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Toronto’s architectural style is a historic pastiche: Micallef

Pastiches are everywhere and are mostly harmless, often boring homages to past or popular styles.

Suing over some window trim and brickwork is a conspicuously wanton display of wealth and leisure time, Shawn Micallef writes.

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Suing over some window trim and brickwork is a conspicuously wanton display of wealth and leisure time, Shawn Micallef writes.

You could almost feel the city’s collective eyes roll last week when the Star reported on a Forest Hill couple who sued a neighbouring house flipper over allegations they copied the look of their 8,000-square-foot Tudor-style house. The same shade of blue window trim and similar stonework were the basis of a $2.5-million lawsuit that, after three years, was settled out of court for undisclosed terms. More than 1.1 million people have read the story online, testament to the eternal popularity of watching rich people fight.

Only Henry VIII or Elizabeth I coming back from the dead to sue everybody who has built a mock Tudor McMansion could be more absurd. As any lawyer will tell you, the hidden costs of a lawsuit are the time and stress burdens it places on people on top of all the money involved in paying those lawyers. Suing over some window trim and brickwork is a conspicuously wanton display of wealth and leisure time when Toronto is going through a housing affordability crisis, where hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to just make rent, and many more will never get to buy a house of their own here.

Aside from all that, what is even more curious is all of this was over pastiche architecture. Pastiche is when an artwork or design imitates or replicates an older or original work or style, in this case, medieval English architecture, evoking an unearned history and gravitas. In his famously vicious 1937 poem, “Slough,” John Betjeman skewered the Tudor pastiche of suburban Slough outside of London. Calling on bombs to blow it to smithereens, he wrote, “And talk of sport and makes of cars / In various bogus-Tudor bars / And daren’t look up and see the stars / But belch instead.”

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Pastiches are everywhere and are mostly harmless, often boring homages to past or popular styles. Indeed, we are a city full of glorious pastiches of various kinds — Gothic, Victorian, Edwardian, classical and even more modern styles. Perhaps the trick with a good pastiche is to not make a big deal about your imitation and let it sink into the background, rather than suggest yours is somehow special, as these folks did with their lawsuit. A pastiche shouldn’t put on too many airs lest they risk a rebuke.

When Charles Dickens visited New York City in 1842 while compiling his “American Notes,” he went to the city jail, then and now nicknamed “The Tombs,” though the building he visited has been replaced since. Of the Egyptian Revival building he saw then, he wrote, “What is this dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama! — a famous prison, called The Tombs. Shall we go in?”

Create a pastiche at your own risk.

Though Dickens did visit Toronto on that 1842 trip for a couple days, what might he write of the mock Tudors of Forest Hill today, those of Leaside, or the “bit of England far from England” homes of the Kingsway? There are neighbourhoods here full of copies of mythical original versions found somewhere in the United Kingdom. Toronto was not called “The Queen City” for its loyalty to Empire alone: it actively tried to look like London and other British cities.

Today, if you walk some of the (for now) less-polished East London neighbourhoods like Dalston, Bethnal Green or Whitechapel, the retail streetscapes, with former homes peeking out from behind the storefronts, look a lot like the Dundas, College and Bloor strips do here. It’s clear where Toronto’s inspiration came from.

Even many of our street names in this city are derived from British dudes and places (and a handful of other locations like Avoca in Ireland or Roncesvalles in Spain.) Old Toronto is a colonial city and is a definitive pastiche of its founders’ mother country, with a few token gestures to First Nations such as the name Toronto (Tkaronto) itself or Spadina (Ishpadinaa.)

There’s a philosophical notion called a “simulacrum,” a copy of an original found somewhere else, distorted to some, more real than the original to others. Toronto is Simulacrum City writ large. Let’s put that on a bumper sticker.

With our pastiches and colonial copies in mind, for neighbours and neighbourhood groups that protest developments small and large that violate the “historic character” of the neighbourhood, it’s often a defence not of a history unique to Toronto, but one copied from somewhere else. Exquisite copies sometimes, but copies nonetheless.

It comes down to taste and lifestyle doesn’t it? People have affinities for particular kinds of architecture, no matter how it came to be. Earlier this year, a Cabbagetown residents’ association started an ongoing campaign to move a Bike Share dock from Riverdale Park (home to a cool simulacrum of a working farm) because it clashed with the heritage neighbourhood.

In Cabbagetown, the most defining aspect of the streetscape, apart from those Victorians, are all the cars parked along its streets, but nobody there or anywhere else “historic character” is used to oppose something new ever wants to remove on-street parking. Lifestyle is as powerful as taste.

What is the Toronto style then? Dozens of styles are emulated here, and they’re all part of the mix. That beautiful, messy heterogeneity might be the style itself: like the celebrated multicultural population, it’s the mix of everything that makes Toronto “Toronto.” We’re still a young city by global standards so it might be too soon to suggest a homegrown Toronto style, but perhaps the brick, concrete and glass neo-modern buildings exemplified by local architecture firms like KPMB will be it.

Perhaps it’s also the ease at which Toronto melds new and old styles together, like the modern floors added to the Tip Top Loft buildings on Lake Shore Blvd. W., or the glass restaurant at the top of the historic Dineen Building at Yonge and Temperance Sts. Other cities would resist where Toronto allows a certain healthy looseness around some older buildings.

Modernism and its various movements is Toronto’s dominant style, as much of the city grew in the postwar years when it was in vogue. So while Toronto was influenced by other places, it was being developed simultaneously or even leading the way. Don Mills, one of the first modern planned suburbs, is perhaps most deserving of being declared a heritage landscape and is as original as we might get. Other suburban neighbourhoods could make this claim too, though it would be heretical to suggest a split-level has more local heritage value than a Victorian in this city.

No matter, they too will all be replaced by mock Tudor McMansions soon enough.

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