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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.
[email this story] Posted by Mark Kingwell on 04/05 at 08:47 AM

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