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2006 08 08
Imagining Toronto | A Review of Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto
Toronto's architectural renaissance has produced not only a creative resurgence in building design (as seen with Daniel Libeskind's Royal Ontario Museum Crystal, Frank Gehry's redesigned AGO, and Yansong Ma's "Marilyn" design for the Absolute condominium project in Mississauga) but has also generated a renewed appreciation of some of the city's older architectural forms. Perhaps chief among those who cherish Toronto's architectural legacy is writer and photographer Terry Murray, whose Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto (Anansi, 2006: $24.95) explores the city's gargoyles, grotesques, griffins, and goddesses carved into the facades of dozens of the city's most interesting buildings and shows us that architecture is about secrets and storytelling as much as it is about style and structure.

Murray's interest in architectural stone carving began as a desire to find and photograph the city's architectural ornaments and developed into a mission to counter the widely held belief that Toronto lacks a worthwhile architectural heritage. Faces on Places accomplishes this objective admirably, inventorying carvings on more than sixty notable Toronto buildings, tracing their history and meaning as well as their decline and occasional resurgence. An example is the gargoyles of Toronto's Old City Hall, which presided in perched splendour when the building opened in 1899 but were removed in 1939 because parts of them were crumbling and on one occasion fell through the roof, barely missing workers inside. The gargoyles were replaced in 2003 after a decades-long battle to preserve Old City Hall.

Faces on Places is meticulously researched, and Murray provides background not only on the carvings (and the carvers) themselves but also on the buildings, their history, and the architects who designed them. The book is divided thematically among chapters variously exploring gargoyles (among purists, those carvings with the function of diverting water and otherwise functionally stabilizing the structures they adorn), griffins, angels, gods and goddesses, and the mystery faces she calls "unknown soldiers". Another chapter, "Portraits and Caricatures", evaluates the propensity among some architects and public figures to commission carvings of themselves for their buildings, although many other carvings were made of heroes living and dead. Perhaps the most interesting chapter, "Canadian Content" considers designers and architects' efforts to add Canadian forms and faces to the city's buildings. Some of these most notable forms are visible on the Runnymede Public Library, built in 1929 and showcasing carved totem poles, an Indian head, and a squirrel on its facade.

If I may criticize Faces on Places, it is not to denigrate Terry Murray's beautiful photographs, conscientious research, or vivid writing (which make Faces on Places an outstanding work), but to wonder why Anansi did not release the book in a larger format. It is understandable that the book may have been designed to facilitate readers wishing to explore Toronto's grotesques in person (indeed, the book includes a detailed map and walking-tour guide), but many of Murray's photographs are superb, and her explanations invite longer meditations than the format can provide adequately. I would love to see an expanded Faces on Places appear as a large-format art book, with larger images and a longer text. One gains a glimpse of Toronto's architectural carvings but is enticed to want more.

Faces on Places reminds us that Toronto's architectural heritage is more robust and interesting than our daily slog along the city's streets would suggest. As Murray suggests through her photographs and commentary, sometimes all we need to do is look up.


Imagining Toronto contributes reviews of new, classic, and evocative Toronto literature to Reading Toronto every second Tuesday.

[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 08/08 at 10:07 AM

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