What Makes a Beautiful City?

What Makes a Beautiful City?

In the lead-up to Canada’s federal election, the future of cities should be on the minds of the 80 per cent of us that live in urban areas. What goes into a beautiful city was the topic of a discussion hosted at Toronto’s MaRS centre by the  Martin Prosperity Institute, Salon Camden and the Design Industry Advisory Committee.

Moderator Azmi Haq, of Salon Camden, got things going at the event, which took place two weeks ago, by quoting a student in Pakistan who said that justice and democracy are beautiful. He then turned it over to William Thorsell, the former CEO of the ROM, who instead discussed the plight of the physical city.

Torontonians, Thorsell argued, are not only shy about discussing beauty but also of condemning ugliness. He shared an anecdote about the struggle to beautify the ROM’s surroundings during its expansion and redesign by architect Daniel Libeskind; after insisting that the representatives of nine city departments responsible for the area join him in a walk around the block to count the various tree stumps, broken sidewalks, telephone booths and poles – “Is that your pole or my pole?” they joked – the consensus was that no one person was in charge. But bureaucracy is just one part of the problem. “We’re not a city that consistently and passionately values beauty,” he said. “Beauty doesn’t rank here.”

This sentiment – which Thorsell characterized as a general “philistinism” – was taken up by The Globe and Mail architecture critic Lisa Rochon, who suggested that Toronto is still weighed down by the Scottish Protestant idea that if it looks good it cost too much, and that architects here are actually punished for creating beauty. Mazyar Mortazavi, Eco Designs and Board Director with Artscape also agreed with Thorsell. Whereas Canadians go to Home Depot in search of the best price point on hardware, he said, Italians are more design-savvy, and source even their door handles from the likes of Pininfarina, Valli e Valli and Colombo. But Mortazavi also argued that Toronto has come a long way over the past 15 years, with more people hiring interior designers and architects; more design shops like Ministry of the Interior on Ossington, and Mjölk in the Junction, popping up; and a booming coffee culture all signaling a new momentum.

These private initiatives help create the “unofficial city” – that “messy urbanism” championed by Jane Jacobs where individual mom-and-pop shops, salons and restaurants create a diverse neighbourhood aesthetic. This aspect of urbanism is just as important as government-funded public works, and it speaks to another question that kept coming up. “What is beauty? Is it homogeneity?” asked Marie-Josée Lacroix, Montreal’s Design Commissioner. Her problem with a universal notion of beauty was echoed throughout the night, with participants noting that totalitarian regimes were great at building “beautiful” cities and structures, thanks to widespread human rights abuses. Toronto, instead, expresses a plurality of tastes. “The amazing thing about Toronto,” said architect Howard Rideout, “is the ability to have informal parts of the city that are great – unlike in American cities where there are neighbourhoods that you just don’t go there.”

But where governments should lead the way in facilitating good design is in sponsoring ideas competitions, says Lacroix. “I’m pushing to implement policy for good competitions, focused on concept” in an anonymous process that isn’t based on an entrant’s past projects. “Right now the process is focused on the lowest bidder and best price. I’m pushing for charettes and design panels so that the quality we’re all looking for is defined in the beginning.”

The need for better processes – which Sheena Sharp, president of the Ontario Association of Architects, lamented by saying, “Toronto has no Copenhagen-style bike lines or one per cent for art – is trumped by the “stop-the-gravy-train” mentality at city hall. Yet Alex Bozikovic, an architecture writer and blogger at No Mean City, noted that there have been great achievements fostered by the public sector – such as the ROM, Art Gallery of Ontario and other projects that have set an example for the private sector. Besides these mega-projects, others noted smaller city initiatives, like councilor Adam Vaughan’s user-led commission on parks.

Arlene Gould of the DIAC (which is leading a series of discussions on beauty’s role in design, culminating in the discussion The Business Case for Beauty: Design’s Most Potent Weapon, with such panelist as Paul Filek, Siamak Hariri and Helen Kerr, at Chicago’s NeoCon office fair in June) noted that the Tower Renewal program – which retrofits old high-rises – has been extremely successful. And Fiona Chapman of the City of Toronto described a city-wide wayfinding design program currently underway.

In what might make even the most self-deprecating Torontonian blush with pride, Gail Lord, of Lord Cultural Resources, noted that one of her clients – the city of Florence – would love to be more like Toronto and learn to use their hollowed out buildings. “They’re trying to figure out what is our magic – strangely there’s something we’re doing right.”

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