One has read a somewhat inexplicable book with the actually inexplicable title Mean City, by John Martins-Manteiga (no relation). (There is a subtitle: From Architecture to Design. There is a subsubtitle: How Toronto Went Boom!) “Mean city” is some kind of intertextualist reference to Toronto: No Mean City by Paul Arthur’s dad Eric, which I have only skimmed through. “The fact is, not much has been learned since Eric Arthur wrote his battle cry, Toronto: No Mean City, back in the early 1960s.”

Something else that hasn’t been learned is the actual sense of “no mean X” – “not a trifling, low, or niggardly X.” Canadian Oxford lists the definition as just “a very good (that is no mean achievement).” If Toronto is no mean city, Toronto isn’t a small or inconsequential city.

It’s an idiom, and as such cannot be broken down into its component parts. “Mean city” is not the opposite of “no mean city.” “Mean city” is not an assertion that “no” negates; you can’t undo a negation that isn’t there. In other words, the opposite of “No way!” is not “Way!”

“Mean city” means what the words actually say – a city that is mean. Toronto isn’t. The author did apparently understand the idiom, though the treatment is breathless and twee:

Toronto was the most. A cultural and industrial revolution, an artistic explosion. It was breathtaking. Toronto. We are the citizens of no mean city.

So score one demerit point there. The whole thing is a bit ditzy. Are the æsthetes and snobs associated with the book so dumb they couldn’t figure that out? No, not dumb, just quasiliterate. Surely someone at Key Porter Books ought to have noticed even if the author never did.

Anyway, the book is a record of an exhibition of photos, mostly by the late Hugh Robertson, that was “mounted” at Dominion Modern. At what? Where? Check what amounts to the author’s .sig file in the preface: “John Martins-Manteiga, Curator, Mean City; Director, Dominion Modern; Museum of Modern Architecture & Design.” The what museum? Where? Oh, right – it doesn’t have a permanent location. It’s the apple in the Martins-Manteiga eye. Well, that’s fine, but please don’t use a permanent structure like a book to imply that Dominion Modern is a permanent structure.

The book is a pæan to postwar Toronto Modernism. Yes, another one. I like it too, and I think it should be preserved too (most of the time), but this is getting to the point of fetishism. Think of Wedgie Fulford dissecting Wallpaper<asterisk> in the Globe (1999.01.02): “To call Wallpaper materialistic would be preposterously inadequate…. Wallpaper has also committed itself to a puritanically rigid architectural style: Its heart belongs to old-fashioned, mid-century modernism, and it will consider no other suitors. It embraces, like a trust fund left by Dad, the maddening hauteur that true-believing modernists routinely exhibited in the 1950s.” So does John Martins-Brûlé.

To be fair, a lot of the photographs are nothing short of amazing. Don Mills! Where they shot a Volkswagen ad! Where the Don Mills Shopping Centre reminds me of apparently identical malls in Westmount and, of all places, Moncton! (The author loves his bangs!) Mister Sandman, bring me a dream, some terrazzo, and a curtain wall.

According to a photo whose credits I can’t decipher (four listed sources for two pictures), Union station still had the aboriginal TTC typeface and cream-coloured Vitrolite as late as 1983. A 1954 illustration from a marble supplier depicts Eglinton station exactly like a postwar cartoon, or like a Bruce McCall parody thereof. (Everybody is wearing a hat.)

It was a relief to traverse from near-continuous black-and-white photographs (the last of which showed the Better Living Centre) and suddenly turn the page to see a midnight-blue shot of the white metal staircases and geodesic dome of Ontario Place. Such coverage is followed by spreads that document Maple Leaf Plastics, a company that manufactured dinner plates and never put up a single building. Next, the Avro Arrow, neither a building nor “modernist.” I would have preferred a tighter hewing to the ostensible topic even if it meant a lower page count (already a mere 112 pages including index).

Still: I can’t get excited over the Bata headquarters, the old CNE, or the original Terminal 1, all of them now destroyed. Terminal 1’s demolition is shown, coda-style, in video frame grabs on the closing page. Some buildings are simply old, even if they are debatably nice or important. An old airport is something we expect from Africa, not Canada. Tyler Brûlé did report having “a religious experience” upon deplaning at Ankara. But T1 upon its demolition did not have the pristine interiors that are shown in the book – and that are, presumably, like Ankara’s.

I have a dim racial memory of watching planes from a windswept outside observation deck at one or more airports as a young boy, similar to a photograph in this book, but that could be La jetée swapping itself in for a real memory of mine.

I noted that signage on the airport’s Aeroquay Nº 1, as it was called (surely “Æroquay”), used black Standard on a white ground. I see we haven’t come very far.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.10.17 17:28. 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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