This snapshot of the Toronto skyline crowding the historic Fort York can be viewed as a microcosm of larger developments, showcasing problems the heritage field is facing when it comes to preserving historic buildings. I have grown up in the Greater Toronto Area and like many others have witnessed firsthand the vast changes that Toronto has experienced in the past generation. What was once a picturesque skyline, marked with iconic buildings, now resembles a dystopian science fiction novel. Modernist, large, ubiquitous, and often poorly built condos and corporate towers have sprung out of the earth at an alarming rate, forever changing the characteristics of the neighbourhoods they occupy.
There have been countless examples of Toronto buildings being demolished so that new condos, often built by foreign developers with little care for local communities, can go up in their place. When driving into the city along the Gardiner Expressway twenty years ago, the once prominent Rogers Centre (formerly the Skydome) and CN Tower were on display for all visitors to see, creating a grand but inviting picture of the city, showcasing its reputation for innovative architecture. Now, those landmarks are mostly hidden behind ugly condominiums that resemble prisons or apartment blocks from the former Soviet Union.
What does this trend say about contemporary Canadian culture? Where is the sense of permanence? Where is the pride in our history? Perhaps most importantly, if this trend continues, will our cultural heritage survive at all?
A few months ago I was reading an article that M. Denhez published in 1978 called “Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetics, Ethos.” In the article he had very prophetic insights when discussing the transient nature of contemporary culture. He explained that we have entered the age of disposable architecture, stating that this trend was a product of consumer society where things have become “mass producible, mass usable, mass disposable.” He went on to state: “The heritage movement stands for the principle that man has consciously attempted to bring lasting improvements to his environment. A society which is not capable of appreciating that effort is not capable of understanding the meaning of initiative and creativity in particular, and lasting values in general. Such a society is consequently not likely to produce any lasting achievements of its own.”[i]
These statements were meant as an encompassing account of Canadian culture and what could happen if we are not more careful with our heritage. I believe that Toronto offers a perfect example of what can occur if we invest in “disposable architecture” at the cost of historic buildings. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that there are many institutions and individuals who work towards preserving Toronto’s heritage, and they should be applauded. We can only hope more like them will pop up, and hopefully at a faster rate than the condominiums that now threaten to destroy the beautiful character that once defined Toronto’s downtown core and surrounding areas.
CBC Video, New Condos Rise from Historic Toronto Facades
A list of demolished Toronto buildings
CBC, Growing List of Potential Heritage Buildings Threatened by lack of funds and Maintenance
A List of the Oldest Toronto Structures
[i] Denhez, M. Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetics, Ethos. In M. Denhez, Heritage Fights Back. Heritage Canada. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1978, 66-67.