Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture From the Fifties to the Seventies

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a very dense book.

The Long Version: "Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture From the Fifties to the Seventies" is the second book I've bought from Coach House Press, the small but vital Toronto institution located on the charming bpNichol lane. Like HTO: Toronto's Water, this is a collection of essays written by a range of experts, discussing a specific and overlooked section of Toronto's physical environment. And before I put anyone off, Coach House publishes a broad range of subjects, including fiction and poetry, and it's well worth looking through their catalog. It just so happens that I love their dedication to local subjects, and Concrete Toronto is exactly the kind of book that appeals to me.

Concrete is possibly the least-sexy building material out there, and yet it's ubiquitous. It makes our roads and bridges possible, and it's the ground that we walk on in our cities, but it is to aesthetics what powdered mashed potatoes is to cuisine. Toronto's skyline is dominated by poured concrete buildings, but it's mostly associated with the broadly-unloved Brutalist style, which even takes its name from its love of exposed concrete exteriors. A book titled "Concrete Toronto" is clearly facing an tough battle just to get picked up off of the shelf, but it's well worth it. Inside is a huge collection of essays, illustrations, and photos.

Naturally, the prominent Toronto landmarks are well covered. The CN Tower, the Manulife Centre, and the New City Hall are all presented in considerable detail, and the book almost persuades me to like that particular government building. Less prominent buildings are also discussed, including many in the University of Toronto and Annex neighbourhoods that I see daily, and it really has given me a new way to understand the unremarkable - I can see Tartu and Rochdale from the balcony in my `70's concrete condo - and appreciate the ambitious, like OISE, Robarts, and 44 Walmer. But the book isn't just a tourists' guide to specific structures: history, preservation, technology, and city-building are all within the scope of the book. The buildings I've studied in, the suburb that I grew up in, and the highways that I drive on are all in here. And while most of the book is specific to Toronto and the area around it, who wouldn't be interested in an essay on 'The Rise of Parking Garages'? It sounds trivial, but this is the stuff that shapes our cities.

I really only have one criticism of the book: the type can be tiny. While most of the text is simply very very small, sometimes they designers have had to fit an inhuman amount of text onto a page, with a result that makes the fine print in a credit card ad seem luxurious. This isn't one to read while swaying around in bad lighting on the subway, even if you are approaching Eglinton West station on your way to Yorkdale mall, both of which are featured inside. A minor quibble is that the lack of colour photography leaves the book relentlessly grey, but I suppose that's partly the point. After all, one of the typefaces used is 'Slate' - I've always suspected that the people at Coach House have a subtle and sophisticated sense of humour.

Clearly, it's people with an interest in Toronto and its architecture that are going to get the most out of this book. I wouldn't suggest that anyone in Barstow, California should head over to Amazonto buy a copy, unless they were originally from here and were feeling an unusual variety of homesickness. But for those who like concrete architecture, cities in general, and Toronto's history and development, it's definitely worth checking out. The mix of different perspectives, the reasonable length of each essay, and the broad range of subjects within its narrow scope makes Concrete Toronto a surprisingly engaging book. I know I'll be picking it up and re-reading it, in both idle moments and dedicated sessions, for a long time to come.


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