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City’s Great Spaces

by John Sewell

In the mid-1990s, former Toronto mayor and left-wing political columnist John Sewell conducted an indefatigable (but ultimately unsuccessful) campaign against the amalgamation of the city’s municipal governments. He peppered his criticism of the province’s proposal to create a megacity with ad hominem attacks on particular MPPs and hyperbolically dire predictions. Luckily, this first-rate book of architectural criticism displays all the qualities absent from Sewell’s increasingly hamfisted political advocacy: it is sensitive, balanced, even wry, and employs moderate adjectives and quiet verbs to tell the stories of the city’s buildings. Sewell’s lifelong devotion to his city takes on a welcome new guise here.
First imported from Europe in 1999, the annual Doors Open festival invites citizens to tour 100 of Toronto’s most notable buildings. The festival has become so popular that lineups for seldom-toured buildings like the Don Jail begin hours before opening. Sewell’s book will allow such amateurs to deepen their knowledge of the city’s best and worst edifices. With thumbnail sketches that seamlessly merge each building’s historic, literary, aesthetic, and, yes, political aspects, Sewell enriches the cityscape. One’s admiration for the clean-lined new Isabel Bader Theatre at Victoria College is perhaps heightened by learning that the building pays tribute to the difference-overcoming love a Jewish husband bore for his now deceased Gentile wife.
The entries mix pithy summaries of information gleaned from longer books with Sewell’s keen, idiosyncratic observations. (Of a new memorial to fallen police officers near Queen’s Park, for instance, he writes simply: “They deserve something less maudlin.”) The text also covers some new ground by going deep into the city’s neglected east and west ends and appraising the last decade’s new constructions.
Sewell criticizes architecture that tears at the city’s time-woven fabric, but he is not impervious to the attractions of modernist works like the Toronto Dominion Centre or “brutalist” constructions like the Hummingbird (formerly the O’Keefe) Centre. A conservationist at heart, he nonetheless praises bold renovations – for example, the transformation of the Toronto Postal Delivery Building into the Air Canada Centre or the refashioning of the CNE’s Ontario Government Building into the deluxe banquet hall, the Liberty Grand.