12/06/2012 05:19 EST | Updated 02/05/2013 05:12 EST

What Does the Future of Toronto's Skyline Look Like?


Led Zeppelin played its first North American gig there in 1969, and Neil Young rocked the house, too.

Toronto concert venue The Masonic Temple is up for sale and likely not long for this world. There is an understandable outcry. This cannot be true! We are destroying our heritage! But what is the architectural legacy of a building past its best before date?

In this context we might actually mean nostalgia for a past youth of ear blistering sounds and shaggy rock dreams. In the discourse so far, few have spoken about the building's attributes, its architectural values and influence. Truth is, the temple was built in 1917 for an altogether different time. At its peak, the building was home to 38 different Masonic bodies. In later years it became a popular event space for local performers and international stars.

The Masonic Temple was added to the City of Toronto's Heritage Property list along with about 7,000 others included in the heritage inventory, from well-known landmark buildings and structures to private homes and heritage districts.

But simply preserving a building such as this misses the point. Cities are in constant change and that is a good thing. Toronto is lucky enough to be grappling with growth that out-paces almost every other city on the continent. The conversation should focus on what this future looks like and what kind of buildings we want to make up our communities.


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Other cities are up for the challenge. In London, a dialogue is taking place on the role skyscrapers ought to play, particularly in the way they affect the great city skyline. The heart of the city is now home to the tallest building in Europe, the 72-storey Shard by Renzo Piano. Architects, urban planners and the general public too are divided on how the structure challenges the view of Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral, one of the world's best examples of Baroque design.

A building does not have to be "old" to be an important heritage property. Many of Toronto's modern buildings and structures such as Roy Thomson Hall and the CN Tower are significant parts of our heritage and are symbols of our city. Nor does a property have to be a grand public building -- small cottages, warehouses, industrial structures and bridges are also valuable legacies of the past and some deserve to be protected and preserved.

Yet in the shiny new city that is Toronto, there is such deep confusion about its identity that non-descript characterless buildings such as the Mr. Christie's cookie plant on the lakeshore are deemed by some an asset to be preserved. Why? Because of how it fits into the urban landscape? Not really. It is a mid-century factory that does nothing to inform its surroundings. The loss of jobs matters tremendously but the building's time has past.

Let's speak about what will replace it. A mammoth cluster of condominiums is the odds on favourite outcome. In an area that is now overwhelmingly residential this is probably a smart use of land. What about the towers' structure, fabrication, density and surrounding public space? Forget the tired "mixed use" terminology that has become a pseudonym for condos with ground floor retail. Perhaps the area can gain entrepreneurial studios, a cooking school, continuing education facility or a museum outpost.

A great city's brand is, in many ways, defined by its architecture and urban landscape. Rome has its terracotta rooftops set against blazing blue skies, Moscow its renowned onion domes and New York City its still remarkable Central Park.

Twenty-five years ago, Toronto was described as "the city that works." Few people believe that today. We can enjoy fond memories of attending past concerts at the Masonic Temple or catching the scent of chocolate when driving by the Christie plant, but the future is upon us. The opportunity is not to be a passer-by in the Toronto that is now emerging.