OISE D&A: Our Aging Modernism
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OISE D&A: Our Aging Modernism

Junk Heap
This junk heap of discarded furniture was found at the St. George subway entrance to the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE), just steps away from Dominion Modern‘s OISE D&A: an in-house exhibition of late-Modernist furniture from the structure’s inception in 1970. Ironically, the pieces on display in the exhibition (photos after the jump) are of the same design as this basement-level detritus destined for the landfill.
Dominion Modern is an archive whose mandate is “to collect, to preserve, and disseminate” examples of twentieth-century Canadian architecture and design, and it touts the OISE building as an example of the “golden age” of Modernist structures. The furniture on display, created by designers such as Eero Saarinin, Jan Kuypers and Paul Arno, is similar in form to those mid-century Danish pieces selling for a mint at Parkdale’s Queen West Antique Centre.
But if the building’s artifacts are such valuable vintage pieces, why are they being discarded as junk? The contrast between Dominion Modern’s earnest exaltation of the building (created by U of T graduate K.R. Cooper) and people’s actual opinion of it (as cold, dour, and depressing) is an example of the problematic place of Modern architecture in the twenty-first century.

2007_07_24gallery2.jpgThe OISE building is a shining example of Brutalist architecture, a style so maligned in our city that Torontoist’s own Bad Buildings recently dedicated an entire article to its sullied reputation. OISE adheres to all the tenets put forth by the style’s creator, Le Corbusier: it’s made of concrete; its design is regular and repetitive; it’s hulking and monumental; it’s self-contained (the windows don’t open and it’s thoroughly climate-controlled). And, like its mates in design (U of T’s Robarts Library or most of York University, for instance), many think it’s pretty damn ugly.
Dominion Modern contends that OISE and buildings like it should be valued for their unique place in Toronto’s history. The structure was built during the hey-dey for Modernist buildings in Toronto, part of then-premier William Davis‘s grand vision of Ontario (TVOntario, Ontario Place, and Ontario Science Centre were all created during his tenure). Brutalism was the perfect choice for OISE’s inhabitants: young professors with forward-thinking (read: hippie) ideals who wanted to discard bourgeois design for something more “honest.”
But OISE’s basement dump-heap, as well as the public’s lukewarm response to preservationist efforts to save other Modernist structures (see Riverdale Hospital) suggests that it’s too soon to expect people to value something they’re still in the process of throwing out. Though the heritage sector frequently decries the widespread destruction of nineteenth-century structures during Toronto’s post-war building boom, in their defense, they were disposing of what they considered decrepit, tired, and what no longer fit into their vision of the city.
2007_07_24gallery1.jpgWhy are so many repulsed by Modernist-styled structures? Alfred Holde once wrote that the millennium is ” a time of reaction and nostalgia where the public more readily [understands] the nineteenth century than the twentieth.” While people covet Victorian rowhouses and raise hell when structures like Walnut Hall are permitted to waste away, our aging, Brutalist buildings have proven rather hard to love. Is the value of historical architecture based on its photogeneity (after all, the adorable spotted seal makes Greenpeace more money than the the kerry slug)? Or is its value based on rarity? If so, it’s hard to make a case for the OISE D&A exhibit when its mates are waiting for the garbage truck.
Dominion Modern’s OISE D&A is on display in the OISE library (which was renovated this year, replacing most of its original late-modernist design) at 252 Bloor Street West until November 18, 2007. Library hours are Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m–8 p.m. and Friday to Saturday from 9 a.m–5 p.m. Admission is free.
Photos by Beth Bohnert