THE NEW CITIES

ROBERT FULFORD February 23 1963

THE NEW CITIES

ROBERT FULFORD February 23 1963

THE NEW CITIES

“There is a great restlessness among the citizens, the politicians, the capitalists, and the corporate managers — the people who make our cities and the people who must live in them,. The news is that the shape of downtown Canada, will soon change — and, there’s a fighting chance that life in the new cities will be more interesting for all of us”

ROBERT FULFORD

Maclean's Reviews Editor

THE DOWNTOWN SECTIONS of Canadian cities have traditionally been designed for the benefit of everybody except the people who live in them. The office buildings which fill most of our downtown streets are usually designed first as rent-producers, then as status symbols for their owners and tenants, and then, finally, as places for human beings to exist. Developers have found it profitable to drop their buildings arbitrarily in the centres of the cities, without thought for over-all planning or the rights of citizens. “Economic land development” in Canada has meant office buildings which fill all the space the law allows — and the law usually allows them to fill the space right out to the sidewalk. This has led to architecture which is inhuman, even anti-human, and the result is a kind of national tragedy.

Last month the city-proud Vancouver Sun said of Vancouver: "Downtown is no fun to walk around in, and it's becoming intolerable to drive around in. It is, in short, an area designed for work, not pleasure. It is an area peopled by citizens who wish they were somewhere else.” You could say the same melancholy thing about every city core in Canada.

The centre of a city is the heart of human civilization, and this fact means more in Canada each year as more of us come to live in the cities. But most of downtown Canada spcc-

The most striking new plans to change our skylines and our lives are still on the draining boards. Almost every big Canadian city has — like the four below — at least one such design for bringing new life to its own heart

William Zeckendorf, the American real estate entrepreneur who brought Montreal to life by building Place Ville Marie, says his plan for downtown Edmonton (above) would create an urban environment second to none in the West. The $100 million proposal, which stands a fair chance of success, includes three twenty-five-floor office towers, a civic park, a cultured centre, a coliseum, apartment buildings and a reorganized street system. The idea is to create a lively as well as prosperous city centre.

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tacularly lacks just those things which human beings most desperately need in their city cores — beauty, excitement, light, space, variety. Canada’s most sensational failure is the below-Quecn-Street financial district of Toronto. Its sidewalks are overcrowded, its streets jammed, its parking lots ugly. It lacks trees and parks and benches. More important, it lacks variety — nobody lives there (except the odd millionaire in a penthouse) and hardly anybody goes there when he doesn't have to. In the daytime thousands of office workers march through its streets like robots, in response to traffic signs which blink their commands: “WALK” and “DON’T WALK.”

At night it's dark and lonely.

For the dozen or so Canadian towns which are growing towards big-city status, the worst prospect is an endless multiplication of Toronto’s financial district. In fact, that was the prospect, until recently. But now there is a national movement, slow hut highly promising, toward a new kind of downtown. More interesting and possibly more human uses of downtown land are becoming fashionable across the country. There is a great restlessness among the citizens, the politicians. the capitalists, and the corporate managers. The news now is that the shape of downtown Canada will soon he altered radically.

In Montreal the success of Place Ville Marie — the most important

Toronto's professional planners, working with a group of businessmen known as the Redevelopment Advisory Council, have developed an elaborate plan to create a convenient, interesting and possibly even handsome downtown section for Toronto. A key area is the iva ter front, now cut off from downtown by railroad tracks. The planners call for apartment buildings (above) to be built over the tracks, thus opening up waterfront land to developers. They also envision parks and office-building developments.

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office-building development in eastern Canada since the twenties — has centred attention on the great economic and social benefits of enlightened planning. In Edmonton an integrated, spacious one hundred million dollar plan for the city core now seems likely to be adopted. In Regina a governmentuniversity plan for the city's core, the most ambitious such project in Canada, has been adopted and now is going ahead. In Toronto the city's professional planners and the downtown land-owners and corporate managers, working together for once, announced the other day a fairly promising plan for the downtown area.

Even in those cities where downtown planning is still sluggish, this

new civic consciousness is evident. “As the New Year opens," an editorial in the Winnipeg Tribune said on January 1, “there are at last some faint symptoms of hope for the revitalization of downtown Winnipeg . . . There is a slight indication that the need for major surgery has seeped into the creative stratum of our society . . . Indeed, we may hope to see the emancipation of architecture and planning in 1963." In Vancouver — “Vancouver the Ugly," the Sun called it — the mayor recently called for extensive downtown redevelopment centred on the new coliseum convention centre.

These developments leave no doubt that the commercial function of Canada’s downtown cores has

Regina's plan, prepared by the American architect Minoru Yamasaki, involves developing the downtown area along the Wascana River over the next hundred years. The plan ivill include government buildings, a university for about eight thousand students, extensive parks, and, an outdoor theatre (above). To offset the barren prairie feeling, Yamasaki calls for enclosed courts and covered walkways joining the university buildings. The legislature has adopted, the plan. Construction is expected to staid this year.

been saved from the blight which seemed to threaten it in the fifties. There was some danger, in American as well as Canadian cities, that big business would eventually desert the downtown areas. But after a brief flirtation with the suburbs most of the big corporations have decided that downtown is where business is most efficiently done, and beyond doubt many more big office buildings will be constructed during the sixties in the downtown sections. The question now is whether we can arrange these buildings in such a way that we will produce cities which people can use rather than cities which use people.

The issue is more important now than it's ever been. “We can do

harm so much faster now." a young architect said to me the other day. “We're so bloody efficient about it." It took centuries to build the Piazza San Marco in Venice, which is the textbook model of a beautiful, workable, varied and humane city square. But now building techniques are so fast that you can transform the looks of a city in a decade. New city cores in the heavily bombed European centres

— the superb one in Rotterdam, the pretty good one in Coventry

— were put together inside fifteen years. A mistake made over a few years — like the dull, squat row of insurance buildings created after the war on Bloor Street in Toronto

— stays with us for half a century. Since the Second World War

Place des Arts, at, St. Catherine and St. Urbain Streets, is one of several new developments in downtown Montreal. It will soon be the city's cultural centre. A thirty-one-hundred-seat auditorium (oval facade, above) will be finished this year. The project will also include a twelve-hundred-seat theatre, a five-hundred-seat recital hall, and, an office building with stores. The square ivill be free of cars; theatregoers will enter from underground garages. Civic, provincial and public donations will pay for it.

ended and the Canadian city-building boom began, the architects and town planners of Canada have pressed upon us relentlessly a single idea: cities, for the sake of the people within them, should be developed according to careful plans. Rather than building our streets piecemeal, like children playing with building blocks, we should proceed according to plans which will provide open spaces, separate pedestrians and cars, and provide human variety and excitement. The evidence now suggests that this idea has caught on in the board rooms of big companies as well as in the universities and the architectural offices. The architects sense that they are finally winning

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Canada’s new townscapes must give the people more pleasure, more room and more identity

battle. “It's now an exciting period for an architect to be alive,” John C. Parkin said recently. "After those decades of dreariness, the whole orienta-

tion of the country is changing.” If this is true, then it provides a nice lesson in the proper uses of propaganda.

There is no doubt that a propaganda campaign has been under way for some years. It was never organized, but it could hardly have been more effective if it had been designed by Dr. Goebbels himself. It involved most of the country’s architects and planners, a few professors, a clutch of journalists, and some TV producers.

Its central ideas were delivered through such diverse media as TV programs like Fighting Words, a conference on "The Troubled Metropolis” held by the Canadian Institute on Public Affairs in 1959, and newspaper columnists like Ron Haggart of Toronto, a persistent and eloquent friend of the planners. A major figure in the campaign was Alan Jarvis, who, first as director of the National Gallery and then as a journalist, went up and down the country for years, de-

nouncing the inadequacy of urban planning in Canada and the blindness of official and business opinion. The campaign reached a kind of climax at the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto on the night of May 6, 1961.

That was the last evening of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, which had already been dominated by passionate discussions of urban planning. On that night two speakers — the visiting English sage Sir Julian Huxley and a Canadian history professor, William Kilbourn — worked themselves into a kind of frenzy denouncing the Canadian urban environment and the “yahoos,” as Kilbourn called them, who had created the whole ugly mess. Kilbourn said Canada had the ugliest townscapes in the world. Sir Julian announced, after a quick look around, that Toronto itself was a dreary waste. The audience went away chastened and determined, as from an evangelical prayer meeting, and the event made banner headlines in Monday’s evening papers. "THE EYES OF CULTURE L.OOK ON CANADA,” screamed the front page of the Toronto Telegram. Town planning had never before made such a loud, vulgar noise in Canada.

But if these unco-ordinated propagandists made urban planning fashionable, the man who made it obviously profitable as well was William Zeckendorf. Zeckendorf, the most important real estate man in the United States, is responsible for major redevelopment projects from Washington, D.C., to Denver, Colorado. His official biography reads: "He believes that it is not only socially desirable hut also economically sound for the commercial builder to aim for the highest possible standards in planning, architecture, and construction.” It was this radical idea — the marriage of the businessman’s acquisitive instinct and the planner’s idealism — that Zeckendorf brought to Canada in 1955.

He was drawn to Montreal by the existence of a peculiarly promising site. It was seven acres, or three blocks, of almost unused land in the middle of a dense business concentration. The site was a block from Dominion Square, a few feet from the CNR station, just down the street from the major hotels and next door to almost everything else of commercial consequence in town.

The fact that it wasn’t covered with buildings, like most such land, was due to luck and foresight. The luck was in the fact that it had been railroad property since early in the century: the CNR, as a public corporation, hadn’t felt the economic need to sell it off in small pieces. The foresight belonged to the CNR directors in the twenties, who decided that it should eventually be developed as a whole. Plans had been prepared but then set aside by the depression and the Second World War. By the time Zeckendorf saw it in 1955, the site was easily the ugliest downtown empty lot in the country. Donald Gordon, the president of the CNR, was anxious to make some money out of it.

The experience of Zeckendorf and his army of associates from that point to the opening last November of Place Ville Marie demonstrates how big money and big architecture aftect

each other and in the end shape the environment most of us live in. Zeckendorf started by incorporating Webb & Knapp (Canada) Ltd. to handle this and other Canadian projects. He made Webb & Knapp as Canadian as possible — after all, he intended to deal with the CNR — by writing into the by-laws the rule that more than half the directors must be Canadians. The following year he made an agreement with the CNR to spend $250.000 of Webb & Knapp's money on a detailed plan for the site.

He assigned 1. ,M. Pei Associates, a New York architectural firm, to make the plan. The problem was to produce a very large area of prestige office space which could be rented at the highest possible rates. To do this, Zeckendorf wanted both pleasant open space and monumental, commanding architecture. Pei first submitted a plan for three high, slim office towers. Zeckendorf turned it down. "You don't take the Hope diamond and cut it up into little pieces," he said. "1 want one monumental building there."

A window for every executive

The architects agreed. But how, if you design just one building, can you avoid having a lot of your office space inside, away from the windows? And that w'ould be disastrous. This wlt;as to he executive office space, remember, and a major characteristic of executives as a class is their profound need to sit next to the window. The Pei office finally developed, and Zeckendorf approved, a cruciform shape: four quadrants joined by a core which contained the basic supporting structure. This provided a large window for everybody who deserved one. It also made it possible to have four imposing entrances, and thus provide up to four different companies w'ith the prestige of separate entrances.

The plan — one enormous building, tw'o smaller ones and a large square

— was submitted to the CNR in 1957, and at the beginning of 1958 the railroad gave Zeckcndorf a nincty-nincyear lease on the land. He had already been looking around for tenants, and encountering his first disappointments

— nobody wanted to rent the space. The project was apparently too radical for Montreal businessmen. Zeckendort knew that he needed one major tenant to attract other minor ones, and after a good many months he found one. James Muir, then the president of the Royal Bank of Canada, had been sympathetic to the project from the beginning and had helped Zeckendorf find his Canadian directors. Now. in the summer of 1958, he made an agreement with Zeckendorf and announced that the Royal Bank would move its head office from St. James Street to Place Ville Marie. The Aluminum Co. of Canada — which provided the aluminum which sheathes the building — came next, renting another of the quadrants. The rest of the space went quickly, the money to finance the building was raised and the construction contracts were let.

But the architectural problems continued. Designing a building like Place Ville Marie’s main structure involves a kind of action architecture,

improvised as you

. , e '»«10 v point a movie house was acquired as

a tenant, and part of one basement had to be moved to make room). To give the Royal Bank of Canada the prestige and identity its executives desired — prestige and identity are what companies going into new buildings want most of all — the architects altered the base of the building to provide the enormous protruding glass cubes in which the Royal's main branch and some of its offices are placed. This meant pushing the shopping promenade into a kind of basement. but the importance of the Royal Bank as a tenant justified it. When the Royal got that much identity, however, a new' problem was created : how could the Aluminum Company of Canada, w'hich rented another of the quadrants, achieve its identity, assert its presence. Alcan elected to do it w'ith a large piece of aluminum sculpture, and assigned a Swiss sculptor to submit designs. He turned in a design for a long, horizontal sculpture which would run almost the whole length of the building. Alcan was pleased, hut the I. M. Pei architects were not. It didn't fit the tone of the building. When I last visited Place Ville Marie, the Alcan symbol was still an issue. The rival claims of corporate identity and architectural beauty w'ere still being argued.

Now that it’s almost finished — there may be another small building — Place Ville Marie has to be admired unreservedly in some respects. It has increased property values for blocks on all sides, it has helped Montreal to take a firmer grip on national business leadership (by keeping big head offices in Montreal) and it has provided excellent office space for its tenants. But its implications are far wider than that. It is a lesson and a portent, an example of the kind of development we can expect to see rising across the country in the next few decades. This being so. it’s worth judging Place Ville Marie according to how well it solves the great problems of modern city planning. These are all human rather than commercial problems. The things human beings need from their downtown cores have been studied since early in this century by legions of planners, architects and sociologists. With a few' exceptions these authorities have agreed on at least four basic qualities:

1. A sense of human scale. We need buildings which do not overwhelm us with their grandeur or monstrousness, hut instead allow us to live comfortably with them. If a functional building requires human heings to climb huge flights of stairs, or pry open enormous doors, or march across vast empty lobbies, then it is designed for its own grandeur and not for the comfortable use of human heings. The number of cathedrals required by any city is limited.

2. Human space. We need places in downtown districts where human heings arc more important than anything else, where automobiles are pushed aside and people are allowed to come directly into contact with each other. We need parks, squares and malls cut off from the rivers of automobiles: enclosed space, carefully designed to be used by people.

And here a basic issue of human

freedom and dignity arises. Modern cities too often shove their citizen> into a series of tiny enclosed spaces

— a seat on the subway, a narrow sidewalk, a restaurant stool, a chair at a desk. This is not a notably civilized way to live; what’s more, it is not necessary. Planning can provide open and interesting spaces in cities, and free citizens deserve them — what good is the freedom to vote without the freedom to walk around? If you are imprisoned by traffic lights and pushed off the sidewalks by your fellow citizens, you have no need ot a political tyrant.

3. Life and variety. We need downtown cores which breath life into the cities around them — not just eighthour-a-day commercial zones but richly varied districts, full of the theatres, restaurants, bars and arenas which keep downtown alive at night and on week ends. We need this because we are social creatures and because we require a lively physical centre for our social and cultural lives. Providing variety in downtown cores, rather than bland rows of faceless glass office buildings, has become a vital aim of intelligent planning.

This, too, has social implications. A lively downtown is enjoyed by everyone, but it is perhaps more important to the poor man or the man of limited means. Ciiven a good house, a car and a good neighborhood, the middle-class citizen does not so desperately require downtown freedom and variety as does the secretary who lives alone, the young immigrant, or the pensioner. Middle-class people in Canada have assumed for too long that life is as easy and pleasant for everyone as it is for them. One of the results of this assumption is the boredom of our downtown cores.

4. A sense of place. The great nightmare of modern design is sameness, the horrible possibility that eventually — construction becoming more and more standardized — every place in the modern world will look like every other place. Cities badly need to look different from each other, and districts within each city need to be set sharply apart by their architecture.

By two of these standards our first product of the new civic consciousness, Place Ville Marie, is a spectacular failure. By the other two, it succeeds admirably.

First, it badly lacks human scale. Its interiors successfully bring back to bank design the mood of the imitation temples and cathedrals Canadians built as banks in the twenties. Words like “nave" and "vault" spring to mind when you first see the high, grand design of the main floors. Space in Place Ville Marie is handled with imagination and even daring, but in this kind of space human beings are lost. There is a sense that they are not even wanted. In the building's main lobby there are no benches, no sculpture, no paintings, no signs of human activity or interest. At the same time, the most handsome public area is devoted to an activity which takes most people only a few minutes a week — banking — while those functions and pleasures which can take many hours

— shopping, the cinema, eating, drinking, buying books — are mostly

relegated to a shopping promenade below street level. You go up to a massively constructed room to withdraw' ten dollars; you go down to a kind of basement to try on a dress.

The architects are pleased to note that four large stairwells from the open public square allow some natural light to fall on every point in the promenade, but the general effect is still cramped. Webh &. Knapp hoped these stores would rent to prestige merchants. Instead they attracted a fairly ordinary run of haberdasheries and dress shops. I don't think anyone should have been surprised.

Second, Place Ville Marie’s planners have failed, so far, to create the kind of city square that a downtown centre needs. The provision of such a large space for an open square is outstandingly generous; in fact, it may he loo generous for a Canadian city. In winter its four acres create the lonely, windswept feeling of a miniature prairie anil the effect is not offset by the casual collection of flagpoles, trees and vaguely antiquey lamp standards which decorate the square. The space is not adequately enclosed — traffic rushes by on two sides — but the lack of activity within the plaza is much more serious. There is nothing to do on it: it is just there, a kind of moon landscape, as one Montreal architect said. There’s some talk of a café ( it w ould have to be enormous to match the plaza's scale) and symphony concerts in summer, and perhaps even a skating rink, like Rockefeller Center’s, in winter. At the moment the plaza hasn't even a park bench. No one stays on it any longer than it takes to walk across.

On the two other counts. Place Ville Marie is a great addition to the city. Its happy mixture of stores and offices and saloons and cinema and restau-

rants make it all but certain that the area will be lively at night. And the cruciform shape creates a firm, distinct sense of place. Moreover, the convenience for the people who work in it is unique: you can buy anything from a book to a pair of shoes without going outside. In a Canadian city this is no small asset.

Place Ville Marie has changed Montreal, but it has also impressed itself on the consciousness of Torontonians. Their envy and dismay were summed up last year in a Toronto Star column by Pierre Berton, another propagandist for downtown planning. “There is no longer any sense talking about the 'race' between Montreal and Toronto.” Berton wrote. “For the moment the race is over; Montreal has won. Place Ville Marie has put it a decade ahead of us.” Later he wrote that the idea of developing several city blocks at once still hadn't penetrated Toronto.

But only a few' weeks after that the new civic consciousness asserted itself in Toronto, too. The Toronto-Dominion Bank and Cemp Investments announced they would together put up a fifty-five-story (or maybe sixtystory) building at the dead centre of the financial district. King and Bay Streets, to be opened on July I, 1967.

The announcement had the usual overtones of Toronto-Montreal competition: it was pointed out that this would be the tallest building in the commonwealth, thereby taking back from Montreal a rather meaningless distinction ( most commonwealth countries don't put up very big buildings) that Place Ville Marie had stolen from Toronto.

The important point, however, was in a statement from the president of the bank. Allen T. Lambert, who along with other businessmen had been tak-

ing some private, informal lessons in downtown redevelopment from the city’s professional planners. "We came to the conclusion,” he said, “that wc had an obligation to assist in the redevelopment of downtown Toronto.” The Toronto-Dominion development. it turned out. would cover six acres, would involve more than one building, and would include shops, restaurants, and a large open space with pools, fountains, and shrubs. It sounded like the antithesis of almost

all Toronto construction of recent years. It even sounded vaguely like Place Ville Marie.

It also reflected Toronto businessmen’s new' concern for downtown planning. The Toronto - Dominion project was considered not as six isolated acres but as part of the plan for the whole downtown area which the Redevelopment Advisory C ouncil — made up of most of the people who control land in the city’s centre — and the planners had been working

on for the last couple of years.

On several occasions the planners and fifteen or so of the major businessmen had met for two days at a time, passing back and forth their ideas and their problems. The result is that the plan for Toronto’s next twenty years now' stands a good chance of becoming reality. It involves such things as several major new squares, including a St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, some pedestrian walks snaking through the downtown

area, and the separation of cars and people, perhaps through elevated walkways for pedestrians.

The ambitions of Toronto, however, are as nothing beside those of Regina. “The idea of Wascana Centre,” say its planners, "is a truly magnificent one.” This is modestly stated. The Saskatchewan government and the city plan to put up dozens of government, university and cultural buildings, and they expect to do it over roughly one hundred years, starting right now. (If the Toronto-Dominion Bank is ready for 1967. Wascana will be ready for 2067, Canada’s nco-hundredth birthday. )

A Wascana Centre Authority set up last year by the legislature, has complete power over one and a half square miles along Wascana Lake in the centre of the city. Some of the buildings allowed for by Minoru Yamasaki, who prepared the plan, will not even be designed in his lifetime. But the plan is a firm one and the first buildings will be started this year.

The planning is an engaging mixture of magnificence and human understanding. Yamasaki’s outline sounds a compassionate note: "The master plan purposely locates separate buildings close to each other to bring a sense of intimacy and security in contrast to the openness and bareness of the prairie." To accomplish this in Regina will take genius, but Yamasaki believes it can be done with terraces, courtyards and covered walkways between buildings.

Minoru Yamasaki, like most of the people involved in the new developments across Canada, is not a Canadian. He is a partner in a Detroit architectural firm. In Montreal. Place Ville Marie, designed by I. M. Pei Associates of New York, now looks diagonally across Dorchester Street at the handsome C-l-L House designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of New' York. Place Victoria in Montreal has been designed by an Italian firm, and the new Toronto City Hall by a Finn. If the Edmonton plans goes through that, too. will be the work of I. M. Pei. In most cases Canadian architects are retained only in subordinate roles to look after the local details (though the Toronto-Dominion project will be shared by two Toronto firms, John B. Parkin Associates and Bregman and Hamann).

The fact that we have had to call in these outsiders to bring our cities to life — Zeckendorf to fire up the businessmen, an army of architects to draw the plans — is only natural. In the past Canadians have not been city people, and city-building has never seemed important to us. But we are city people now', and for better or worse we will be doing a great deal of city-building in the next few decades. Whether we make our cities human anil civilizing or simply efficient will tell more about Canadians than just their sensitivity to town planning. For cities contain the essence of civilization, and you can judge the quality of civilized life by the environment in which it is lived. “People come together in cities in order to live.” said Aristotle. “They remain to live the good life." The good life is what citvbuilding is all about. ★