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2006 10 06
An Opportunity To Reinvent Ourselves
When built, Toronto's new city hall represented everything the city wanted to be: dynamic, youthful and infused with a sense of the possibilities post-war Canada offered. With that kind of momentum, it soon became emblematic of a democratic ideal that made our city the envy of the world.
Somewhere into the city hall's middle age, though, it took on signs of overindulgence that eroded its symbolic power.

Parts of the building and square became rundown and flabby. The council chamber podium closed after a bad accident. The elevated walkway circling Nathan Phillips Square was declared unsafe.

In addition, the extra fat of too many buildings bulged the once open and light plaza. What had been the healthy heart of a modern, open gathering place became clogged by excessive good intentions.

For example, the skating rink concession stand and washroom building was never equal to the design of city hall -- it remains an awkward and uncomfortable intrusion. The peace garden intruded into the once-open plaza. While well considered as an object, it has become another piece of design cholesterol in the public body of the square.

In 2005, the 40th anniversary of city hall, councillors decided they had enough. It was time for a total makeover. They promised a $40-million competition to rejuvenate the square. Remember, when Governor-General Georges Vanier opened the building in 1965, its total cost was about $31-million. In 2006, $40-million buys us just a renovated square, and not even all of it.

Today, Mayor David Miller will announce the international competition's start and some wonder if we can once again find our youth -- at least as it was once embodied in the slim iconography of city hall.

However, do we as a culture have the vitality and confidence to embrace changes like those embraced 50 years ago by Mayor Nathan Phillips and his contemporaries? Think of how alien the city hall design must have seemed to a city just coming of age at a time when commercial jets and colour TV were rarities. Would Torontonians allow something as unequivocally new today?

Many fear the answer to that question is no. With every attempt to update and invigorate the city, we are forced back to solutions that even our allegedly conservative forefathers dismissed as too early century --20th century that is. Will this competition become another failed signpost in our ongoing struggle to reinvent a creative city?

Make no mistake. This competition involves more than fixing a few problems on the square. At its core is the issue of how we shake off our moribund body politic and its acceptance of things as they are. Now is the time to reinvent ourselves if Toronto is to compete with the best cities of the world and we cannot do that without change.

Others share a similar view.

Toronto architect Jack Diamond, of Diamond and Schmidt Architects, says it this way, ''Is the original design too sacred? Nothing is sacred ...''
''A really important idea in urban design is that history does not stop. Anything can be improved. Look how Bernini improved Michelangelo's St. Peter's Basilica Square.''

''With clutter,'' says Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects and the chair of the Waterfront Design Review Panel, ''you fail to understand the idea behind the square's overall design.'' He stresses that, ''The accretion of well-intentioned little things -- from the way garbage is handled all the way up to the peace garden and temporary stage -- impede the design intent, which was that the square must reflect Toronto as a society.''

That is the attitude that abandoned us over the last generation. We somehow grew accustomed to the idea that Torontonians lived in a perfect society that needed only a few tweaks now and then to stay the envy of the world. We added but never took away, failing to reinvent our infrastructure. That is why the Gardiner Expressway still cuts us off from the waterfront and why, after so many attempts, we have not figured out how to move people to vital areas of the city effectively and sustainably.

The competition winner will be announced next spring. What direction will they take? What direction do you want them to take?

This story was first published in Tuesday's National Post as part of the Toronto Unbuilt series.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 10/06 at 08:35 AM

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