Edifice Complex: Toronto’s billion-dollar “spectator sport”

I want to understand why the erection of Frank Gehry’s towers, or the gleam in David Mirvish’s eye, makes thoughtful people like Christopher Hume weak in the knees.

A year ago, I wrote about all the ways we sabotage our plan for the City of Toronto.  It was a response to how Mirvish had tied Toronto’s planning department up in knots over an out-sized condominium development in the middle of a historic ward.

Although the City, represented by the local Councillor, Adam Vaughan, and the planning department, led by chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has bargained in good faith to mitigate negative impacts of the proposed development, a suitable compromise hasn’t emerged.  As a result, like most developers, Mirvish has elected to end-run the City’s planning authority by appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board.

In my post a year ago, I listed all the ways that the city’s official plan would be threatened, and all the ways that Jennifer Keesmaat would be undermined by this process.

Of course the OMB topped the list because of its disdain for local planning and democracy in general.  Its destructive effect was summarized well in Hume’s own paper, The Toronto Star, in an article entitled, “How the OMB Stifles democracy in Ontario”.

Then I described the horse-trading councillors, each seeking to cut a special deal with the developer BEFORE the OMB intercedes and eliminates what little influence they might have had.  I pointed out the constant erosion of the plan through the many, minor adjustments and compromises that committees of council make to accommodate those who feel constrained by the plan.

But I didn’t foresee  someone in the media leading the charge against the official City Plan and the planners!  Yet just last week, the avuncular Christopher Hume piled on Jennifer Keesmaat for, “Challenging the Mirvish Gehry Scheme”.

Hume has it exactly wrong.  Keesmaat isn’t challenging their scheme.  It is the developer who is challenging the validity of the City’s Official Plan, which has been developed through years of community consultation, articulated by professional planners, and adopted by the democratically elected City Council of the day.

Why would the officially mandated guardian of the municipality’s plan, buttressed with bylaws and backed by Council, need to challenge the ad hoc desires of a lone developer?  Only one of the two parties in conflict is acting on legal authority.  The other is challenging that authority.  Hume, the long-time urban affairs columnist, knows better than to ascribe authority to the developer, as if the chief city planner must resort to some kind of appeal for the right to do her job.

Hume gives us two reasons for this inversion.  First, Frank Gehry is an important architect.  Second, Jennifer Keesmaat is a nobody.

It really comes down to that, and Hume should be ashamed.  Instead of arguing the merits of the proposal, beyond the possible size and beauty of the buildings, all Hume provides is a syncophantic tribute to the towers’ proponents, and vile ad hominems against the chief city planner.

The Mirvish scheme is described as a gift to the city, proferred by the generous hand of a great civic leader.  Hume knows less about the development and its effects than Keesmaat, who has actually seen all the confidential submissions made in support of the proposal, so he wastes no time on the substance of his case.  He focuses instead on the characters involved.  He starts by praising the architectural stud-muffin Gehry, arguing that his greatness will make Toronto greater in the eyes of the world.

The desperate neediness of people like Hume is what’s really behind Toronto’s struggle to be “world class.”  Where the quality and accomplishments of Toronto’s endeavors warrant international recognition, we already have it.  Where we don’t have this recognition, it remains to be earned.  It’s a small world in which we are all highly visible.  There are no secrets.  The world knows who we are.  Does Hume?

The edifice complex exhibited by Hume is part of an old world psychosis.  Greatness is not signified by buildings, it’s achieved by what goes on inside and outside those buildings.   It’s better to choose brilliant architecture over dull architecture, it goes without saying, but great buildings do not make us great or make this a great place.

Unless of course you regard architecture as an end in itself, something worth serving rather than something that serves us.  Hume says as much in another gushy tribute, this time to Will Alsopp:

“… it helps that architecture is our newest spectator sport….  Thanks to Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and a handful of others, architects are ready for prime time….  Architecture has been returned to the land of the living; it expresses emotion, it wants to engage, enthuse and, dare we say it, entertain.”

Really?  Multi-billion dollar decisions, with 100-year consequences, in a city that operates under severe financial constraints, and in which millions of people try to share space, architecture is merely a SPECTATOR sport?

We’re not spectators on architecture.  We live with it, all of it, the good and the bad.  Inside it, outside it, and all around it.  One way or another, we all pay for it too.

Looking at buildings from a distance doesn’t have nearly the impact on residents and visitors as how those buildings function internally and how they relate to the other buildings that comprise our streetscapes and neighbourhoods.  The fever that rages in Hume, over what is still nothing more than a bag of adjectives and sketches, does not burn in me.

I doubt Hume would put up with the destruction of this warm, historic streetscape if he lived in the sunless canyons of tower-lined streets to the south.  It’s easy to live somewhere else and forget the implicit promise made to the thousands of buyers who together plunked down billions of dollars on condominiums near the familiar and inviting old retail and restaurant buildings along Mirvish’s stretch of King West.  They could reasonably have assumed that there was a plan that set rules about what would remain of what exists in the neighbourhood they had chosen for themselves.  For them, the surrender of the official plan for Chris Hume’s entertainment, might seem like a bad bargain.  Perhaps Hume could concede that architecture isn’t a spectator sport for them.

The second part of Hume’s argument is appalling.  In contrast to the lordly eminences, Mirvish and Gehry, Keesmaat is described in the most disparaging terms imaginable (He calls her a “consultant!”)  He’s almost incoherent in his contempt.  Here, verbatim, is some of what he offers in lieu of evidence or argument in support of the Mirvish scheme:

Before Keesmaat took over as chief planner 13 months ago, she was a consultant who worked in smaller cities such as Regina, Moncton and Peterborough. Much of her time in Toronto has been focused more on the public than planning. She espouses pedestrianism, cycling and public transit, insisting that people want walkable neighbourhoods and shorter commutes.

Despite the talk, it’s now clear Keesmaat has succumbed to the same timidity that has kept Toronto from achieving the greatness it so badly wants. In short order, she has learned to wring her hands with the best of the doubting Torontonians. The fear of height and density, of standing out and being bold, of duplicitous developers and lying architects, of slowing the car and of making a decision continues.

This is laughable, of course.  Ad hominem arguments are the last resort for people who can’t make a legitimate case.  In this instance, personal praise and condemnation are tempting because there is no hard case to be made.  There is only preference to be argued.  On one side, it is public preference, expressed through its elected government, its official plan, its zoning bylaws, and its planning staff.  On the other side, it’s expressed by a developer’s desire for legacy and profit, supported by spectating syncophants like Hume.

Which, by the way, is not an ad hominem attack on Hume.  I’m citing his own arguments.  Whether or not he actually feels he has a mandate to speak for all Toronto, and that all Toronto is as desperate as he is to “achieve greatness” through architecture, is neither here nor there.  Nor does it matter whether Hume, an advocate for high rise development in general and someone who dines on this debate, is really just a spectator.  He has the Toronto Star as a soap box from which to propound these views and should be regarded with skepticism for the scorn he heaps on Keesmaat.

Let’s look more closely on what he thinks invalidates her position:

Keesmat worked in smaller cities.  This is true but not particularly relevant.  Toronto is Canada’s largest city, so to work anywhere else in the country is to have worked in a smaller city.  Perhaps the City of Toronto is so good at its job, by virtue of its size, that it has nothing to learn from other Canadian municipalities, but I’ll let Hume make that case.  May I suggest starting in Calgary?

On the point of Keesmaat’s focus “on the public instead of planning,” I’m frankly confused.  I don’t see how it’s possible to plan without a focus on the public, nor as the chief planner, to focus on the public other than from a planning perspective.  So I really can’t offer a defense for this behavior because it makes good sense to me.  What exactly would Hume prefer she do?

He’s dead on in his accusations about pedestrianism, cycling, and transit.  I think he’s trying to damn her with faint praise, but he confuses vice with virtue and instead winds up fainting with damn praise.  Her position on the Mirvish scheme is perfectly consistent with her concern about moving people.  It will pile thousands of extra residents on a tiny plot of land where pedestrian overflow already competes with cars and bikes, and where the subway and streetcars are already at maximum capacity.  These features of the Gehry design aren’t visible to the naked eye given the immensity of the buildings and the puny scale of the renderings, but under a microscope, I’m sure you’d be able to see the street-level mayhem that worries Keesmaat.

Hume goes on and on like this.  According to him, she’s timid, doubting, hand-wringing, and standing in the way of greatness.  Her decision is based on fear of height, which he implies is related to fear of greatness.  It’s all about fear, in any case.  We should embrace the Mirvish scheme because Jennifer Keesmaat is an underqualified small-fry, who hasn’t got the experience or courage to exceed her mandate and undermine the plan she’s sworn to implement.

But while we’re on the subject of Keesmaat’s emotional state, what is it about her opposition that makes Hume so angry?  His general enthusiasm for high rise condos puts him on the right side of destiny and a probably OMB ruling.  Many developers demand more than zoning will allow and budget sufficient time and money to defeat the community in OMB hearings.  It’s a cost of doing business, and Mirvish retains enough experts to know this.  No one can be surprised.  The odds are in Mirvish’s favour.  Why is Hume so outraged?

I think his feelings are revealed in the way Hume ends his diatribe.  In an interview, Keesmaat has told him that she’s not comfortable with the compromises on quality of life issues that must be accepted before greenlighting a development that demands so much of the surrounding city.  Hume’s response:

That quality of life is already compromised by the failure to control development; Mirvish and Gehry give official Toronto a chance to change that and make it — and the city — look good.

The first part of his answer signals despair.  He can’t be bothered  with controlled development in accordance with a plan for the entire City.  He has accepted defeat on that score.  His only interest now is in making sure that the plan is gutted by famous architects and attractive buildings.  We may be heading to Hell in a handcart, but Hume wants to go down looking good.

He writes so emotionally that he misses the illogic of his conclusion.  If quality of life is compromised by the failure to control development, and the Mirvish scheme exacerbates that loss of control, how does it offer “official Toronto a chance to change …?”  It’s the same old dirty deal that makes Hume feel defeated about a city vision and plan.  It’s precisely the kind of decision making that keeps him in despair.

Keesmaat is trying to protect the City’s virtue, perhaps naively.  Hume like an aging courtesan has given up on truth and beauty.  Degraded by past violations, he still holds out hope that the next violation will restore his self-esteem.

Could I be right?  Is that why otherwise virtuous people like Hume put out for prodigal sons like Gehry and Mirvish?  A lifetime of false hopes and failed efforts have conditioned them to believe that hope lies in the ambitions of a few, not the aspirations of the many.

Need they be reminded that in architecture, a guilty pleasure of affluence, there is no morning after pill?  The issue of each tryst outlives you.  Your brood of bad decisions will crowd out the hopes you once had for the future.

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