Film, Media, and Toronto’s Built Environment

The Stonehouse Distillery in Toronto's Distillery District. Photograph by Benson Kua, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On March 14, the opening night of the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media studies – held this year in Toronto – a panel of practitioners and curators gathered to discuss Toronto’s built form. Or that was the intent; in practice, the conversations roamed well beyond buildings and topography to attempts at diagnosing the city’s psychology. Empowered by organizer Stanley Corkin of the University of Cincinnati to select photographs or moving images emblematic of the city, the participants offered uncannily parallel glimpses of a place that is as famous for its ability to masquerade as an American elsewhere as it is for its self-deprecation. Further, themes of overlooked or undervalued depth tied several of the presentations together, whether about topography or the innate value of Toronto’s urban identity.

The panellists were Corkin Gallery founder Jane Corkin; landscape architect and documentarian Joseph Clement; filmmaker Atom Egoyan; broadcaster, critic, festival director and cultural chronicler Geoff Pevere; artist and curator Luis Jacob; and architect Brigitte Shim. Their planned presentations were followed by a roundtable and a Q+A with the audience, which was significantly flush with liberal-leaning Torontonians though perhaps somewhat lacking voices of younger or newer residents. These conversations saw calls for more visionary urban planning and more traditional civic mindedness. Jane Jacobs was – unsurprisingly – invoked more than once, her successor explicitly inquired about, but no names were put forward. (Glenn Gould, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan were also raised as Toronto luminaries, indicative of something of a 20th-century focus to the Q+A portion of the event. If memory serves, Drake did not come up once.)

A positive view of the city certainly emerged for some. As Stanley Corkin observed, Toronto “has so fully become an international city that I tend not to focus on its residual and often stodgy Anglican past”; he nonetheless acknowledged that the presentations had helped to enliven and complicate that past beyond previous impressions. The more favourable character traits of the city as seen from the outside may be usually considered facets of its social make-up (progressive and diverse) or – as was raised surprisingly frequently over the course of the night – its ravine topography, while its built form many see as careening without much philosophy from the heavy concrete monuments of the last century to the invasive and generic glass towers of the globalized era. Lack of vision was consistently cited as a shortcoming in Toronto’s built form; in a more patient moment, Shim termed this “benign neglect.” A particularly striking example was the city’s crosstown streetcar lines on which slow-moving vehicles tie up corridors that other cities might have bought out in favour of private vehicles. Jacob called them another kind of ravine while Egoyan valorized them for the truly vibrant social and architectural slideshow one can opt into by riding the Queen streetcar from one end of the city to the other. At worst, however, all panellists seemed to agree the lack of coherent urban vision has left Toronto in recent years to be nearly overrun with construction but able to boast very little architecture.

There was something especially timely about the way discussion of the city’s built form revolved around a series of negative topographies (ravines), negative epiphanies (Shim’s categorization of Toronto as a “developers’ city” instead of an architects’ city) and distorted identities (Toronto as cinematic elsewhere). Toronto is in the midst of a new identity crisis as the city’s population weighs the merits of a proposal by Sidewalk Labs (a component of Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc.) to develop a 12-acre swath of its deindustrialized eastern portlands. The project uncannily seems to recast each of these issues in distinctively 21st century light. The ravine flood basins at the foot of the Don River valley require extensive – and expensive – remediation to be safe for development, let alone the complicated network of hidden waste infrastructure Sidewalk Labs intends to bury below the development’s streets. Sidewalk Labs has also been critically compared to one of the largest developers in the city (take a moment and let that sink in) in a recent op-ed piece, and chided elsewhere in the media and municipal government for their disregard for the city’s formal and legal planning frameworks and for the secrecy shrouding the initiative. And, among other concerns, the long struggle for Toronto to play itself on the world screen (as opposed to American counterparts that can be replicated in our streets more cheaply than the real thing) risks being created anew if the city’s best bet for a “smart” future is to be the testing lab for an American mega-corporation’s imported concept of urbanism. A Wired article claimed the development “will be a fully Google-fied neighborhood, built from scratch, with a touch of Canadian flavour” then joked whether that would take the form of poutine or politeness.

During the event, Luis Jacob mentioned Toronto’s seeming “erotic attraction to a kind of self-deprecating narrative,” variations on the theme of ‘we are okay but we are no New York’. Many present at Innis auditorium for this discussion last month surely agreed with him that while this complex may be “great and interesting” in terms of metaphorical narrative or armchair psychology, it’s surely not enough to build our own urban future on.

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