By 1978, social housing was in crisis. Across North America, the post-war ambitions of building ample, affordable urban homes were an increasingly distant memory, and isolated mid-century communities faced growing disinvestment and socio-economic marginalization, a trend that worsened in the austerity-driven decades to come. That same year, however, architect A.J. Diamond completed work on downtown Toronto’s Beverley Place Hydro Block, a public housing community knit into the fabric of the city with uncommon sensitivity and style.
Over 40 years later, Beverley Place sits at the heart of a popular neighbourhood now known as Baldwin Village. Seamlessly integrated into its surroundings and framed by lush greenery, the mid-block complex exemplifies an inclusive paradigm of dense urban development that still speaks to the issues facing cities today. In an excerpt from his newly published book, Context and Content: The Memoir of a Fortunate Architect, Diamond reflects on the design and planning of the Hydro Block community — and its evolution in the decades since.
I had taught in the School of Architecture at the University of Toronto for almost six years (1964 to 1970). To make the academic program more relevant, I had given the students urban design and architectural projects based on actual conditions in the city. At that point, design projects at the School tended to be non-urban projects for the privileged. This at a time when the world was rapidly urbanizing. So I set design problems in the city, with real issues to be addressed, with all the opportunities and problems that they presented.
Unfamiliar with Toronto, I had approached the city planning department and asked what was the most difficult problem they faced. A neighbourhood near the University that accommodated low-income residents in traditional semidetached and attached two- and three-storey housing was under threat of demolition. It was zoned to be the site of a large electrical substation. Despite the low income, the community was remarkably stable. This stability was augmented by local food stores and other essential retail commodities that were well suited to their customers. Shopkeepers knew their customers well enough to extend credit, something that was necessary for people who had little access to banking or other credit systems.
Such residents, when displaced, don’t always relocate to similar downtown locations. They move back to the towns or villages from which they came. So the community would have been deprived of low-skilled labour. The community also had a large component of Chinese immigrants. They were conveniently located close to Chinatown, its commercial heart on nearby Spadina Avenue. Their removal would further affect the subtle social and economic web on which the community thrived.
The official plan demarcated the area as industrial. A careful assessment was made of the physical condition of the existing housing. The houses in the western sector of what became known as the Hydro Block, an ironic name for the neighbourhood, were of sufficient scale and construction standard to be converted into multiple dwelling units. However, the eastern half of the block was in poor condition. Demolishing the eastern half would make it possible to build housing at a similar scale to the western section, but at a higher density in order to accommodate the urgent need for low-to-moderate income housing in the inner city. The continuity of the streetscape could be maintained, as well.
The objective was to achieve multiple housing that shared some of the characteristics of a single-family house — a street address and soundproofing between units. The design, a five-storey building, achieved a density of eighty units an acre. Three of the five first-floor apartments had independent access to the street. Throughout the design exercise the class was in close contact with the resident population, in order to discover its wants and needs. They were out in the real world, gaining an understanding of the specific needs of a neighbourhood.
At the same time a progressive city council came to power, along with progressive Mayor David Crombie. Among its reform measures was the establishment of a non-profit housing corporation. The local community made their councillor aware of the work we were doing at the University. As a consequence, the city became involved in the Hydro Block, first changing the zoning to eliminate the industrial category, then undertaking the actual implementation of the principles of our work in the master’s class and the attention we had lavished on residents and location alike. At the residents’ insistence, it was determined that I was to be the architect for the project.
The project was a success and it led to a similar project in the Regent Park neighbourhood. At the time, Regent Park, notwithstanding its high-rise form, was stigmatized as a ghetto, filled with immigrants who often had low-paying jobs and needed to be near the city core. It was seen as a high-crime neighbourhood and largely viewed as hopeless. Unlike the Hydro Block, the land to be redeveloped here was privately owned, and the developers resisted any modifications to their plan. Their idea was to demolish the existing housing and replace it with more high-rise towers that would have little or no relationship to the street. Given the recalcitrance of the developer, who in reality was not a contractor but merely an assembler of a prevalent construction system, (as the developers put it, we make socks, not shirts), the city took over the land to implement our design. This entailed renovating the street-related housing into apartment units, and constructing a mid-rise apartment structure on the lane at the rear the property.
Both Regent Park and the Hydro Block were unusual projects at the time. The CBS program 60 Minutes got wind of them and produced a segment on the work we had done. The exposure from that show was a welcome turn of events for my now-growing practice.
A.J. Diamond is a Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold medallist, an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Ontario. He has received both the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ontario Association of Architects Lifetime Design Achievement Award. Diamond lives in Toronto.
Excerpt republished from Context and Content by A.J. Diamond. Courtesy of Dundurn Press, 2022.
In an excerpt from his memoir, architect A.J. Diamond reflects on the design of a Toronto complex which epitomized a new paradigm for public housing.