urbanism – landscape – ideas – theory – whimsy

A plea for more seating

Improvised Seating

With summer fast approaching, we’ll be seeing more and more people out on the streets, hanging out, talking, eating their lunches and generally enjoying being outside – as Canadians tend to do when fine weather brings us out of winter’s clutches. But where are they doing all these things? Surely we’re not all standing around on street corners, loitering in front of doorways or squatted on the pavement?

No, it’s this time of year when finding a plum bench or seat in a nice location at lunch time is something like trolling the streets looking for a parking space. But is the culprit just too many people in a concentrated area all out at the same time, or is it really that we have a sadly deficient amount of seating in public areas in Toronto? And I don’t just mean benches – seating walls, stairs, ledges, chairs, window wells – people will sit on almost any horizontal surface within reach (as the couple in the photo above show in such intimate fashion).

It certainly seems as though in many of the most bustling parts of the city there are hardly any places to sit along streets or at intersections where all the action is happening. I hope that we can improve on the current situation in future, and sincerely hope that the current transformation of Toronto’s waterfront will provide ample (nay, over-ample!) seating of every kind and for every occasion.

Photo: Couple seated in a wall along Balmuto Ave opposite the Manulife Centre

A plea for subtle signage

Just back from Houston, a city which, despite its problems, has some fine moments and some beautifully detailed parks and streetscapes. This stepped edge of a pond in Hermann Park simply uses subtle carved words to ask people not to enter the water. In case you think people should be allowed in the water, there was an area for that too!

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Too often, it’s easy to forget how signs (particularly restrictive ones) can clutter and dominate public places. While there’s plenty of place for sign clutter on heterogenous and chaotic streetscapes, their intrusion into more passive and contemplative spaces can seem offensive and misplaced.

Hermann Park, re-masterplanned with design projects ongoing by landscape architects Hanna/Olin (now Olin Partnership) and SWA Group (including Keiji Asakura, now of Houston-based Asakura Robinson) and funded by a non-profit group, is a stand-out example of quality urban park refurbishment that practices restraint and holds the line against the commercialisation of public space.

World’s tallest wooden house


A friend just sent this around, and what a doozy! Props to Gaston!

Sutyagin House, Arkhangelsk, Russia

This imposing building is believed to be the world’s tallest wooden house rising 13 floors to reach 144ft. The house is also crumbling, incomplete and under threat of demolition from city authorities who are eager to end Nikolai Sutyagin’s 15 year project. Driven to inspiration by his formative years spent in a Soviet communal flat, Sutyagin felt lonely living by himself. Building began in 1992 and was only going to reach two stories high, however, convinced by a trip to see wooden houses in Japan and Norway, he decided he had not used enough roof space efficiently enough and decided to keep building. He firstly added three floors, but was not keen on the outcome, so he added more floors and just kept goind, he calls the finished project a “happy accident”. For the one-time gangster, who has spent four years in jail on racketeering charges, Nikolai Sutyagin’s home is certainly different. Not only would his house be a perfect love nest, but it could even accommodate the 18 executives of his construction company. Now penniless Sutyagin lives in four poorly heated rooms at the bottom of his wooden log cabin with his wife. Many neighbours consider the building a monstrosity, others feel it is a glorified barn, fire hazard and eyesore but Sutyagin is determined to save his building and has erected a roof around the second floor that he says allows him to claim that everything above is decoration.

Note the lookout tower for those pesky planners

Favela Japonesa


A friend’s Portuguese cousin sent these awesome images to him and he duly forwarded them to me. The title really says it all: Favela Japonesa indeed! Of course, perhaps a more flexible usage of the concept is required than the english equivalents shantytown/slum – my mind’s drawing a blank, but in spanish, the word barrio, while carrying the same connotations (particularly in Venezuela), also simply means district or neighbourhood. Whatever the word should be, we like where this idea is headed… for something mildly related, don’t forget to check out the Personal Container Management post from November, and to see 50 selected projects utilizing shipping containers try fabprefab.com.

Addendum (May 2010): a commenter indicates that this is actually a Dutch student housing project at the University of Utrecht called Spacebox – 300 units have been built






Beautiful Urban Moments – Part VIII


On my way to work this morning, I noticed this strange reflection above the doorway of the “Christadelphians” building on Ossington between Dupont and Bloor. Investigating, I discovered that with the sun just coming over the city’s roofs, a metal medallion embedded in the wall of the house across the street was creating this perfect reflection on the opposite building – the moment was so fleeting, it had almost passed by the time I got the camera out. No doubt there will only be a few days a year when the reflection corresponds so wonderfully with an architectural feature. Who are the Christadelphians you ask? How the hell do I know, but it’s worth looking up, if you’re interested…

Merry Christmas from a Snowless Toronto!


Christmas lights give cheer even when snowlessness abounds – houses on Lappin Avenue in the west end. Not to appear to stereotype, but I got the impression that the creators were Portuguese – masters in the art of eclectic decoration.

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays!

Wonders of Music in the Music Garden


These panoramas were from a baroque music performance in the Music Garden a few weeks ago which finally (and belatedly) convinced me of the greatness of the design of the Music Garden. Apart from the glory of hearing a performance in such a wonderful space, overlooked by waterfront condos on one side and the heavy foot traffic of the waterfront promenade on the other, the wealth that such a diverse and enigmatic profusion of plants, flowers and trees brings to such a waterfront location is unimaginable. The waterfront doesn’t all have to be about loud music, plazas and intense activity – a quiet moment in a beautiful park can be part of the mix too.


Beautiful Urban Moments – Part VII


A moment of refreshment and reflection in Cool Hand of a Girl, a cafe on Dundas St W in the Junction with fair trade organic coffee (2804 Dundas W, E of Keele, opposite McBride’s motorbike shop). For a review of the cafe, see wasabi cowgirl blog here.

Beautiful Urban Moments – Part VI


The view west across Fort York’s grounds has always fascinated me – from the vantage point of the Strachan bridge over the railway lines, you have the impression of an island of green and this stunning view corridor focussed on the CN Tower. Your first clue to something being here is a strange staircase that appears to descend from halfway across the bridge – from the top of the staircase, this view presents itself. Fort York itself is not visible here, but the remnant and memorial of the military burial ground is in the middle-distance at the base of the flag. The grounds are relatively quiet, and usually deserted apart from the ocasional dog-walker, though the drone of traffic along the elevated Gardiner Expressway will inevitably be the soundtrack of your visit.

Paradise By Any Other Name…

Paradise By Any Other Name...

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
(Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)

Every once in a while I come across a litte garden in the city that, perhaps unconsciously and for the briefest of moments, becomes worthy of an urban idyll, a little piece of paradise that reinvigorates my faith in the city.

Perhaps it’s the single sheet hung out to dry, or the ramshackle shed and overgrown fence, or the little patch of grass tracing the outlines of a path, or the unkempt and slightly wild “cottage garden” mystique.

Whatever it may be, it reminds me of the importance that private outdoor space plays in the city, even to those who can’t use it. Call it a vestige of the picturesque, but I feel that there remains a great value to the view into space (especially if it be green) even when we can’t access it ourselves – indeed I have noticed that the experience of being in a space that has looked so inviting and refreshing from afar frequently disappoints.

Anyone who has been to Venice will know of the intrigue and lusciousness that gardens hidden behind walls and glimpsed through gates and arches can bring to a city – so the next time you’re walking around your neighbourhood, stop and appreciate a moment of paradise, however brief, and then move on, and never regret that you have lost something by leaving, but rather stay vigilant, and await with utmost anticipation your next spatially-vicarious paradisical revelation.