Alex Bozikovic is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and staff editor at the Globe and Mail. Specializing in all things architectural, he also serves as the Globe’s architecture critic, and recently published his own updated version of the late Patricia McHugh’s book Toronto Architecture: A City Guide.
Can you describe your connection to Toronto, and, have you always lived here?
Yes, I’m more or less a native. I was born in North York and lived in the city in the suburbs for most of my life. I spent a couple of years away living in the New York area, but I have always been in Toronto and in the GTA. In fact, I have connections to several different places in and around the city. My mother grew up in Scarborough, my first home was in Downsview, I lived in North York, and then in York region, and now, finally, downtown. So a lot of places are home-ish. A lot of parts of Toronto are familiar to me.
What led you to become an architecture critic?
I was interested in cities and in urbanism and architecture growing up. Then as an adult in my twenties I decided I wanted to pursue architecture and urbanism as subjects, and just decided—more or less on my own—to chase those and educate myself. So I professionally sort of stumbled into covering architecture. One of the privileges of being a journalist is that you can write about things that you don’t necessarily know much about. If you push hard enough and ask the right questions you can find a way to do it.
So I started actually by writing for the magazine Azure; that was an important first step for me. They took me on when I was a freelancer. So through articles for that, for newspapers, and for other magazines, I started by writing about individual buildings – often houses, initially. And then I started to become aware of some of the larger questions about how cities are made. And where I can I’ve been trying to pursue some broader questions and broader themes.
Since I took on this role at the Globe I’ve had a lot of freedom to explore across a country – and sometimes out of the country—and to think in a holistic way about buildings and cities and the forces that shape them. It’s not just about individual buildings, but also about urban design, about urban planning, about broader questions that affect cities—around transportation, around the environment and climate change, and the social and economic context that shapes cities and buildings.
What made you decided to update Patricia McHugh’s architecture guide as opposed to creating one of your own?
I got the call from the publishers McClellend and Stewart to discuss a new edition of this book. It had been out of print for a long time, but it was a book that continued to be read, continued to be in demand through libraries and book sellers. So it was a book that still had relevance. I had a copy of the book and had used it extensively, so I was excited to get the chance to revisit it.
It was the only comprehensive text on architecture and building in Toronto. It was also kind of intimidating in a sense because it was such a big project, and you do need to cover ostensibly two hundred years of history—not all of which I knew that well. In that sense, having Patricia McHugh’s edition to work with was reassuring, in that I could keep those pieces of her work that were still current and were still relevant, and also bring it up to date with some of the tremendous change that has happened in this city over the last 30 years. And put my own stamp on it.
McHugh was from the U.S originally. Do you think that being an outsider here shaped her perspective in a useful way?
I do. I think that outsiders who have come to the city—particularly Americans—have come here in many cases and seen what is good about the culture of this place, and have seen what is beautiful and interesting about Toronto. As outsiders, they’ve escaped the culture of self-deprecation. People from here tend to think of Toronto as being somehow inferior to other places. I mean, even if their own lives are good, even if their experiences of the city are positive, somehow life is better elsewhere.
I think if you come from somewhere else—as Patricia McHugh did—you don’t get that. So she loved the place, and she brought a critical eye and also a well-informed eye to the city. I’ve tried to do the same thing; I’ve tried to escape our usual restraints of thinking about Toronto, and tried to see the place through its history as what it is. As it really is.People from here tend to think of Toronto as being somehow inferior to other places. Even if their own lives are good, even if their experiences of the city are positive, somehow life is better elsewhere.Click To Tweet
I like to think that Toronto is full of places that an architecture critic would find interesting, but can you talk about a couple of specific buildings in Toronto that you think are particularly notable?
There’s one block that I like to take people to; it’s my favourite block in the city, which is part of the University of Toronto. It’s just east and south of St. George and Bloor, so on that block you have a few buildings that I think are extraordinary. You have Massey College, which was finished in the early 1960s, and is a really beautiful building that was designed by the Vancouver architect Ron Thom, which is a very personal and idiosyncratic version of modernism. It’s very warm; he uses a lot of natural materials, a lot of wood and brick, and it also has some ornaments, which looks back to Frank Lloyd Wright—ornament was something that wasn’t very popular through the 1960s, so this is a blend of different streams of 20th century architecture, and it’s very humane, and comfortable and beautiful.
On the same block is another one that I think really represents the city, it’s called Woodsworth College. So Woodsworth College combines this couple of very grand Victorian mansions on St. George street with the brick and sandstone that was typical of houses in the Annex in the 1880s and 1890s—which still are very beautiful. And the new building that was added on to it is mostly a new addition from the 80s.
It was designed by the architects KPMB very early on, just as they were starting their office, and it does a few things. Number one, it is very retiring. It’s a modern building that– in terms of the way it’s arranged on its site—defers to the older buildings that were there before. The materials it uses are stone and wood, which, again, are deployed in a contemporary way—deployed in a modernist way—but are very harmonious with what was there before. And it uses landscape. The architecture makes space for landscape—for a courtyard, you know, which is actually an important piece of it. So it’s modernism, but it’s modernism that defers to the 19th century streetscape. It uses details and materials that are very warm and humane, and is designed in a way to sit back, rather than to push forward.
And I think that’s an important building in Toronto, because it represents maybe the most distinctive thing about Toronto architecture in the last hundred years, which is this: modernism in Toronto didn’t really overpower the 19th century city, and that’s an important thing because a lot of architects of the 1950s and 60s had a really hostile attitude towards the cities they were working with. They didn’t see a lot of value in older buildings, in older blocks, and in Toronto people did. And the new buildings that were added, you know, in many cases people took care to preserve what was there before, and to not wipe out what had been good about the city. And I think that not many places have done that so well. And the result—when you have that conversation between the old and the new, the result… that product can be very beautiful, and I think that the presence of the past is important to architecture in Toronto. And that’s really one of the strengths of design here in Toronto; that in inventing the new city, we didn’t quite erase everything that came before.Modernism in Toronto didn't really overpower the 19th century city, and that's an important thing because a lot of architects of the 1950s and 60s had a really hostile attitude towards the cities they were working with.Click To Tweet
What are your favourite cities, architecturally speaking?
Ohhhh, that’s a tough one. In terms of urban form, I would say it’s probably Amsterdam. You get a city that is consistently dense, so you get a lot of people and a lot of social life and a lot of commerce and a lot of culture, and all the benefits of having a lot of people living in an urban form that is also, very humane and very comfortable. And there’s a coherence to the blocks that’s very pleasing.
On the other hand, I also like a certain amount of chaos, and a certain amount of disorder in cities is impossible to avoid. And in its own way it can be beautiful. And I love New York—as almost everybody does—even for the discontinuity, and sort of the way in which, you know, the buildings in the city have accommodated people from so many different cultures, and there’s an interesting tension in New York between very tough constraints and really bold imagination.
So two very different cities, which have their values; coherence and sticking together in Amsterdam, and jostling, boisterous and ambitious New York.
Critique implies that you know what should be done. Given this, what should Toronto be doing in the architecture and urban planning department?
I think two things. Number one, Toronto has experience building new buildings that fit in with older ones, and I think we aren’t doing enough of that today. In a nutshell I think that more small-scale housing spread right across the city, both the old and new city, would be a great way of intensifying the city. I think it would be good economically and culturally for the city if we did that, if we built many smaller buildings—rather than a few towers—to spread out some of the people and the wealth into some of the neighbourhoods where many of us already enjoy living.
One more point though, about what Toronto should do. Architects use the term ‘vernacular’ to refer to the way that people build. And in Toronto in the 19th century there was a vernacular; you used brick, you built to a certain height, you used certain kinds of decoration and ornament to build your buildings. So there was a clear culture of building. Now we don’t have that so much any more, and I think it would be really interesting to explore what a new Toronto vernacular would look like. I think it would be really interesting if a lot of the new buildings in the city used good quality brick, and tried to use a certain traditional style, a certain consistency in their size and scale.Toronto has experience building new buildings that fit in with older ones, and I think we aren't doing enough of that today.Click To Tweet
Should architects always be artists?
I think architecture at its best is art, but architecture is also the product of constraint. Buildings are shaped by technology, by economics, by planning restrictions, and by the culture of the place where they sit. They have to be. And to me, that’s what makes them interesting. Looking at the streets of Toronto, and looking at the buildings of Toronto, if you read them in the right way, you can understand a lot about the kind of place this is. Buildings reflect who we are. They way we build reflects who we are. So yes, architecture can be art—at its best it is art—but it is always something that is a product of a larger culture. And at its best it can do that while also being really beautiful.
What do you see as the proper role of an architecture critic?
For me, it is to explain to people why design matters to the way we live. To argue for examples of good design that are shaping the future we want to live in, and to help create an understanding of what makes for a good building, a good block and a good city. People don’t always understand why a building is good, or why a building is bad. They may not think about it. And I think it’s important to give people the tools to assess. I’m making judgments, but I also want people to develop the tools to make judgments for themselves, and to help build a better city.