If there’s a word for Concrete Toronto, it’s “pornographic.” Yes, it’s all well and good to claim to read it for the articles – of course you do – but as soon as it’s just you and the book alone in the room, you’ll be ogling the centerfold spreads of the Manulife Centre. Look at it, in that state of undress – half-built and semi-clad, brutish and exposed, looming over a 1970s Toronto that seems totally unprepared for it.
This is how Concrete Toronto, a solid slab of a guidebook, tells the story of the city’s concrete architecture from the ’50s through the ’70s: in gorgeous, graphic detail. Brutalism fetishists take note: it takes every opportunity to linger over the patterned skin of U of T’s Medical Science building, the slopes of Scarborough College, and the swooping, Miami-inspired apartments of Uno Prii (a number of whose fantastic unbuilt designs are lovingly reprinted). Its black-and-white printing not only flatters its subjects, but casts them in an eternal present, where the 1970s and the 2000s are all but indistinguishable.
Each entry is accompanied by a short essay or two (including one by Spacing editor Shawn Micallef); these are of varying helpfulness. With contributions from the staff of ERA Architects – the firm that produced the book – and the local design establishment, they’re often illuminating, but sometimes elliptical and even a bit ornery.
That concrete is beautiful is all but a foregone conclusion here. There’s hardly a discordant word to be found about any of the brutes it features, which may or may not warm the hearts of, say, the inmates of Tartu. But taken as an appreciation, a long love note to the material that built Toronto as we know it today, it’s a remarkable – and lurid – achievement.
by Ivor Tossell
Originally published in Spacing Magazine, Spring 2008.