Concrete Reading

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Concrete Reading

Fort Book looms over everythingWill people ever appreciate the fine architecture or heritage value of such widely-detested buildings as Robarts Library or the Sheraton Centre? If history is any guide, they will—but only if the buildings manage to survive our collective hatred (or apathy) for another 40 years or so.
As the Star‘s Christopher Hume has written on several occasions, buildings are most at risk of demolition when they are 40–60 years old. That’s when their architectural styles are most likely to be out of fashion, and they may start to look run-down or require major repairs. Robarts, the Sheraton Centre, and many more are on the cusp of this phase. Others, like the half-round building at Riverdale Hospital and the Bata Shoe Headquarters in Don Mills have recently entered it and have already been condemned to demolition despite pleas from heritage and architectural groups to save them.
Concrete Toronto, released last month by Coach House Books, fires the first salvo in the upcoming war to preserve our recent architectural heritage. Focused on concrete structures built in and around the city from the 1950s through the 1970s, the essays and background material in Concrete Toronto take many forms, including exploded diagrams and pictures of the construction of Robarts, interviews with some of the most influential architects of Toronto’s last half-century, and a field guide suitable for personalized walking tours. Drawing on a diverse pool of contributors, the book successfully strikes a balance between explaining the architectural significance of dozens of buildings and examining their cultural importance to the people who use them.
One of the real treats in Concrete Toronto comes from its look at the city’s forgotten concrete: the infrastructure that knits the city together. While far from exhaustive, its coverage of structures like highways, bridges, and even public washrooms is welcome and surprising. It’s easy to forget that even the most mundane of elements can serve a purpose beyond pure utility.
Will Concrete Toronto ever make you love the Manulife Centre or the Gardiner Expressway? It’s doubtful. But there’s no doubt that concrete and its architectural offspring of Brutalism get bad raps as cold, impersonal, utilitarian, uninspired, or just plain ugly. Concrete Toronto takes us to the first step in appreciating the value of both.
Photo by rich__ from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

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