Left to right: Daniels Faculty Dean Richard Sommer, John Shnier, Amy Lavender Harris, and Atom Egoyan inside Jackman Hall. Photo by John Howarth.
You may be aware already, but we here at Torontoist publish a regular column entitled Reel Toronto, in which the proficient and perceptive penman David Fleischer exposes the flicks that use Toronto as a municipal mock-up for another, often more glamorous, very often American, city. We may be so bold as to say that it’s an insightful, even amusing way to address Toronto’s runner-up syndrome—the self-deprecating admittance that our city’s aesthetic is too generic, too insignificant, to stand on its own.
Well, pardon the language, but screw that.
Toronto has been slowly, even accidentally, developing its own remarkable features, qualities, and landmarks, and a style that is playing a more and more prominent character within the work of local artists, writers, and filmmakers. Last week this aesthetic added another leading role to its roster, as the focus of the discussion titled “Toronto: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” (It was the third installment in the FORA series by the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.) With the understanding that our city’s visual appeal is growing in confidence and notoriety, Toronto filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Imagining Toronto author Amy Lavender Harris, and award-winning architect (responsible for, among other things, the Umbra concept store) John Shnier battled for the microphone as they battled wits and opinions on whether the way Toronto’s aesthetic is reflected in film and literature is in fact, good, bad, or ugly.
As if choosing just one was at all possible.
Egoyan, a clear cheerleader of Toronto’s architecture, used a scene from Chloe to show the audience of well-dressed building buffs and art aficionados how, in one shot, he showed off the AGO, OCADU, and the CN Tower. Egoyan, who specifically chose to move Chloe‘s location from San Francisco to Toronto, sees the city as filled with cinematically uncharted territory, ripe with landmarks and iconic structures waiting to take on more symbolic meanings and associations—an open quality that many other prominent cities lack. In Chloe, which he described as “the first foreign-funded film using Toronto as Toronto,” Egoyan used the extra bucks to create a glamorous and sexy metropolis filled with beautiful Julianne Moore–seducing Amanda Seyfrieds, a place that one would never associate with the nickname of “Hogtown.” To him, retrofits and renovations of places like The Royal Conservatory of Music inspire a new way to think about our city, with its enhanced elegance and possibility. Heads nodded and thoughtful “hmmms” followed from the crowd.
“That’s only a fragment of how we define Toronto. It’s a form of narcissism,” countered Shnier, an advocate for the Devil for the night. While we can point to Mies van der Rohe’s TD Centre and Viljo Revell’s new City Hall as examples of modernity and progress (and these buildings are often cited as their creators’ best works), he argued, they’re pushed out of our collective consciousness by failures, like “the Disney view” of Casa Loma. “Toronto is a great city to live in, but it’s a hard city to be a tourist in,” he stated, “It’s All About Mies” emblazoned across his black T-shirt. An advocate of “living un-self-consciously,” Shnier warned against latching onto the idealized framework of Egoyan’s Toronto, and would rather have our architects focus on creating better buildings than chasing some notion of what “world-class” might look like. “How can we win the race to the middle? How can we be the best second place city?” Shnier challenged.
“A city is not only about buildings,” Lavender Harris fired back. Drawing on a growing and diverse cannon of Toronto-based literature, Harris contended that Toronto’s most important structures are not those with the intricate details, largest size, or born of biggest budget—they’re the places that are actually lived in. “Do we need to care about [the waterfront] anymore? That’s where the bodies get dumped in Toronto literature. That’s not where people live their lives. On a warm summer day, at the Eglinton Flats there are thousands of families picnicking. That’s the new waterfront for Toronto that’s reflected in literature.” Instead of stories revolving around Egoyan’s landmarks of choice, like the AGO and the CN Tower, Lavender Harris noted the most common figure in written works is Honest Ed’s—where new lives in a new country start to take shape, the “Ugly.”
In a rare moment of cohesion, the three artistic adversaries relished in the duality of places like Honest Ed’s and Kensington Market to simultaneously delight and repulse. In the debate over whether Toronto’s design and aesthetic is either “Good,” “Bad,” or “Ugly,” the ultimate answer is that it’s all three. “Cities can strive for styles, which have their time and are gone,” Lavender Harris said. “A ‘vision’ makes me nervous…A city is made up of accidents.”
A proper representation of the patchwork of its neighbourhoods and citizens, the underlying message was that Toronto should embrace these accidents, whether they’re an eyesore or an eyeful, and run with them. The most important strategy in finding Toronto’s aesthetic is not to try to copy someone else’s. An impassioned Lavender Harris summed it up nicely: “I believe Toronto will be a world class city as soon as it stops asking the goddamn question.”