When our publisher first posed the question ‘Is Toronto a Design City?’ we knew instinctively that it was.

Book cover I have here a hardcover book entitled Design City Toronto. It has two authors, Sean Stanwick and Jennifer Flores, and an architect-turned-photographer, Tom Arban.

Now, based on the title, what do you think this book is about?

I suppose that depends on what social stratum you hail from. Upper-middle-class ladies will immediately assume it’s about interior decorating, since that’s what “design” means to them. (Interior decorating has pretty much colonized the word “design.” They’ve got entire TV networks about it.) People of the Internets might hope against hope it’s a book about graphic design, say.

But do you think “design” means “architecture”? (Have you ever thought that?) The authors do. And that’s what the book is about. Approximately. (Even the publisher, Wiley, isn’t so sure, issuing the book under its Interior Angles series of “interior-design books… giving a vivid and dynamic picture of interior trends and traditions.”)

[W]e know that to be a Design City, there needs to be more than just beautifully designed spaces. Design exists in many forms – in the chaos of signage lining Chinatown streets[,] in the reflections of cars whizzing by the glass façades of shiny towers. For us, a Design City exists when city-dwellers and tourists, the design-educated and the design buffs alike can all equally see and appreciate the beauty of design in the city around them.

It reads like ad copy from the Toronto Unlimited campaign (itself excerpted on p. 254). And if the foregoing seems like a circular definition, which in turn is shaky ground on which to “architect” an entire book, well, we’ve barely gotten started.

Design City Laughingstock

I’ve never read a more effective parody than this book, and I speak as someone who grew up on Monty Python, National Lampoon, and Spy. I started jotting down the various bons mots and eventually realized it is possible to fisk every paragraph in the book, and half the photo cutlines. Let me give you what I put together before I gave up this Sisyphean task.

Toronto, where even the buildings are polite

  • [O]ne need only look at how the new Four Seasons Opera House [sic] sits politely on its major urban artery” (p. 17).

  • “While a square box seems the last thing you would expect” (22), “[e]ven at the hands of Gehry, the AGO is very much in the Toronto style[:] A somewhat modest contemporary building” (23). “Perhaps, however, its most laudable attribute is that it is very much in the Toronto style – a somewhat modest contemporary building” (25).

  • The Bata Shoe Museum “is a modest three-storey building set to the proportions of a shoebox with its lid slightly ajar. While modest in size…” (28). (Pop quizzes: How many times are we told the museum is a “small gem”? How often do “the angled shadows cast by the roof align precisely with the entry wedge and meet exactly at its apex”?)

  • The Toronto Brick Works, “[d]espite being designated a heritage property…, are not that architecturally significant, beyond their obvious photogenic qualities for industrial archaeologists” (35).

  • The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts “is a democratic citadel preaching good urban manners [and r]efusing to make a spectacle of itself…. [I]t is downright humble about its modernist attributes; in short, it is about as Toronto as it gets…. Diamond has intentionally chosen to put function before glamour” in this opera house.

    “The exterior… is kept intentionally modest; in fact, you could miss it entirely…. [T]he building is composed from three fairly conventional building blocks…. The building opts to politely blend into the city fabric instead of standing out…. With its modest disposition…. Diamond remains unapologetic about the… lack of flamboyance” of an opera house, for whose culture “the elitist notion of seeing and being seen” is “[e]ssential.”

    If the foregoing that sounds like a high concentration of damnation with faint praise, it all happens in five paragraphs on pp. 35–36. (Incidentally, the colour scheme of the concert hall is described as “mushroom and elephant.”)

Who’s paying for all this redevelopment?

The idle rich: “When supported by patrons of the arts who are willing to donate large sums to ensure their longevity and reuse, the result is often a wonderfully restored civic building.” Your tax dollars remain prudently unallocated to architectural frou-frou; it’s all being handled by the tax-haven dollars of local plutocrats.

The biggest lie in Canadian architecture

What building is described in the following passage?

[T]he idea of a fully transparent crystal is slightly misleading, as anodized aluminum will cover 75% of the structure, with the remaining 25% being a random pattern of slices and wedges of transparent glass.

Writing for their colonial masters

I love the photographs by Arban, some of which could only have been taken from death-defying angles. Tremendous. (Put some of them online or they’ll sink without a trace when the book does.)

And I can even live with the blandishments in the book, or some of them. I can live with the misspellings of street names (“Carleton”) and the book’s inability to decide on the actual names of buildings and sites (Brick Works/Brickworks, SkyDome/Skydome, Opera House/Centre for the Performing Arts).

I can live with all of that because the book, even at initial reading of the first ten pages, is not actually an honest discussion of “design” in Toronto. It doesn’t even succeed as an honest discussion of Toronto architecture, which, one discovers at about page 11, is the book’s covert operation.

I can live with an encomium to the new Bloorview Kids Rehab (sic) that fails to note its bleak expanse of surface parking and the absence of city sidewalks leading to a building whose users have trouble walking.

I eventually came to a conclusion about Design City Toronto. It is an overwrought, fraudulent travelogue of the starchitect fripperies that are adored by the kind of twee cultural elite still clinging to the notion of Toronto as a world-class city, if only so they won’t have to feel so bad about not being able to hack it in New York where they belong. Of course, this is the same elite that opts not to notice the actual architectural form of Toronto, which is better exemplified by Robarts Library, the Hudson’s Bay Centre, and row upon row of listing semi-detached houses in Little Portugal.

I can live with all that. This isn’t the first time I have encountered falsity in advertising. What I can’t live with are two things: The typography of the book and the insane imposition of British English.

How not to use Helvetica

I shit you not: The entire book is set in Helvetica Light. Actually, they go up and down one weight (that would bring them to regular and Thin) for things like cutline heds and chapter heds. Section titles, when mentioned in running text, are rendered in a rather bizarre combination of words jammed together in Thin and regular italic, viz discoverExplore. Letterspacing is too tight and measures are too wide.

When traditionalists insist that sansserif types should not be used to set body copy, I always counter with “What about Optima?” That might work under the right conditions. So could Formata or a few other faces. Sure. But Helvetica is an archetypal sansserif face; it might be the very first font that comes to mind when the topic is raised. And as such, Design City Toronto proves the traditionalists right. It’s a cautionary tale of typography gone wrong.

Who is to blame? “Page design and layouts by Ian Lambot Studio, U.K.”

The ROM Crystal, the Queen’s English

The writers are from Toronto, and so might the editrix be (Louise Porter – perhaps the surname is throwing me off). The book was manufactured in Canada. (It’s unnecessarily a hardcover book, and it weighs a ton.)

The whole thing is written in British English, with British punctuation styles (single quotation marks with commas and periods outside all but direct utterances; no periods on typical abbreviations). Thus far, I have rewritten my examples from the book in Canadian English. Here is the actual orthography of a sentence I excerpted previously:

[T]he idea of a fully transparent crystal is slightly misleading, as anodised aluminium will cover 75 per cent of the structure, with the remaining 25 per cent being a random pattern of slices and wedges of transparent glass.

I’m not claiming that a rendering like “25%” is more Canadian than “25 per cent” (it’s just my preference). But come on – “anodised aluminium”? How many people do you know in this town for whom “aluminum” is three syllables?

There are further examples.

  • Have you ever seen a museum (like the Gardiner) that has “ ‘kerb’ appeal”?

  • When visiting the CNIB for the first time, do you have to look around, or ask for directions to, “the lifts”?

  • Do you really need to be reminded, in a book on Toronto architecture, of the actual local currency used to pay for building projects, viz “CA$20 billion”?

  • Do you think that Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-American, submitted his foreword using this style of copy?

    [A renaissance] challenges architecture and planning to take risks because what is to be built is more than just ‘one more building’. The renaissance implies bringing back the wonder of architecture to the public at large by breaking free from the straitjacket of ‘this is how our city has always been’. […]

    A dynamic development, such as the renaissance of architecture in Toronto, renews more than street fronts … it explodes the myth that stereotypes ‘Toronto The Good’, suddenly making it ‘Toronto The Great’.

    (Do you even think he really wrote that?)

Take that excerpt and stitch it together with the following run-on sentence (p. 8). You will have concisely illustrated the colonialism embodied in the use of British orthography in a book by Toronto writers about Toronto architecture.

The city’s modern architectural legacy runs deep thanks largely to the enthusiasm of architectural pioneers John B and John C Parkin and Peter Dickinson who, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, would translate their enthusiasm for Canadian design into their own style of modernism that emphasised simplicity and a respect for local vernacular.

A respect for local vernacular? This is a book that acts as if there were no such thing. It behaves, through its actual text, as though the city of Toronto might have new buildings worthy of exaggerated coverage but is by no means located in a sovereign country with its own distinguishable variant of English.

The book is so committed to lying to its readers that it does so in its actual words, and their spellings, and the punctuation present or absent around them. Do you think the authors sound the way the book purports that they write?

Design City Toronto is a kind of New York copy-edited by the British.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.06.16 15:31. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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