Will Alsop speaks at the Universities as City Builders discussion at the Design Exchange. Photo by Dario Ruberto/Ryerson University.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the top: Will Alsop doesn’t like Rob Ford.
And, before we get to that, one more important thing about this story: it’s not really a story at all. There’s a premise, sure–four architects walk into a room–but there’s no conflict, no beginning, middle or end, not even a discernible punchline. Instead, this is just an extended retelling of an interesting idea, posed by an architect over a glass of wine: Toronto could be better. At least, it could if we believe in the importance of lifelong education.
If you’re still following, let’s go back to last Wednesday night and the panel discussion at the Design Exchange called Universities as City Builders. There, these architects sat in front of a roomful of students and architecture aficionados to discuss the ways universities and cities interact. And how that’s a good thing.
“Universities are full of people doing peculiar things,” says Alsop, the British starchitect and Toronto-phile of love-it-or-hate-it OCADU stilt box fame. “They have to start exposing themselves to the world. They should be contributing to life in the city.”
Discussing just how this might be possible was a who’s who of Toronto institutional architecture. Along with Alsop was Eb Zeidler, senior partner at Zeidler Partnership Architects and the man who brought you the Eaton Centre, amongst fifty years’ worth of other buildings; Craig Dykers of Norway’s Snøhetta, whose work includes the brand new Alexandria Library in Egypt and who is currently working on the Student Learning Centre at the old Sam the Record Man corner; and Sheldon Levy, president and vice-chancellor of Ryerson University.
So after a lingering hour of celery and dip, the evening began with with moderator Ken Greenberg, member of the master planning team for both Ryerson and York, expostulating Alsop’s belief that through architecture, universities can become much more than isolated barns of thinking.
And before we go any further, another pause for one last caveat: those expecting an outcome or resolve will be sorely disappointed. All questions posed remained merely questions, despite a series of slides showing Ryerson building plans and Greenberg’s adamance that the discussion was “not an abstract one.” It was very much an abstract discussion.
Except, of course, for Sheldon Levy. He was there to insist that Ryerson, which hosted the evening along with the Design Exchange, is in the midst of great—and actual—change. And he’s not wrong. The downtown university is building fast and big, and with three major buildings currently in the works it might just be the institution most likely to change the face of downtown Toronto in the coming years.
“Dream big,” Levy implored, quoting his favourite Chicagoan urbanist, Daniel Burnham. “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
So what do those big plans mean, theoretically, for Toronto universities in the eyes of architects?
“We can no longer afford to insulate ourselves,” proclaimed Dykers, who took a rhetorical jackhammer to the ivory tower and vowed to build glass-walled cubes in its place. Indeed, the Scandinavia-based architect implored the democratization of learning itself, promising to make the Student Learning Centre open to the city’s Yonge Street lifeline.
And as we, the patient audience of like-minded individuals, sat and watched Eb Zeidler walk us through projected images of the Ted Rogers School of Management building, whose makeshift concrete quadrangle and classroom space sits isolated above a Best Buy and Canadian Tire on Dundas Street, Dykers’ final words reverberated through the room.
“Avoid the politics of control!”
Or, in Will Alsop’s less Marxist verbiage, “You’re not really going to vote for Ford, are you?”
And this is how a discussion of grand ideas and intellectual possibility can get mired in the dirt of municipal politics.
For all the good ideas that arose from the evening’s questions—building universities more open to the street, more accessible to the public, more focused on higher learning not just for students but for the city, too—there was also the ominous electoral cloud creeping over the art-deco murals on the Design Exchange ceiling, the foreboding feeling that none of these big dreams may ever truly be realized.
Hanging in the air Wednesday night was the knowledge that, not far from the Design Exchange at the AGO, the four mayoral candidates were debating the future of the arts in Toronto, but in this room four architects and intellectuals were debating the future of the city itself.
And the future could be a bright one. For Alsop it is, anyway, if Torontonians embrace the plethora of ideas—many of them big—floating unseen through the city.
“It could be a city of learning,” said Alsop earlier in the day over the telephone, while drinking a glass of wine. “That would be great. Right now it’s a city of commerce. But every other city in the world is trying to do that. There’s nowhere to grow.”
And it wouldn’t take a lot. Just a rearranging of priorities, a re-imagining of city life.
“We could just change things,” said Alsop. “The campus would be the street. So the university would be the city.”
And Toronto would be a better place.
Just a thought.
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