– Mark E. Smith

Geoff Teehan is a partner in that successful local Web shop with the troubled reputation (q.v.), Teehan & Lax. His wife uses a power chair and requires accessible housing.

Teehan – I’ll just be using him as the actor throughout this discussion, because his wife is a figurehead in it – bought a beautiful little house on a nice patch of land on a lovely street in the Beach, the confusingly named Beech Ave. Here is 204 Beech in its current state:

Pinkish one-storey house with turret

Before we go any farther, isn’t that house adorable? Keep your reaction in mind, because I’ll shortly be asking you to honour it.

The property was listed for sale at $899,000.

Rare Beach gem. Gorgeous deep & long veranda. Beautiful original pine trim t/o. Turret part of dining rm with domed ceiling…. Small solarium off kitchen with ceramic flr and access to front & rear. Gorgeous treed 50+-ft lot with lane access.

Teehan has applied to tear down this house and replace it with a Modernist cube assemblage, as seen in this uncredited rendering published in the Star (obviously by Altius):

Teehan has angrily presented the case as one of permitting a landowner to do whatever he wants with his property. A landowner should have that right anyway, he argues, but can’t you see my wife is disabled? Who could be so monstrous as to stand in the way of building a house she can use?

Nobody, because those of us who oppose Teehan (sic) are not monsters. We’re principled; he’s just rich.

Don’t treat his wife with pity

Teehan’s supporters have, I determine, treated his wife with pity. They may use the word “sympathy” or “compassion,” but there’s a fine line that has surely been crossed.

I know almost nothing about architectural accessibility and have said so on many occasions, but one thing that working in the disability field for so long has taught me is a kind of bloodlessness when assessing the actual requirements of a person with a disability. As I’ve explained already, when planning for accessibility you are not actually contemplating a nightmare future in which you have become disabled, as Jim Graham is contemplating. They’re just needs, not a cautionary tale.

A person’s disability is a fact. His or her needs are facts. Deal with the facts. Don’t get emotional. (I can see you’re in a wheelchair. I’m not stupid. Now what do you need?)

Now, when disabled people’s needs are frustrated, then emotion can come into play. When, for example, Teehan & Lax releases Web site after Web site that people with disabilities, including Teehan’s wife, cannot actually use, then you get upset. But not when what we’re talking about is accessible housing.

This specific street, lot, house, and replacement house are not required

It’s fine to exercise a wish to remain in the neighbourhood of your choice, but it wouldn’t be a neighbourhood if it didn’t have characteristics. I’ll come back to that shortly, but for now, accept the following: Teehan’s wife’s requirements do not need to be met on this street and lot and with this house or its replacement.

Nothing anywhere dictated that this street, lot, house, and replacement house had to be chosen in order to fulfil her needs. By any objective estimation, this was a ridiculous choice. For one thing, the house is 20 feet up in the air.

House sits on lot at the end of a few dozen stairs

Nobody in a wheelchair could actually reach the front door. (I did not inspect the back alley; it may be possible to traverse from sidewalk to back door without barriers.)

Additionally, poor people with disabilities rarely get to live in their neighbourhood, or even building, of choice.

If Teehan can afford to buy and tear down this house, he can afford anything his wife needs

In many sectors, like employment, accommodation of disability is legally required but limited by the concept of undue hardship. If accommodation costs so much or so changes the enterprise that it becomes threatened, the accommodation may not be required.

The undue-hardship principle cannot be applied in a case like this, but one of its components, affordability, can be. If Teehan has enough money to buy a house listed for $899,000, hire an architect to create a rendering, then, if permitted, knock the house down and build from scratch, he and his wife can afford to live anywhere – and his choice of 204 Beech plainly has nothing to do with actual accessibility needs.

This has nothing to do with lot size

We are expected to take seriously the notion that a hard-to-come-by 50-foot-wide lot is absolutely necessary to avoid building a third storey on a new house. Is there really a difference between a two- and a three-storey house for a person in a wheelchair? I’ll say again I’m not an expert, but how could there be? The issue is surely “Will we need an elevator?” and not “Will we need an elevator that makes two stops or three?” The architect’s rendering shows a two-storey house. If Teehan is willing to install an elevator at all, he doesn’t need a wide lot.

Private landowners do not have unfettered rights

As a rich man buying a rich man’s house in a wealthy neighbourhood, Teehan may have persuaded himself he has a Roarkian right to do whatever he wants with his “private property.” But he has already accepted that the city has rules he must follow. He or his representative applied for a demolition permit instead of just knocking the place down under cover of darkness, for example. (I took a picture of the permit displayed in the front window.) Teehan cannot choose to go along with some regulations and not others. Teehan has acknowledged reality – that residential landownership in Toronto is not a case of unlimited free enterprise. Eminent domain by private landowners does not exist here.

Zoning in Toronto is so horrendously complex it’s taken years to get to the point where the rules are being streamlined and standardized. But there will still be zoning rules, just as there were when Teehan bought 204 Beech. Zoning rules are merely one set of regulations that apply to residential “private property.”

Regulations can be applied retroactively

Teehan is upset that his neighbours, his city councillor, City Council, a city department, and a related agency are now, after he bought the house free and clear as “private property,” ganging up on him to try to prevent him from knocking the place down and replacing it with a Modernist cube assemblage.

People do what it takes to prevent wealthy landowners from blockbusting. That is, after all, what Teehan is and that’s what he’s doing. Teehan is blockbusting. Neighbours have free-speech and ‑assembly rights to oppose his plans. A city councillor does not have to act in your interest, i.e., do what you want or take orders from you. That councillor can make a motion before an elected body. There’s no room for debate over the propriety of those actions.

Nonetheless, trying to change the rules after the fact – like getting the house designated as a heritage property – just to frustrate Teehan’s blockbusting wishes is indeed unfair. It’s also necessary. This is one of those times when the full weight of government needs to be brought to bear to prevent a travesty from occurring.

Beech Ave. cannot accommodate a Modernist cube assemblage

If Teehan wanted to stay in the Beach, other streets show a range of styles (or no real style at all) and could accommodate a Modernist cube assemblage. Woodbine Ave. is one case. A more lamentable example is the set of streets facing Lake Ontario, like Alfresco Lawn; blockbusting efforts there have been opposed by residents and the local councillor, and, presumably, Teehan.

Leslieville, which doesn’t have a dominant style, has shown itself quite resilient to the introduction of Modernist housing. The Beach doesn’t have that luxury. Beech Ave. especially doesn’t. The suburbs accommodate even stranger styles, like the Krazy Kube Houses of North York.

First of all, on Beech the elevations are all over the map. Some houses are 15 feet below grade, others 30 feet above.

Houses sit on lots high above the sidewalk

There is no Modernism whatsoever on Beech from Queen St. to just above 204. There are a couple of contemporary-style monster houses, all rather homely.

Large duplex with smooth front surfacing

Some sit cheek by jowl with (in this case) the Tudor style:

House with smooth front surfacing next to Tudor house

The only rectilinear building on the street is a rather dire apartment block that I’m sure Teehan would be glad to see gone. (That would solve another problem, too – finally achieving a monoculture of the rich.)

Bland three-storey apartment block

A Modernist house does not fit in with the neighbourhood on Beech Ave. A heritage designation has nothing to do with it. Opponents assuredly do have the right to oppose, by any lawful means necessary, the demolition of an existing house to build a stack of rectilinear volumes.

Think back to your reaction to the house. A lovely little cottage, isn’t it? Would it really be better if obliterated and replaced with a couple of cubes?

You can’t pick and choose which neighbourhoods should be preserved

I surmise from reading the statements supporting Teehan that his supporters are exactly the kind of people who didn’t want a Walmart in Leslieville, wanted the Downsview airplane hangars retained (despite being anti-military themselves) and want the same for the old Riverdale Hospital, breathed a sigh of relief when the Wychwood barns were reused, and look askance at attempts at demolition-by-neglect, as on Shuter St.

They cheered for Carl in Up when he defied developers who wanted to level his house. I surmise further that they would agree that a neighbourhood like Cabbagetown, which fiercely protects its architectural heritage, is fully in the right to do so.

Well, so are the residents of Beech Ave. and the Beaches in general, and of all neighbourhoods. Again, this isn’t a pity party: Your own pity, sympathy, and compassion for his wife, misplaced as they are, should not trump your own principles. If you’ve stood up for architectural preservation before, you have to do it again in this case especially because absolutely nothing requires this lot and house be used to create an accessible home for Teehan’s wife. Teehan picked the wrong street, lot, and house. The rest of the street shouldn’t have to suffer for Geoff Teehan’s hubris.

I’m telling you to stop being a neurasthenic hypocrite. The pity, sympathy, and compassion you feel, even if they are displaced fears about your own body, must not trump the tenets of your own belief. In case this isn’t clear, one particular woman you feel sorry for is not more important than an entire street or neighbourhood.

Geoff Teehan: A man of refinement and sophistication, he’ll have you know

I argue that Teehan’s actual purpose in proposing the construction of a Modernist house is to prove to his own peer group that he has the æsthetic chops they demand. His hypereducated (if emotionally arrested) friends will tell you mid-century Modernism is the height of human architectural achievement.

In true building-as-sign fashion, the new Modernist 204 Beech, whose front door his wife can’t even get to from the street, would transmit to all who saw it what an educated, intelligent, and above all rich man chose to live there.

That’s what Modern houses in old neighbourhoods always do: Make the neighbours look déclassé, old-fashioned, ignorant. Geoff Teehan’s Modernist house would call his neighbours stupid.

In advancing the cause of Modernism, by at long last educating his sadly backward neighbourhood of its rightness, Teehan shows he is himself ignorant of the true origin of Modernism – blood and guts. As Natalia Ilyin explains in Chasing the Perfect (q.v.; pp. 29–31):

If I could figure out the way [Walter Gropius] looked at the world, I might find a good place to jump into my search for the origins of our design perfectionism….

Here are three important things about Gropius’s early life. First, he was Peter Behrens’s assistant and shared studio space in that office with Adolf Meyer, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. Second, he served with distinction as a German cavalry officer during World War I. And third, he founded the Bauhaus….

When you read those three facts, you may have skimmed over the second one because it seems to have so little to do with design. But go back: It is the most important fact of the three…. If ever there were an experience that could change a nice, self-satisfied, middle-of-the-road Socialist designer into an evangelical utopian idealist, serving at the front in World War I would be that experience….

Imagine coming back to your nice Victorian home after that. Imagine having just lived through four years of watching your friends die hanging in the tangled barbed wire of no-man’s-land. Imagine yourself, hunkered down in your trench, listening to them scream all night until the screaming stopped. Imagine coming back home after that, putting on a dinner jacket for Mama’s evening musicale, and listening to a matronly soprano singing “The Last Rose of Summer.” How were you supposed to sit on your little gold ballroom chair, wearing your dinner jacket and sipping your digestif, after what you had been through, pretending nothing had changed?

The rift between Victorian culture and the realities of the War was just too big. That war made Gropius a reforming zealot. It made his friends reforming zealots. They would do anything not to go through that blood and chaos and futile misery again.

In telling the tale that he bought a nearly-million-dollar property so his disabled wife could live better, only to replace its house with a Modernist lantern, Geoff Teehan exposes how little he understands actual human needs. A Modernist house is an antihuman environment for a person with a disability, but it sure makes its owner look smart.

Why exactly would anyone be on his side?

Teehan refused to answer questions

Teehan refused to answer the following questions, delivered by E-mail and (wait for it) fax-o-gram:

  • Do you have any outside expert advice, preferably independent outside advice, stating that the current house could not possibly or feasibly be retrofitted for wheelchair access? Did you get an expert dollar estimate on such cost, and what is that figure?
  • Is it not true that a newly-built accessible home does not have to take the external form of a Modernist cube assemblage?
  • Isn’t it true that, if you wanted to build from scratch, you could have selected a different location, that is, a street without a consistent architectural style? (That wouldn’t have to be outside the confines of the Beach; Woodbine Ave., for example, shows a range of architectural styles.)
  • Isn’t the choice of a Modernist cube assemblage meant, in classic building-as-sign fashion, as an indicator to all observers that you really know your architecture? Is it not, at root, an indicator of class and education? (To put this question the way your opponents would put it, aren’t you too smart to live in the same kind of house your neighbours do?)
  • Isn’t it true that buying this lot, tearing down this house, and building the specific house you desire is not the only way to accommodate the disability of your partner?
  • What percentage of Teehan-Lax’s public-facing Web sites launched in the last two years (internally or for clients, including Flash) would meet any level of any published accessibility guidelines, and of that number, what percentage could actually be used, even with adaptive technology, by your partner?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2010.06.15 13:53. 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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