Mark Kingwell on The IdeaCity: Ten Years After

This posting was written for in November of 2005. Ten years later it remains as nuanced and topical as it did then. 

Everybody talks nowadays about cities as centres of culture, ideas and entertainment — the creative city — rather than centres of industry or business.  Paul Goldberger gave the argument a new lease on life in The New Yorker not long ago by lauding the new designs of architect-sculptor Santiago Calatrava.  Calatrava is probably the best architect in the world, not least because he’s a brilliant engineer as well as a gifted designer (unlike Daniel Libeskind, for example, a point Goldberger did not hesitate to make).  One of Calatrava’s current projects, the Fordham Spire in Chicago, will, if built, be the tallest building in the United States.  The financing is not yet secure, but if the long twisting taper of a tower goes up it will be not only, in Goldberger’s words, “the world’s largest and most beautiful drill bit,” but also the most impressive apartment building in North America.

Yes, that’s right:  apartments, not offices.  The logic of the skyscraper was conceived in dreams of living in the empyrean, perhaps, but in the event it was realized according to the needs of commerce, not dwelling.  Over the century of the skyscraper’s lifetime it has always been more Donald Trump than Le Corbusier or Sant’Elia.  Now, says Goldberger, “it would become a symbol of the evolution of the American city from beiung a center of commerce to a center of culture and entertainment.”

I’m not about to argue with this thesis, which I desperately long to believe, except to enter the caveat that business still runs most cities.  (It’s by no means a definitive point, but the only Calatrava structure so far in Toronto is the soaring white-steel cathedral ceiling in the atrium of BCE Place:  one of those apparent public spaces that are in fact private.)  For money people, culture is that kind of capital they pick up in exchange for, well, plain old capital when they buy a table at the Writers’ Trust dinner or lay down a few thousand for a painting at Art for Heart.  This is not bad, just worth remembering.  I went to a fundraising dinner for Canadian Art magazine not long ago, courtesy of a friend rich enough to buy a table and dear enough to invite me.  It was pretty amazing to see several hundred people jamming the Guvernment nightclub of all places, the yawning interior transformed into a spectacular postmodern festival hall.  There was a live auction and a silent one, and I managed to secure the single bid on a little painting of Dee Dee Ramone by R. Astrauskas because it was off in a dark corner and nobody else even saw it during the crush of chardonnay drinking before dinner.

Who were all those people?  Not artists, most of them, though there were lots of artists there.  Business types, of course.  Art-world connoisseurs.  Culture vultures, to use a once-fashionable term that is still apt in its carrion-chewing connotation.  In U.S. academic parlance, they call professors and administrators who curry favour with powerful football coaches or star athletes “jock sniffers.”  I sometimes think of these corporate art patrons as “palette sniffers.”  I mean this fondly, and of course merely metaphorically.  Real inhalation of paint would probably make them more fun to be around.

Of course the money is both welcome and necessary, and I imagine the people at Canadian Art were thrilled with the results — just as the needful clients of Casey House will be grateful for the money raised by Art for Heart.  I work in an institution that is theoretically public but which could not do some of its most impressive things without private top-up from people like Hal Jackman or Russell Morrison, to name just two generous benefactors of Canadian university life.  Money is great.  It’s just not culture.  And we can all too easily get carried away with the idea of the twenty-first-century creative city and so not notice that the reality is a more and more privatized, corporatized, finance-driven cultural fabric.  Real culture is made of ideas, not dollars, and you can’t buy one with the other — though the latter can certainly create conditions for the former’s health.

Anyway, the real point of the post is to recognize two people who, in their different ways, make all of this clear to somebody like me.

It’s not just because he’s an old friend of mine that I say John Knechtel is one of Toronto’s most important, least recognized heroes. Back in the old days when we were undergraduates at the University of Toronto he edited the college newspaper with the best name in Canada, The Gargoyle, and then he followed on to campus-wide paper, The Varsity, which has been around since 1880 and which I had edited myself a few years before.  The list of journalists, writers and culture-makes who saw their first publication in The Varsity is so long and so impressive that it would take an entire volume to do them justice.  Even in these days of quickie journalism degrees and credential-stuffing professionalism, self-trained Varsity alumni are still over-represented in the mastheads of Canada’s newspaper and magazines; and that’s to say nothing of people like Naomi Klein or Hal Niedzviecki — or John Knechtel — who have gone well beyond mere journalism.

For years John has been the editor, promoter and lifeblood of Alphabet City, an occasional publication of ideas and culture that has miraculously survived everything from severe economic downturn to multiple format changes.  It started small in 1991, a typical post-grad pet project with close columns of type and staple binding, and has grown into one of the continent’s most important and consistent sites of intellectual exchange.  For a while there was a deal with the House of Anansi, the Canadian publishing house perhaps best known for their annual issue of the Massey Lecture.  Now, with a new smaller format, MIT Press in Cambridge, Mass., has taken over the publishing.  The new volume, number 10, has just appeared.  The theme is “suspect” and, full disclosure, I have an essay included in it.  So do Slavoj Zizek and George Bragues.  There’s fiction by Camilla Gibb and Ariel Dorfman, artwork by Joey Dubuc and Stephen Andrews.  In short, it’s the usual remarkable mixture of thought, beauty, provocation and wit.

(There’s a symposium and exhibition marking the publication of Alpabet City 10, Suspect, the weekend of November 11th, at the Drake and Gladstone Hotels.)

So here’s to John Knechtel, one of those people who make a city genuinely creative.  His dedication to Alphabet City is tenacious and passionate.  He is someone who makes sure that Toronto gets on, and stays on, the international map.  And Alphabet City joins with Impulse magazine, Public, and Bruce Mau’s original Zone books to make the understated claim that this city has, since the late 1980s, produced more good books of ideas than almost anywhere else in North America.  It’s one of the things that makes me love living here.

*  *  *

Another thing I love about living here is showing it to people from out of town, and I had that chance recently when an architect from New York, Michael Jasper, was visiting with his wife, the philosopher Penny Deutscher.  Penny is a candidate for a senior job in continental philosophy at the University of Toronto, whose philosophy department remains one of the few left that welcomes both analytic and continental styles — these being the handy, if somewhat mythical, labels applied to two rival approaches in contemporary philosophy.  (This is not the place to do it, but the whole idea of this rivalry, and the presumed divide creating it, cries out for debunking.)  Toronto’s department is so big — about sixty faculty plus dozens of graduate students — that it would be bizarre if we didn’t cover the range of approaches used by thinkers, whether French or English, Eastern or Western, boring or fun.  Still, one has to be grateful that there is administrative will sufficient to get a senior opening in what is, for most North American philosophers, a minority form.

This is obviously a great time to show an architect around Toronto.  The university campus alone boasts works by Ron Thom (Massey College), Norman Foster (the new pharmacy building), Morphosis (Graduate House), and — with a little extension — Raymond Moriyama (the Bata Shoe Museum, not technically a university building but part of the St, George streetscape).

We walked south along Beverly and Baldwin and so to the AGO site, where the Frank Gehry renovation is barely underway.  We walked under and into Will Alsop’s Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD, a building which I have reluctantly come to admire, though I still think of it as “Stiltslab,” the sci-fi name I gave it in a satirical essay written for the OCAD student magazine, Bite.  “It sure kills the street, doesn’t it?” Michael said to me, laughing.  Well, exactly.  Pretty cool to stand under it, though.

We ended the tour, naturally, at the Libeskind ROM reno, which is now past its best because the elaborate beam structure is finished enough that it is resolving into the plane surfaces soon to be clad in metal. The fantastic slow-motion assimilation of the old buildings by those scary florets and clusters of rusted I-beam is all done, and we’re left with a building that will soon, and forever thereafter, hide its true genius: not the napkin-sketched design but the structural engineering that made it possible.

Before we got to that point, Michael asked to see Roy Thompson Hall, a much maligned edifice that was nevertheless designed by the genius of Arthur Erickson.  Not even dedicated Erickson fans could put Roy Thompson on the same level as the Simon Fraser University buildings, the Anthropology Museum at UBC, or any of Erickson’s other masterpieces.  But I’ve always kind of liked it, especially the interior, with its concrete seating pods and mushroom patch of acoustic baffles — much improved recently by the efforts of, among others, Bruce Kuwabara at KPMB.  Michael’s guidebook cynically described the exterior as “an ugly geodesic glass tutu,” which I suppose is accurate enough.  So I said, let’s look inside.

We walked in the oddly unprepossessing Simcoe Street entrance and were making for the auditorium when we were confronted by a tiny security guard in an outsized overcoat and a little strap-on bowtie.  He had the pinched face of a worried teenager.  He resembled the tough-talking, Colt-packing gunsel who is Sidney Greenstreet’s sidekick in The Maltese Falcon.  We couldn’t go in, he said.  People were actually walking past us and going in, so I said, “Why not?” and just kept walking.  He ran — well, trotted — to get ahead of me and block our way.  It was a school fair, he said, and only registered people could go in.  I explained that I had a visiting architect, an Ericson fan, who just wanted to look at the interior.  We weren’t going to take illicit advantage of whatever the displays had on offer.  Just wanted to look.

I walked past him again, and he trotted into position once more. I had a sudden desire to do what Humphrey Bogart does to the punk in The Maltese Falcon, which is grab the shoulders of his absurd overcoat and pull them down over his arms, pinning them so he can slap the kid’s face a few times.  I tried to walk past the guard a few more times, but we had obviously given him purpose in life.  It was now his vocation to keep us from seeing anything as interesting as the interior of the building.

Giving up, I tried to explain to Michael why I found this scene so peculiarly Torontonian.  It was, first, thinking of the subject of John’s new Alphabet City, the matter of suspicion, the comprehensive on-guard willingness to follow the rules.  But it was more than that, it was the fundamental desire to block, to keep things from happening, the same generalized wariness that someome might be about to get away with something.  This is the bureaucratic mind, the mind not just hostile but antithetical to ideas:  the mind of the functionary “doing his job.”  The bureaucratic mind is found everywhere, I realize, and post-9/11 America probably labours under more organized suspicion than anywhere north of the border.  But that particular refusal to listen to an idea, the thin-lipped intellectual and moral puritanism of not letting people do things — the implied disapproval of even wanting to do them — that is Toronto, alas, still.

So I thank that security guard, whoever he is, for reminding me that this is still a city of prevention, as well as one of creation.

We’re doing some great things; we’ve also got a long way to go.


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