COLUMN

The heights of mediocrity

Allan Fotheringham May 25 1987
COLUMN

The heights of mediocrity

Allan Fotheringham May 25 1987

The heights of mediocrity

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

Every city has a specific personality, exuded through the look it has accumulated over the years. New York is aggressive, its thrusting towers the most powerful evidence. Paris is seductive. London is comfy. Moscow is not just ugly; it brandishes its ugliness. San Francisco is narcissistic and Chicago is, well, broad-shouldered.

We are what we build, our architecture an extension of our character. And so it is useful to observe the recent orgy of excitement in Toronto, the

natives palpitating because they are finally going to achieve the modern-day measurement of maturity—a sports stadium that, as with cathedrals and art galleries in more civilized eras, signifies greatness. Toronto, chafing ever since Montreal and then Vancouver preceded it into these expensive playpens some time ago, is convinced it can recapture leadership of the nation with a sweaty sandbox that will be used mainly for American mercenaries to play baseball and perhaps a dozen football games a year. Sixteen judges, all with the wisdom of Solomon, have just sifted through 12,879 suggested names for the joint to come up with the stunningly mundane winner: the Skydome.

This demonstrates imagination of unparalleled sweep. It perhaps surpasses two of the other entries (MeetBall Dome and Con-Dome), but is a depressing start for what is supposed to be a unique project, like none other in the universe. If Skydome is all Toronto can come up with, following such snoozers as Houston’s Astrodome and Seattle’s Kingdome, we begin to doubt the ingenious nature of the design.

What has been erected so far, in this country’s ventures into climatically controlled arenas, reflects perfectly the personality of the cities involved. Montreal’s Big Owe, a monument to extravagance, is a perfect extension of the Québécois spirit—a beautiful structure to the eye that doesn’t quite work on practical terms. Jean Dra-

peau, a man who dreams dreams while others muddle their minds with simple sewer systems, chose France’s Roger Taillibert to design the stadium mainly because Montreal’s mayor wanted his own Eiffel Tower, which would then outlive him. The fact that the imperious Taillibert had no experience in ever building anything subject to Montreal’s winter weather of course was of little consequence. Drapeau was a genius and Taillibert was a genius and the result—naturally—was a fiasco.

Eleven years after scheduled, the drooping cloth roof that is supposed to

be retractable finally covers the drafty stadium. Well, almost. There are still gaps where the drapery hanging from the famous sloped tower doesn’t meet the concrete rim of the Big Sew and an additional skirt is required. All very Montreal: elusive, skitterish, hard to fathom, stylish as ever—in concrete as in lace.

Vancouver was the second Canadian city to venture into the arena, so to speak, with the country’s first indoor stadium. This demonstrates perfectly the essential mood of the inhabitants of the world’s second-most-beautiful city: a distaste—a fear, actually—for discomfort. That’s why they live in Vancouver. Since life is so copacetic, so soothing and balm to the soul, there is no earthly reason why anyone should have to suffer cold, or damp, or perspiration, while watching a sporting event. Those hunks on the field are paid to suffer: there is no reason why a spectator should.

British California, as she is known,

has always suffered from an Edifice Complex ever since the completion of the CPR was the condition for the province entering Confederation. Wacky Bennett endured for 20 years on the promise of big dams, big railways, big highways; his son, Premier MiniWac, exulted in personally pushing through the Teflon-domed stadium (kept aloft by the hot air of his own voters) before proud Toronto could wake up to the fact.

So now the Big Lemon, somewhat shamefacedly, is digging a hole beside the CN Tower so it can enter the ranks, years late but convinced in its ineffable humility that it has reinvented the wheel. The Skydome is supposedly completely retractable, rather like a clamshell folding in on itself, a perfect description for a Toronto resident when you ask for an opinion.

A retractable enclosed stadium expresses, as nothing else could, the nature of the city. The removable roof is to allow in the sun, since baseball as invented can only be enjoyed outdoors. But the turf is to be artificial, which means it ain’t really baseball but a bowling alley painted green,

where all the bounces are true and the line drives skid like ricochets off the side pocket. Richie Allen, the philosopher late of the Chicago White Sox, said it best: “If a horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.” Toronto is building a hotel into the stadium upper seats, enabling heavy-ticket customers to sit in their rooms, or possibly their showers, while watching the double play and the hit-and-run. This fits with the above-expressed theory. Toronto’s chagrined attempt to catch up with Montreal and Vancouver has nothing to do with sport. It is an attempt to out-opulent opulence.

The city at the moment has the worst ball park in major league baseball. In its fervid desire to catch up, it » is not designing a sports stadium. It is providing for expense-account types a chance to boast about catching a foul ball in the bathtub. It’s a city built on boasts.

Skydome? Is there no poet left in the land?

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.