Saturday, October 1, 2011



It’s easy to dismiss architecture, especially when job losses and the talk of pandemics turn us inward toward our immediate needs. It’s easy to conceive of spaces as existing for us to carry out our comings and goings, solely there to fulfill our needs.

This view is epitomized at Bay and Wellington by the Toronto Dominion (TD) Centre, conceived in 1963 by a titan of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe. With its simplification of form and the elimination of ornaments, van der Rohe’s giant rectangles of uniform black steel capture the modern world’s obsession with utility. The building announces itself: “I am a thing that people work inside; nothing more, nothing less”.

The TD Center embodies the view that one should not get “caught up” in the aesthetic of a building. A building should forever be in the background of the work we do inside it. But might this view be hiding something? Might structures and spaces have secret powers, secretly encouraging and discouraging us?

Men with full bladders know well the experience of being “demanded upon” by the design of a space. The placement of male urinals in most restrooms requires, nay, forces me to be comfortable with peeing inches away from other half-naked men.

Open concept tables at the Toronto Reference library enforce the “silence is golden” rule by ensuring you disturb other patrons, who glare at you from across the table, if you try to talk.

The way design affects us can be subtler, quietly shaping the possibilities we feel are open to us. Consider the slab of concrete called Dundas Square: it is naked to its surroundings, making visitors vulnerable to traffic noise and the messages of gigantic illuminated billboards inspired by Blade Runner (and Times Square). It is easy to imagine the possibility of a first kiss arising on the grassy lawn, among the oversize chess pieces, in Montreal’s Berri Square (or Place Émilie-Gamelin , its official name). We might call Dundas Square a meeting place but in truth, it almost prevents social engagement as it lacks the intimacy required for getting to know someone. On the concrete, among the car horns, romance isn’t impossible, but it’s not anywhere on the horizon.

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