Great Architecture Lives Here: Interview with Toronto Author Alex Bozikovic

Patricia McHugh originally published Toronto Architecture: A City Guide back in 1985. The city has changed beyond recognition since then


In 1985, architecture writer Patricia McHugh released Toronto Architecture: A City Guide,a comprehensive guide to the city and its building styles that became, in some eyes, “the Bible of Toronto architecture.”

Among the book’s entries were examples of some of Toronto’s architectural idiom, such as the Victoria-era, mostly red brick, semi-detached “bay and gable houses” – the term was coined by McHugh – which are found throughout the city’s east and west ends, and which she called “virtually Toronto’s architectural trademark.” She also highlighted the exciting 1960s additions to the city’s skyline, including the Mies Van Der Rohe-designed TD Centre and the new City Hall, a pair of curved towers facing each other surrounding a domed lower building, designed by Finnish modernist Viljo Revell.

But much has been going on in Toronto architecture within the last decade or so to alter the city’s look and feel again, including the Will Alsop-designed Ontario College of Art and Design; the Daniel Libeskind-designed addition to the Royal Ontario Museum; and the Art Gallery of Ontario revamp by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry.

An updated version of the book was called for. Enter Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic for The Globe and Mail, who authored a fully revised and expanded edition of McHugh’s collection of Toronto walking tours focusing on the city’s architecture..

The guide comes with an illustrated description of Toronto styles, and a biographical index of architects.


Bozikovic spoke with Billy about the book and the discoveries he made, including some in Toronto’s vast and often overlooked suburbs, such as Scarborough and Mississauga.

Q: How did you come about revising and updating the book? Were you acquainted with McHugh?

A: I didn’t know McHugh – she left the city in the early 1990s – but I did know the book. It has been on my shelf for years, and I, like many people in Toronto, have come to rely on it. It is the Bible of Toronto architecture. So when [publisher McClelland and Stewart] called me to update it, I was honoured. But I also understood the challenge: A lot has changed in the city in the last 30 years.

What were some of your favourite discoveries, places you stumbled upon or were unaware of, while researching the revised edition?

Because I’ve been immersed in the city’s architecture for years, I already knew many of the exceptional places. What surprised me was to learn about the quality of many more ordinary buildings. Schools, in particular – the old Toronto Board of Education built very well for many years. The two buildings of Winchester Street Public School in Cabbagetown, from 1901 and 1959, show a consistent care and quality even as the styles change dramatically.


The TD Centre, downtown Toronto

What’s your favourite Toronto neighbourhood and why?

Where I live in Seaton Village is a wonderful place: walkable, dense enough to be interesting, and yet with lots of green. Like most of Toronto’s growth in the first hundred years, it wasn’t really planned by anyone. And yet it works very well. I also love King West for its collection of industrial architecture and network of laneways – and some fine new buildings being added to the mix.

One of the standout concepts of Toronto urbanism is the melding of the old and the new. How successful would you say Toronto has been compared to similarly sized cities, with more or less similar histories, and can you give us a couple of examples of such successful incorporation of old and new?

Toronto grew rapidly in the years after World War II, and, happily, planners and architects here didn’t always grab onto the biggest ideas of that era. Unlike so many American cities, urban renewal did not gut everything that was good about Toronto. That was because of the city’s social conservatism, but also because of a specific tradition in architecture that survives today. Diamond & Myers’s York Square development helped set the tone in the 1960s. In the last decade, the additions to the Royal Conservatory of Music by KPMB showed just how interesting and beautiful this mix of new and old can be.


Vik Pahwa / Courtesy Penguin Random House

University College at University of Toronto

Toronto is a city that likes to say that “it’s coming into its own.” But you make the point in the book that it’s been saying that since 1880. Is it time to let that idea go, and just say it’s a city that continues to invent itself? Even in terms of brand identity, that would seem to be more appealing, no?

Toronto has long had an inferiority complex. That’s unattractive – and it is disappearing. For many people under 30, this is a city that has nothing to prove: Drake overlooks it from the top of the CN Tower. The story of today’s city is complicated but it’s a source of pride.

Multiculturalism has become a defining characteristic of Toronto. What indication is there, if any, that that has carried over to what is happening architecturally in Toronto?

Not much. The architecture world is a very white place. Still, religious and cultural buildings express some of Toronto’s diversity, from Raymond Moriyama’s old Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre to the very modern Ismaili Centre and the very traditional BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.

You added itineraries of some suburbs in this edition of the book. What point are you making about the place suburbs have in Toronto’s fabric? Or are there just some cool buildings there that you thought readers needed to check out?

Most of Toronto was built in the last 70 years. Those modern neighbourhoods which are dominated by the car are not so easy to walk and explore, but there is a lot of history that can’t be ignored, including the city’s clusters of modern tower blocks – very unusual in North America. There is also a lot of good architecture. Any fans of Brutalism who haven’t seen the Andrews Building at U of T Scarborough are missing a treat.

Some people say Toronto lacks a certain “je ne sais quoi” – that there’s no there, there. How do you respond?

It depends on your expectations. If you come to Toronto looking for Montreal, or New York, or Paris, you won’t find them: The city has its own history. But you will find streets as lively and interesting as anywhere in North America, and they’re only getting better. Diversity, money, and brilliant local designers: There are the ingredients of great urbanism here, and they’re cooking.

Great Architecture Lives Here: Interview with Toronto Author Alex Bozikovic
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