an empty lot of snow and discarded equipment, a mise en scene of misery. Thus do we claim victory!

2005 04 03

Architecture and Utopia - Part 5

imageGames, like utopia, offer a dialectic of time and hope. Can I realize my dream of victory before time expires? Can the quirky non-clock time of baseball or cricket grow large enough to encompass my desire? As I look out the grimy window, I think the issue is not so much football as life itself.

The philosopher Bernard Suits argues that games express the highest interests of humankind, the sort of goal-directed activity that is free from use. He means art and philosophy as well as literal games. Here, the prelusory goals of the game give over to the lusory pleasures of the game itself. (Ludere, lus -- meaning play; a root that is too often forgotten in loose talk of preludes and delusions.) A game is organized play, governed by rules or norms, but never reducible to anything other than the sum of its enactments. The rules are not the game. The pleasure of the game is constraint meeting possibility, tradition under the sign of novelty, knowing that, though many games have come before, this particular one has not. The game unfolds in the in playing, in time, purely itself.

Thus, likewise, does art resist reduction to propositions (even as it maybe, powerfully, about ideas). Thus does philosophy, at its best, become a sort of impossible profession, whose conclusions are, in a sense, its least valuable pieces, the sloughed-off skin of reflection, which remains a living body, irreducible and itself.

I think of all this, playing another, even less structured game, the one we call day-dreaming, looking out on the dead playing field, the denuded ground, bare and lacking its encirclement, the architecture of gamespace, that liminal space separating play from the workaday world, the stadium. Inside my space, a room for reflection, I peer through the transparent boundary, the light-permeable skin, and see future possible games begin to die.

I should really be listening to what one of the architects or philosophers is saying; but I am, as we say, lost in thought. I have lost my way. I am a flaneur of the mind. For the moment.

2005 04 04

Architecture and Utopia - Part 6

imageThat is not all, however. For the unignorable irony is that some of the city's best architecture is part of this very same university that refused to allow the gamespace of the new stadium. Our campus has become a kind of incubator of dreams, a sabbatical space, the way Rem Koolhaas argues Coney Island functions for Manhattan. We have taken risks and scored: Massey College, Graduate House, the Isabel Bader Theatre. And,above all, that indefinable harmony of styles and periods that is impossible to plan or dictate; that must grow, over time.

The university is a strange achievement, a space coherent unto itself, but not closed or opaque. It does not turn its back on the city, the way Yale or Columbia do, or find its identity only via suburban isolation, like York or Calgary or Trent or any number of other places you could mention. Instead, like McGill arranged along Sherbrooke, or NYU scattered around the casual drug deals, dog runs, buskers and grungy chess geniuses of Washington Square, the university allows the city to permeate it, to flow into and through our separateness. Down the sweep of Queen's Park, along Hoskin and College, through the jay-walkers on the thin strip of St.George.

Come on in.

2005 04 05

Architecture and Utopia - Part 7

imageNobody can fail to engage the architectural excitement of our city's present moment, I think. There is hype galore, and money, and maybe even some inspired design -- though I suspect that we will find, too soon, that it is as if we have woken from a dream and found, not the oneiric architecture of our visions, but instead the crusted remains of a collective delirium.

Nevertheless, it is a good time to dream big dreams. After so long with so little to show, the city hauls itself out of its pervasive ugliness, its lack of distinction. What will it find? We cannot say yet, but it will, naturally, fall some distance short of utopia. No bad thing, to be sure, at least as a general rule; we don't want, and could not afford, the explosive ambition of a Shanghai or Taipei, those throbbing districts of postmodern futuristic exuberance. Not for the likes of modest, progress-wary us. Anyway, those visions, too, soon begin to pall: witness the weird neo-feudal violence of 90-storey shadows falling aslant hovels and dirt, the routine immiseration of twenty-first-century communo-capitalism.

We have, it seems, our own kind of, let us call it, modest utopianism. A calculated conservative ambition, with spurts of radical playfulness, suited to the grey dirty town we remain beneath the sometimes slick surfaces.

One of my favourite things right now is, in the middle of the day, to exit the building that houses the seminar room, also home of my office, and walk along the hoardings and scaffold that dominate Philosopher's Walk. This formerly quiet pathway, once overgrown and dangerous, a no-go zone of potential assignations and assault, is now a building site for the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Royal Ontario Museum. Royalty everywhere. Signs enforce hardhats and steel-toed boots. Crude spray painted messages indicate an office beyond the sheets of blond plywood.

Up the stairs, past the plaque commemorating a royal visit, and out onto the street, the vista opens up. The rusted and angled I-beams of the ROM's crystal design offer a time-stop essay in endocolonization, a kind of slow-motion Borg experiment in which random pieces of steel self-organize and consume the old stone of the Victorian original. The structure is thick with bracing and yet sticks elegant fingers of steel out over the street. I wish it could stay this way, a half-finished piece of genius, order and decay simultaneously conveyed. Stone, steel, and rust. The open spaces between the angled beams.

One day, walking by, I saw a construction worker standing there, apparently alone, on the site. There was a pile of beams, of various lengths, at his feet. His hardhat was on backwards. Dressed in flannels and jeans, he might have been twenty-five. In his hand, a sheet of paper. Looking hard at the paper, and frowning.

I thought: that paper is the plan. Like the badly translated instructions for some cut-rate Korean scale-model kit, he is trying to figure out which piece attaches where. A man lost in concentration, lost in thought, working to make the next move, the right move, in order to make a build happen.

That, I thought, that right there is how a dream goes about becoming reality. The plan, plus the man.