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The Canadian City


The Canadian City


A Critical Commentary

Text and Illustrations by
Roger Kemble




PART I: Art is Dead

ONE: A Personal View

TWO: A Shared Vision of Urban Space

THREE: Imagining Urban Space

FOUR: The Principle of Sustained Interest

PART II: Long Live Art

FIVE: Downtown Spaces

SIX: Malls and Streets

SEVEN: Havens and Harmony

EIGHT: Tending the City


I. Noise Levels

II. Common Noise Levels and Typical Reactions

III. Pedestrian Count, Sparks Street Mall, Ottawa

IV. Canadian Cities




In 1987 I visited almost every major city in the country. This book is a commentary on what I found. For weeks I wandered, clicked my camera, surveyed, took elevations, sketched, talked to people and just people watched. All told, I surveyed sixty-four major urban spaces in all kinds of weather from — 27°C below in Montreal to the humidity of summer in the Ottawa Valley. Limited resources and my diminishing energy confined my work to downtown, commonly known as the central business district, or very close.

What I saw was both invigorating and perplexing. Invigorating, because Canadian cities are vigorous, exciting, energetic going concerns; perplexing, because there is amidst such abundance a squalor and chaos that is hard to endure on a sustained basis. Accordingly, some of my opinions will run counter to intrenched interests.

I have directed deserved and pointed criticism towards many sacred cows. For thirty years we Canadian architects and planners have had a free ride and I personally (and many of the public agree) am not satisfied with the results. Where I have been critical of the built urban environment, I have balanced that criticism by articulating reasonable remedial processes to help heal the self-inflicted urban wounds.

I challenge my own planning and architectural professions. If we do not awaken from our comfortable myopia we will continue to languish irrelevantly. I hope this book will be an awakening. Indeed, its very purpose is to dislodge the current self-congratulatory smug condition and redefine the national dialogue on the subject.

When I returned, late in life, to the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia to take my master’s degree, I was surprised to find virtually no literature on the design of Canadian cities. The bibliography is sparse. What literature there is comes mainly from the United Kingdom or the United States and of course their books are replete with the baggage and prejudices of those respective countries.

In fact, what literature exists comes from sources more intent on obscuring the real condition of city design, feel good stuff, mostly. So many people and institutions have a vested interest in the status quo, genuine criticism is muted. So upon graduation I resolved to take a look, follow up on some vague ideas taking into account my experiences both practical and academic, not realizing this book in its present form would materialize.

Canadian cities are to all intents and purposes uninhabitable. We can no longer afford to live downtown and the environment is so hostile we may not wish to do so. Visual chaos, noise, discord makes the environment stressful. This statement may come as a surprise. Still, it is my belief we have, of necessity, inured ourselves to the impact and consequences the discord has on our well-being.

If the city is to be the exclusive domain of bank towers, offices and expensive condominiums, ultimately it will atrophy. The city must be returned to the people who are building and paying for it.

Some city councils recognize this and wish to make amends. Much of the effort so far is just talk. The current crop of politicians gaze starry-eyed into the future and declare, as we lurch from one crisis to another, the market will take care of everything. Some hope!

Recently the mayor of Toronto exhumed the forgotten cry for the livable city. The subject of the livable in the city is vast. Accordingly, The Canadian City addresses a neglected, yet vital, part of the livable city — public urban space as an amenity for living and working downtown. It attempts to put forward the notion that public urban space is a direct outcome of a shared vision of urban space.

Politics and economics are far more potent elements in proscribing our lives, of course, than space, but if once we could get our act together the amenity of public urban space in the city could truly come into its own.

I cannot lay claim to have written the definitive resource on city design or public urban spaces for I am primarily a practitioner. Indeed, urban scholarship is currently largely devoted to the city as history and nostalgia. I have avoided historic and scholarly reference in the text, unless a few anecdotal remarks illuminate my point. Urban history and theory is well covered in other publications, a number of which are cited in the references at the end of this book.

The reader should not be intimidated, however, by what looks to be at first glance heavy theory. There are no earth-shattering new revelations here. What is stated are ideas to open up discussion that has unjustifiably (considering the importance urban space has in all our lives) remained dormant. I want elected representatives, administrators, developers and the general public to pick up this book, browse through it, enjoy the illustrations and ruminate on the contents.

The subject, as I mentioned in the previous paragraphs, is too large and elusive for any one author to even try the definitive treatise. Therefore, I have identified one small part of the urban environment that describes the condition of the city as it stands today — the appearance and commodious disposition of Canadian public urban spaces.

Public urban space and the architecture it comprises are the media of communication of the city. The medium of urban space describes to us the current state of the city, how it responds to our current needs. I believe the media of urban architecture and space cut through the booster hype with which we are inundated and get to the core of the urban condition.

Looking and listening closely to what the city says I am taken aback at how passively we submit to what is obviously an unacceptable condition. The cities I have seen are, despite extensive promotional literature to the contrary, engulfed in visual and aural confusion.

We wax eloquent when our wilderness is encroached upon, even if sometimes we lose the fight. For us, the natural environment is sacrosanct in literature and in our values. But when it come to the urban environment we are demonstratively mute. I do not ignore the infrequent efforts of professional planners and architects to describe the situation. Their efforts, nevertheless, remain genteel and behind the doors of their various conventions, little heeded by the public.

How conveniently we forget that the destruction of the wilderness is an indirect result of our urban habits. We merrily drive our vehicles, show off opulent condos while decrying the encroachment on the forests, sea shores and mountains. Sincere environmentalist would never dream of abandoning their cars. Yet our profligate urban habits are the reason for much of the natural destruction.

It seems our cities are not places in which to ponder, but rather places to rush through and to get away from. Oh, we protest against every development. There is little difficulty arousing passionate objections to increased densities and high-rise development. It is not uncommon for people to be against high densities and at the same time fervently in favour of low-cost housing. Yet higher densities or housing people can afford in the downtown is the crux of the whole debate. Higher densities, mitigated by beautiful public urban space close to work may be one way of avoiding traffic congestion and high housing costs. Some of us dream of the city as an open greenspace park with us on the outside periphery looking in. Few bother to discern the contradiction.

The topic is of course complex and intricate. Many disciplines are involved — economics, social planning and more. An environmental breakdown may force us to change our habits; so much can happen that is beyond our control. As we continue to revere blindly technology and bureaucratic control, human error persists; witness the cities that are being buried in their own solid waste. Far more is involved than just the ambience of public urban space. Still, it is a very important starting place for us to learn to work together.

I contend the media of the city speak with a strong voice, because they tells us so much about ourselves. And that voice is saying chaos. How can we develop affordable, livable homes in the downtown in such an unfavourable environment? I hope that the statements made in this book will open a dialogue more relevant than the easy way out for the politicians and planners: palliatives, planting a few trees, laying down a bit of paving and painting up the store fronts.

The well-being of public urban space is crucial to the modern city if it is to become a place to live and work, a place to live in harmony and a place to work productively. The beauty and tranquillity of public urban spaces deserves the keenest consideration from our citizens, architects, planners and public administrators.

Roger Kemble.
Vancouver, B. C.


Many people provided the support, help and sustenance necessary to bring this book to the public. I was not as co-operative at times as I should have been. I would like to extend my warmest thanks and gratitude to the following people and institutions for the help they have afforded me. Although each contributed uniquely none are responsible for the views expressed here, which are my own. Joseph Baker, David Farley, Leonard Gertler, Maynard Gertler, Amy Kemble and Amanda Sarah Kemble gave their time, perceptive comments and guidance in reading the manuscript. Brahm Wiesman, although he was not directly involved, gave more than he would believe in bringing The Canadian City to fruition.

I am indebted to the Canada Council for their financial support of the initial research, to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for the use of the table in appendix II, to Globe Press of Toronto for the data in appendix IV and to the City of Ottawa for the use of the chart in appendix III.

The following publishers and authors have graciously given permission to use quotations; Robert Allsopp, “On trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Trinity Park,” Landscape Architectural Review, (December 1987); Margaret Atwood, “The City Planners,” The Circle Game, (Toronto: Anansi, 1966); Joseph Baker, “There’s more sizzle than substance in Safdie’s musings,” The Gazette, Montreal, (February 28, 1987); T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men, A penny for the old guy,” Selected Poems; (London: Faber and Faber, 1954); and Elizabeth Godley, “Sculptures Vandalized,” The Vancouver Sun, June 10, 1988).

Art is Dead

A Personal View

Art is dead, at least the art of city design is dead!

Our cities are chaotic. Doesn’t everybody know? Our senses, where we live and work, are under constant bombardment. We survive a squalor of apparent affluence. We sustain the strain, we are inured to the consequences. Cacophony, noise and fractionate scenes are exploding. The city deteriorates before our eyes. Despite that, how do we respond? “Let’s have a party”, we say, “who the hell cares”! Then we regale the streets and boulevards with consumer emporiums, plastic malls and junk food eateries. How many boutiques, balloons, buntings, boats and biplanes can a healthy city stand?

We expend millions on planning. We engage in public discussion ad nauseam. To what avail?

No one wishes to be the purveyor of gloom, yet reluctant to acknowledge the cacophony we soldier stoically on. The Pollyanna attitude is destructive. Delusion is little comfort. We are safe from violence, our cities are peaceful. We gloat, gleefully comparing ourselves to blatant mayhem in the urban United States (appendix I, Noise Levels). We assuage our guilt by making comparisons to extreme conditions. We are so gentle; they are so violent. Yet, how can we be so self-satisfied? Is the quality of our cities to be measured by a lack of mayhem and by bodily safety?

Self-satisfaction and delusion go beyond safety. We claim our cites are free from heavy urban debt loads. Yet, we fail to include the debt held by senior governments for essential work, or for bribing us with glittering projects that bring them short-lived kudos with no lasting return.

The city in history has been a meeting place where people gathered to create wealth. Now it is a cockpit where we wrestle with debt. No longer are our buildings proud evidence of the fruits of hard labour. They are symbols of devious tricks, usury and misplaced priorities. Our cities are victims of foolish financial policies, with under-utilized office buildings, twenty percent vacant: regional highs, thirty-five per cent. Vacant building sites and parking lots are used as poker chips in a speculative game defying economic sense. Sidewalks, sewers and roads deteriorate because they lack charisma to be an issue. Decaying stocks of inexpensive housing, people living aimless street lives are in contrast to trendy condos. This is a culture going broke.

Are there obscure, international financial formulae that escape my understanding? Perhaps these esoteric lacunae assure the silent investor all is well. Perhaps all is well. What, then, accounts for the obviously deteriorating urban and cultural environment? What about our peace of mind? Is the visual chaos, is the aural chaos, appendix I, to be shrugged off? What about the unavoidable dilapidation of our parks, our older buildings, the things that make the city comfortably our own? What about the sheer ugliness? Can we escape by partying forever?

We should take a closer look. The city, its buildings and things is a medium of communication. The whole conglomeration informs us of our cultural and economic well-being. Our cities reflect our living and working lore; they describe the manner in which we live. Architecture of the cities: the buildings, roads, parks, spaces, alleys, lamp posts, hydrants, all the touchable, visible fixed things, are headlines like the newspaper or the television media, except there is a subtle difference. The architecture of the city, the way it is interrelated, the way we weave its weft and warp cannot be edited to suit some purpose. When the city cries, what it says it means; no double speak there.

Today, the architecture of contemporary Canadian cities is in crisis. Cities have become repositories of mindless imported whims. Whims promoted as profitable, international, architectural sophistication. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Canadian cities do not sustain the appellations “world class”, “international”, or other flack invented phrases. Buildings and the cities are weak symbols of overpowering, destructive, out-of-control, artless international finance gone berserk. Current buildings respond with manic immediacy to ephemeral fads, sticking to the city like lint on a worn out suit. Dubbed “sophisticated international style”, architecture has degenerated into aimless, formless mass-produced, all-tootangible apparitions, rooted in write-offs and tax dodges, the product of harassed minds clinging tenuously to imagined reality. Masquerading as authentic, the architecture of the modern city is apatride with no loyalties, no ideals, no responsibility to those who use it or to those who need more than it can offer. Our cites are encumbered by these useless hulks. They are the architecture of illusion, the mirage of private gain, accumulating the reality of public debt. The cities and the hulks they host are symbolic of cultural demoralization. They ominously represent our current architectural tastes, haute-vulgarité.

This mirage is in the suburbs too. In the countryside, wherever we go, nothing is sacred. Our most dearly held values are manicured, mortgaged lawns, cardboard fronts, mirroring sound sets for the soaps, gluttonous auto ways raked by motorized pesky metal midgets, eating up land and ubiquitous going-out-of-business, hanging on by the skin of their teeth, plastic malls.

The mirage is self perpetuating. Responding to the insecurity-revealing ever-asked question “How do you like your city”? the city dweller usually says something nice, unconsciously innocuous. No one wants to bad mouth home. Like my friend from the big city. He loves the big city, that is very evident. His answer is suitably evasive—“Because there are so many escape routes to the cottage”. His answer is a coded message that says, “Well now this is my home; I’ve lived here all my life; I have invested the place with trust and emotions; my family and friends make me feel needed; I am not lonely. But …” and then comes the good stuff. West Coasters answer with “skiing, sailing, swimming close to home”. How often do they say they love the streets, the buildings, or the little interesting spaces they have discovered for themselves. Oh yes, they like that little restaurant “round the corner”. But invariably the city proper is a void in our imaginations. We have subliminally blanked it out.

There are muted cries of warning. Not everyone is myopic. Not all are at the party. Some gentle souls raise a voice in protest. The Prince of Wales is one. Recently, in no uncertain terms, he told the collected architects and planners of Britain what he thought. “Can’t you see what you are doing”? he remonstrated. To which they replied pompously, “The Prince is ill-informed”. Baloney! It is they who are ill-informed.

Earlier, he had dubbed the proposed addition to the National Gallery “a carbuncle on the face of Trafalgar Square”, and if it goes ahead it will be.

We need not seek abroad for sensitive understanding. In Montreal, Joseph Baker, an architect and advocate, described his own city in The Gazette as “our own ravaged, ruptured, scandalously mistreated, once so fine city”.

Ah Montreal. “When I think about those nights in Montreal”. Well, Gino perhaps you’d better go home and take a look in day-time. You’ll sing a different tune. Someone is dismantling the place.

The once so fine Montreal is a several-layered city, now lying there almost in ruins. Each layer is imposed on top of the other. Fractionated separation is the style. The old city, the earliest layer surrounding place d’Armes, is separated from the new and newest cities. Dominion Square with its broken denture skyline is the new layer and place Ville Marie represents the newest layer.



Urban separation in Montreal is also topographical. The land the city occupies is contoured, rising up from the river, in terraces. The old city occupies la terrasse inférieure, on the river. The new and newer cities occupy la terrasse supérieure, around Mount Royal. Chronologically, the new city is represented by the buildings of the twenties and thirties. Figure 1, Montreal, Québec, gives a generalized view of those few downtown blocks that are known to the bureaucrats as centre-ville.

The separations are distinct. What could once have been a beautiful link bridging the separation is confusing in the spatial effect of Victoria Square. This amorphous expanse of undefined cacophonous space was once an hay market. Right now it looks like nowhere.

The square, , 2. is shown in plan as if we were in a helicopter looking down from above. The black shapes are the footprint plans of the buildings. The hatched shapes are grassy area gardens. Dots represent paved roads. The surrounding buildings are shown in 3, looking towards the north and 4, looking south. The high-rise in 3, is the 180-metre tower la Tour de la Bourse.


Walking through Victoria Square inspires the pedestrian to lament a sense of leftover space. No one can think what to do, so plant a bit of grass to keep the locals quiet. The effect is of an abandoned city lot. Yet it is an important space. No doubt, developers consider it to be a prestigious address. Transportation lines converge there. The old city is linked to the new city at this place. It is an important space in an important city with the ambience of a neglected ruin.