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2006 12 15
Culture And Tourism In The Modern City: Part 2
imageReading Toronto is interested in the decisions our politicians make concerning the city's cultural realm. So, when we came across this chapter in former city politician, Tony O'Donohue's, book, " Tale of a City," we wanted to share it with our readers. The chapter is written by journalist Cy Jamison and will run in four parts.

By Cy Jamison

Transforming Toronto
In Toronto, finally, there is a sense that something is happening in a relatively dull cultural milieu. The old Hogtown is benefiting from the influence of post-colonial arrivistes – world-class writers like Michael Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka, and Rohinton Mistry, born in India. It is also generating a home-grown flowering of internationally acclaimed opera singers, architects, musicians and film-makers.

Unfortunately, culture is still something of a dirty word in many of the English cities in Canada, perhaps because of the dreary provincialism imposed by the strict Victorian and Edwardian values of the mother country. That dreariness, which was reinforced by the Calvinist values of many Scots and Ulster Protestant settlers, is giving way to the cultural influences of the Mediterranean – particularly Italian and Greek; and also to the refined aesthetic of Asia, represented initially by its food, but increasingly by a much broader sense of style and sophistication, including a remarkable curvaceous condominium, designed by a young Beijing architect and located in the most unlikely environs of suburban Mississauga.

In architecture, Toronto has a chance to find a new path, despite losing the opportunity for major redevelopment that might have flowed from a successful bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Vancouver will instead benefit from redevelopment driven by the 2010 Winter Olympics. Toronto was shut out of the 2012 Olympics – did not even apply – by the much greater spending power of Paris, London, New York, Moscow and Madrid. It is a measure of how the wealth of cities can shift that Moscow has 34 billionaires, three more than New York, while Toronto has only a few.

In terms of scale, too, a single New York sports franchise, the National Football League Jets, has boosted that city’s Olympic prospects by announcing plans for a ‘green’ stadium complex that will cost $1.4 billion U.S. The New York Sports and Convention Center dwarfs Toronto’s overall expenditures on an entire group of highly-touted cultural developments. The south facade of the new stadium will contain 25,000 solar collector tubes and the walls will be topped by 34 wind turbines, each 40 feet tall. That should make it the most environmentally correct building in the world. The windmills alone will generate almost all of the energy for the facility when it is being used as a football stadium and about 25 per cent when its retractable roof is closed for conventions, exhibitions and other tourist attractions.

The budget for the new West Side stadium is about three times the cost of Toronto’s retractable-roofed Sky Dome, which seemed like a miracle of reinforced concrete when it opened on June 1989. But it now carries with it the decaying odour of a sarcophagus – a baseball stadium without grass, and precious little open air. It was resold in December 2004 for $25 million – a little over four per cent of what it cost to build, fifteen years earlier.

Royal Ontario Museum Extension
Not everything is being down-scaled in Toronto. The Royal Ontario Museum – Canada’s largest – is spending $200 million to commission the Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind to create a striking glass extension that will provide 220,000 square feet of renovated space, including 40,000 square feet of new galleries. The Bloor and University building will house everything from Alberta Badlands’ dinosaurs to a new acquisition, a fossil of the world’s largest sea scorpion, seven feet long and more than 400 million years old.

The renovation of the ROM – and it is a rebuild rather than a renovation – is a bold and innovative move for a conservative institution that should easily top one million visits a year when the new space comes on stream. The improvements are a major step forward. Just forty years ago, a visitor would have been struck by the casual dowdiness of the place. A curious child could gaze at eye level at a long table of prancing Tang dynasty horses, lying out on a table without benefit of holding cases and only minimal security.

Other Chinese and Asian masterpieces were everywhere – and there was much to be said for the casual approach to displays. Some of the improvements of recent years amounted to little more than a change of packaging – neat little glass-enclosed displays looking very prim and educational in the best minimalist way. But what they failed to show was how much was lying unseen in the basement.

The Chinese collections make the ROM one of the world’s great resources for Sinophiles. And although relentless new archaelogical digging across China has uncovered countless artifacts, including a standing terracotta ‘army’ in a vast Xian burial chamber, the ROM deserves better space for the chinoiserie and the great stone carvings so quietly added to its five million objects.

To open up its collections – and its mindset – the ROM has needed to spread its wings and provide space and access to its collections. Sometimes a little untidiness, the jumble of things you might discover in an old attic, is better than the feeling that all the objects are trapped in tiny spatial boxes, as if the curator were saying to the child, “Look, look, look at this, and only this, it’s precisely what I want you to see.” At last, the ROM seems to understand this – and as major renovations got underway, it was conducting daily tours, led by volunteers, boldly inviting visitors to ‘Come See the Mess.’

The new-found openness helped the ROM to solicit successfully for community support – and also for funding from philanthropists such as Galen Weston and Christopher Ondaatje. Openness is also central to Libeskind’s design. The proposal to open up the Bloor St façade to public view by creating huge new ‘crystal’ extensions got some criticism from Toronto’s legions of conservatives, but what it amounted to was a turning of the museum inside-out. Where Toronto had been a closed city for much of its short history, it was learning to be more European, to let the street go ‘inside’ and the institutional and domestic interiors go outside.

This idea was espoused forty years ago by a Toronto visionary, Marshall McLuhan, who brought the idea of the global village into his tiny Centre for Culture and Technology – little more than a cottage on the University of Toronto campus. Europeans go outside to be public and to entertain, McLuhan said, North Americans stay home. The corollary of this is that the European town square is a place of entertainment and commerce, while the North American square tends to be half-empty. Hence we get the hideous Dundas Square off Yonge St in downtown Toronto - a space planned more for advertising than people.

But still, Toronto has changed. European, Asian and Latin immigrants have slowly reversed attitudes sufficiently to take citizens out from behind closed doors and into their urban spaces, to outdoor cafes and parks with summer theatre, to street carnivals embracing many cultures, to rock concerts and public entertainments ranging from Ed Mirvish’s Christmas turkey giveaway, the Toronto Film Fest, the Hispanic Fiesta to the Gay Pride parade, St Patrick’s Day parade and the huge Caribana Carnival.

Continued tomorrow . . .
[email this story] Posted by Cy Jamison on 12/15 at 01:02 PM

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