Archives for category: imageability

Every day this month, I’ve biked from central Malmö to Alnarp, as small rural community just outside the city and the home of SLU, the university I’m currently doing an exchange at.

The bike ride takes about 45 minutes, and in this short distance, I pass through many distinct landscapes: neighbourhoods within Malmö itself, a highway interchange zone, industrial Ärlov, a bird reserve, and rural fields, all before getting to Alnarp.

Despite being within biking distance, because of all these landscape changes, Alnarp feels very, very far away from Malmö. And phenomenologically, it is. As I’ve explored before in past posts, distance matters less than feeling in determining how “far away” a place is.

Like the short ferry ride between downtown Toronto and Toronto Island, whenever a change in material reality is experienced, places seem very far away, no matter how far the distance.

And on my bike ride from Malmö to Alnarp, I experience many changes in material reality.

The city drops out, and then I peddle through the land of highway interchanges. The bike path weaves up, down and through bridges and overpasses, floats over the expressway and in between unkempt shrubs. At night, hundred of rabbits scurry between the vegetation, lending this landscape an even more ethereal quality.

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The land of highway interchanges

Then, there is the land of the sea – the bike path borders a bird reserve, and the horizon extends infinitely. The smell oscillates from the salty murkiness of the coastline to an almost candy-like scent from the nearby garbage processing plant. The matted grasslands and water channels, the hawks, ducks, geese and crows flying around – this is a wholly distinct material reality where my thoughts expand as my breath shortens to keep up with small inclines.

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The land of the sea

Finally there is the land of the fields.  Naked patches of deep black soil envelop the bike path, and linear bands of trees, bent in the wind add directionality to this change in material reality.

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The land of the fields

I arrive at Alnarp tired, dazed and feeling distant. Despite this being the distance of roughly the distance of Toronto’s Ferry Terminal to Davenport Rd  and Dufferin (still very much in the city, and a commute I made often last I lived in Toronto), the many changes of material reality make Alnarp very much a distinct place, and my life in Southern Sweden is characterized by inhabiting many places at once, despite occupying the footprint of a tiny portion of the City of Toronto.

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Map comparing distances in Toronto and Malmö – the red line represents my bike ride, and the short distance that takes me through so many changes in material reality. 

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I’m from Toronto – Grid City. I like a good orthogonal city plan. A city where North is up, South is down, and East and West, are, you guessed it, side to side.

Well, Toronto is not exactly a perfect grid. As Dylan Reid has explored on Spacing, Toronto is in fact a series of micro grids, stitched together, with some exceptions for topography that even the imperially-decreed gridded city plan couldn’t ignore. But that’s a fine detail, a technicality. The macro grid – the one that made up of Toronto’s major streets –  is based on a series of 2km-spaced concession lines, and it defines how the city is organized.

Growing up in Toronto, City of Grids, I think, is part of why I have such a keen sense of direction. People in Toronto, they use cardinal directions to direct people where they need to go. “Go north on Bathurst, then west on Eglinton” they’ll say, and it makes perfect sense. As a result, I have North permanently etched into my mind as essential to understand where I am.

Even when a city’s grid doesn’t match the cardinal directions, a perfect grid means that people use cardinal directions anyway. In Montreal, what people call North is in fact more North-West. In Guelph too. Rather than constantly say “go north-west, then south-west”, people have collectively adjusted the meaning of north in the local context.

Other cities – where the grids aren’t so reliable – aren’t like this. In Halifax, an otherwise perfect grid bends around the Citadel and Common. The grid dissolves into spaghetti as the straight elements (the roads), navigate rounded elements (the Common). As a result, people are more inclined to say “Go up Robie”, “Go down Agricola”, instead of cardinal orientation, and it just makes more sense.

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In Newfoundland, at least, according to my friends, directions are much more story-based than cardinal- based.  St. John’s is pretty loopy city, and the small downtown grid quickly dissolves to negotiate the city’s various hills and steep slopes. Here, instead of “Going north on Prescott Street”, directions are more based on stories, and landmarks. “Go past Rosie’s Convenience, and make a left”.

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As you may know, I am currently living in Malmö, Sweden, and will be exploring the Skåne region for the next five months.

Malmö is especially disorienting to me because, as this post’s title suggests, the city is almost a grid, but, it’s not quite a grid. Two streets that I think are parallel end up veering away from each other, and intersecting at other points, as the map below highlights.

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I’ve explored how different cities present different flavours of disorientation, and as kinds of disorientation go, this might be the toughest challenge so far. I’m so sure I know where I am, using my Toronto infused griddy-knowledge, only to be constantly lost, and going in the wrong direction. In almost making sense as a grid, but then not being a grid at all,  it has been a humbling, getting lost experience (and this is a good thing).

This posts title was inspired by The Almost Nearly Perfect Peoplea less than perfect exploration of Scandinavian culture by Michael Booth. 

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

Plan of York Surveyed and Drawn by Lieut. Phillpotts, Royal Engineers. Map courtesy Library and Archives Canada and accessed from http://oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca/

While gazing over old maps of Toronto, I often long to experience the city before its landscape was so significantly altered. What was it like when the water went right up to Front Street, before infill extended the shoreline by almost a kilometre? How did the Lower Don River feel when it meandered into a vast marshland at its mouth, before it was straightened and channelized?

That’s why I was so excited to visit Long Point last week. A sandy peninsula protruding into Lake Erie, Long Point feels like going back in time to an earlier version of Toronto Island — when it was a wild, sandy and ever-changing spit still connected to the mainland.

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As Lake Erie shares Lake Ontario’s crumbly shoreline, Long Point is the result of almost the same geologic phenomenon that created Toronto Island — eroded sediment swept by the currents of the lake to create a sandy peninsula and protected bay. The most notable difference is size. While Toronto Island was originally a 9km spit, Long Point is about 40 km.

Unlike Toronto Island after 1858, Long Point is still connected to the mainland. It briefly enjoyed island status after a powerful storm in the 19th century severed a channel through its middle, but was reconnected when sediment washed back to fill the gap. The same would have probably happened in Toronto if there weren’t so much interest in maintaining the Eastern Gap, giving ships easy access to Toronto’s deep harbour and the markets beyond.

Long Point on Lake Erie. Image courtesy of canmaps.com

Beyond its tentative connection to the mainland, Long Point’s form has not been significantly altered by human activity. Whereas Toronto Island was largely fixed by depression era infill projects transforming its ever-changing fingers of sand and marsh into the archipelago of islands we know today, Long Point has maintained its fluid form as a constantly shifting (and hard to map) sand bar.

Compared to the few patches of forest along Toronto Island, Long Point is a vast wilderness. Designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, most of the peninsula is conserved explicitly by the Federal Government and Parks Ontario, and inadvertently by the Long Point Company, a private organization that has maintained the spit for hunting purposes since 1866, strictly limiting public access.

Walking along Long Point’s sandy beaches, you don’t even have to squint your eyes to imagine the feeling of Toronto before it was urbanized. An overgrown Carolinian forest hugs its sandy shore, and beyond the bay, where in Toronto a hulking skyline has emerged, there remains open water, marshland and sky. Port Rowan, tucked into the corner where Long Point meets the mainland has a population of about 1000 – the size of the similarly positioned town of York around 1812.

Long Point marshes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Toronto Bay, 1793 by Elizabeth Simcoe

Long Point boasts its own community stretching the first few kilometres of the peninsula, offering a living image of another era of Toronto Island’s history: when it was covered in cottages and fully serviced by hotels, grocery stores, laundromats and restaurants. Like Centre Island before its town centre was demolished by Metro Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, Long Point’s year round population of 450 swells to 5,000 in the summer.

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Many of the cottages that dot the peninsula are reminiscent of the homes that used to cover the Island and those that were saved at Ward’s and Algonquin Islands. Built right up to the beach, their plain geometry bespeaks the simple pleasures of living lakeside, where all you need is a place to rest your head before heading back to the beach. A few grander cottages evoke the summer homes of the wealthy that were built along Toronto Island’s Lakeshore Avenue.

Despite never having been to Long Point before last week, the feeling of familiarity and connection to Toronto Island was uncanny. Of course, Long Point and Toronto Island are distinct places with their own histories, and comparing them requires a a stretch of geographic imagination. However, a visit to the largely preserved landscape at Long Point offers a portal into the past, its equivalent in Toronto having been changed beyond recognition long ago.

Alice Street map

There are, perhaps, no streets more different in Guelph than Alice Street and Woodlawn Road.

On Alice, a jumble of brick houses have been built up to the edge of the street. Before the rise of big box, Alice Street was a hybrid residential-commercial thoroughfare and the heart of the Italian community with general stores and shoe shops in its reconfigured houses. Many of these shops have since turned back into houses, but have been forever distinguished by their past modifications. The effect is an incredibly unique streetscape, like I’ve never seen before, a street of houses with unique DIY renovations, where neighbours hang out on front porches, cars drive slow – the feeling of village and the height of urbanity.

Those aforementioned big box stores – well, they eventually ended up on Woodlawn Road, a street at the northern edge of the city and home to Guelph’s Wal-Mart, Home Depot and various other gigantic corporate retailers.

Woodlawn is a street no one loves but everyone must visit eventually. When I first moved to Guelph, I ended up there countless times, dreading my visits but in need of inexpensive home items only sold there. Woodlawn is the typical non-place at the edge of every city in North America – characterized by the bright signs of fast food restaurants and the complete rejection of walking as a mode of transportation. There are no public gathering spaces on Woodlawn.

It’s easy to love Alice Street. It’s not so easy to love Woodlawn.

So I mapped both, trying to extend my love of place in general to a place that’s hard to love.

And of course, Woodlawn isn’t a non-place, it’s a real place. By choosing to create an illustrated map of it, I’m trying to find its essence beneath the concrete and beyond the international corporate crust that has founds its way there. By mapping Woodlawn, I discovered unique businesses, residential hold-outs, beautiful groves of trees and desire lines criss-crossing its railways.

The map of Woodlawn is an invitation to explore the Woodlawn Road of your city.  Once you get out of your car and walk, it’s easy to find magic beyond the highways.

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As my last post explored, Southern Ontario’s physical geography is often ignored, and its landscape is often derided as being flat, monotonous and boring.

Disconnected to the subtle features of the landscape by 400-series superhighways, big box plazas and its relentless grid, its understandable that the infinite beauty of the land beneath the concrete would be, for the most part, forgotten.

Beyond the highways, Southern Ontario’s rich glacial soil has been sculpted into dramatic river valleys, cuestas, waterfalls and the rolling hills of drumlin fields by millennia of water movement.

My map (leading image) is an effort to re-assert the geologic features most prominent in these three very connected cities at the western end of Lake Ontario. Happy exploring!

City of Drumlins

Southern Ontario’s physical geography is often ignored – its landscape is often derided as being flat, monotonous and boring.

But don’t let the gigantic highways and big box plazas fool you – this isn’t so! Southern Ontario’s rich glacial soil has been sculpted into dramatic river valleys, cuestas, and rolling hills by millennia of water movement.

In Guelph, the city is characterized by hills – drumlins, shaped by the glaciers. Many of these drumlins, due to their prominence, have been topped by important buildings and landmarks – like the Church of Our Lady, and Johnston Hall at the University of Guelph.

But many have been neglected by Ontario’s relentless grid, with roads cutting straight up the steep side of a hill, unwavering from the grid’s linearity. In recent years, the places of prominence at the tops of these hills have become just another patch of endless development.

In an effort to re-assert Guelph’s hills/drumlins into the consciousness of its residents, I enlisted the trusty power of an illustrated map to emphasize the prominence of the city’s hills in it’s urban landscape (leading image).

Because I’m new’ish to Guelph, I spoke with many longtime Guelphites to make sure every hill was included and properly named — like neighbourhoods, the names of Guelph’s hills are often contested, but after asking many people, I chose the most common names to include on the map.

The map was first released at 2016’s Kazoo! Fest Print Expo – while several Guelphites knew about the city’s hills, many did not know they were drumlins, while many others had never thought of the city’s topography and appreciated the geographic insight.

As your Urban Geographer, I’m motivated to bring the unique and magical elements of the land beneath the concrete into focus. Stay tuned for more maps!

 

Originally posted on Spacing Toronto

Facing each other across Spadina Avenue just north of Adelaide, the Tower and Balfour Buildings frame a striking entryway into Toronto’s Fashion District.

Previously known as the Garment District, the neighbourhood was home to many of Toronto’s textile workers, who were predominantly Jewish immigrants.

Masterpieces of Art Deco architecture, the Balfour and Tower buildings were originally built to house those garment businesses and their showrooms, raising the prominence of the industry, and the city with it.

Designed by Benjamin Brown in the late 1920s, their towering elegance was symbolic of Toronto’s transformation into a modern metropolis — a financial, cultural and transportation hub with a swelling population over 200 000.

That elegance extended to several other Brown-designed buildings nearby including The Commodore on Adelaide, The New Textile Building on Richmond (now an OCADU building) and the Hermant Building at Yonge and Dundas Square.

Despite defining the city at a critical point in its history, Benjamin Brown has remained relatively unknown.

At a time when people weren’t interested in Toronto’s architectural history, let alone the work of a single architect, Brown’s entire collection of drawings were forgotten about in the architect’s garage and left to deteriorate.

When Brown died, he left the collection to fellow architect Jim Levine, one of the only people who recognized the value of the work.

The Ontario Jewish Archives took over the collection in the 80s and has painstakingly restored it, ensuring that a valuable archive of drawings that document the emerging modernity of Toronto was not lost. Highlights of the collection are now on view in an exhibit of Benjamin Brown’s work at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, until April 23.

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The exhibit is an opportunity to get an up-close view of Benjamin Brown’s expertly executed hand-drawn plans and renderings. Brown was a master of lines. His incredibly detailed drawings even include the buildings’ ornamental windows and decorative stonework.

Brown’s drawings are also poignant portraits of Toronto in the 1920s and 30s, where the aerodynamic shapes and sleek lines of Art Deco and Art Moderne dominated architecture and fashion. In the rendering of the Tower Building, Spadina is bustling with crowds in stylish coats as streamline automobiles motor by.

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Brown was one of the first Jewish architects to build and sustain a successful practice in Toronto despite the discrimination within the city in the early 1900s. As a result, he was the architect of many spaces for the Jewish community, including Beth Jacob Synagogue (today, a Russian Orthodox Church) and the Primrose Club on Willcocks, a social club for Jewish men (today, it’s the University of Toronto’s faculty club).

As an artist and urban geographer, I was delighted to participate in the exhibit by illustrating many of Brown’s best known buildings, tracing over his lines and creating a map showing the geographic expansiveness of his life’s work. Indeed, Benjamin Brown has hundreds of commissions spread throughout the city.

CommMy illustration of the Commodore Building on Adelaide. Unlike Benjamin Brown, I didn’t use a ruler!

Looking at Toronto through the lens of a single architect is an opportunity to make connections between the city’s disparate neighbourhoods and styles. Benjamin Brown’s designs range from the Art Deco towers downtown to utilitarian garages in the west end, storefronts on Bloor and Georgian, Tudor and Colonial Revival houses in midtown.

Through the work of Benjamin Brown, an intelligible thread runs through Toronto, a city indebted to the grandeur he helped established at the turn of the twentieth century.

See the exhibit of Benjamin Brown’s work at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, now until April 23.

 

Newspapers

I love reading the local newspapers of the places I visit.

Every town, city and region is home to at least one hyper-local publication, and often many. Within their pages are articles about the area’s very specific issues, events and politics.

While I’m in these places, I’m enthralled with the content of their local publications. I read the editions from front to back, absorbing the essence of the place, discovering local landmarks, and visiting interesting places I read about.

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Sometimes I keep the newspapers as souvenirs of my travels. But a funny thing happens once I leave a place with its newspaper. When I look at it again, long after I’ve left, the newspaper no longer makes sense. Now that I’ve left the sphere of that geographic influence, I can’t wrap my head around learning the details of the articles, the listed events. My mind can’t commit itself to making sense of the text, putting words to reality. Far from its genus loci, the newspaper fades into nonsense.

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The magnetic influence of place has the power to render things comprehensible.

On the other hand, no matter where I am, media from Toronto always makes sense.  I’m always able to interpret the places mentioned, issues, events and politics even if I’m very far away. We bring our home places with us in our heads.

 

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Benjamin Brown is one of Toronto’s most important, but least well known architects.

Practicing in the 1920s and 30s, his Art Deco towers defined the Toronto’s Garment District when the city was emerging as a modern metropolis.

Beyond the downtown core, Brown’s work can be found throughout the city – store front designs, residential homes, synagogues and community centres.

To illustrate the expansiveness and character of his work, the Ontario Jewish Archives commissioned me to illustrate 15 of Benjamin Brown’s buildings, along with a giant map featuring  a selection of his commissions.

The illustrations and map are up at the Benjamin Brown exhibit at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 4o1 Richmond until April 23.

Enjoy digital versions above and samples of the map below, and be sure to check out the exhibit to see the mastery of Brown’s plans and renderings in person!

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Downtown Guelph has many coffee shops – more than its population would seem to be able to support.

Cafes on offer include local mega-chain Planet Bean, hyperlocal one-of-a-kind Red Brick, and the more of a restaurant Cornerstone.

There’s also the Common.

The Common is a small Toronto chain that has been slowly expanding from the original Dufferin Grove location to Bloor Street in Bloordale and the Annex. Their recent, and most ambitious, expansion to Guelph might be due to the large concentrations of ex- and sometimes-Torontonians in the city, looking for a piece of home while away.

The Common in Guelph is a carbon copy of its Toronto counterparts: whitewashed walls, blond wood, minimal furnishings yet eclectic and warm, a simple menu of espresso-based coffees and few baked goods.

The other day, I went to the Common in Guelph to study. I overheard a group of people talking about Toronto intersections, “Spadina and Dundas”, “Gerard and University”. I looked over to the next table and saw someone reading the latest edition of NOW magazine.

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“Where am I?” I thought.

I looked out the window, and despite what I saw, heard, and felt, there was Guelph – its hills, its limestone buildings, its city hall.

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The Common in Guelph – a major case of Geognitive Dissosance.

401 north

All my life in Toronto, the 401 has been north of where I’ve lived.

But now, in Guelph, the 401 is south of where I live.

Yet the 401 has endured as north in my mind. I often find myself looking at maps of Guelph, completely disoriented as to where I am, all because I’ve flipped the map in my mind so that 401 is squarely north, where it’s always been.

I am so surprised that this highway — which I often perceive as the bane of my existence — would play such a prominent role in my understanding of geography.

But it undeniably is.

It’s going to take a long time for me to adjust to the 401 being south. Maybe I never will. The 16 lane wide concrete and metal belt stretching laterally across Southern Ontario and through Toronto will prove hard to shift in my mental landscape.

As I continue to negotiate my identity – Am I from Guelph? Am I from Toronto? Am I spending too much time in Toronto when I should be embracing Guelph? – I’ll take thinking of the 401 as south as a sign that my internal geography has shifted.

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto 

To the delight of many, it was recently announced that the TORONTO sign in Nathan Phillips Square will remain in front of City Hall until its structural expiry date of 2016, when it will be replaced by a more sturdy set of letters.

Installed as part of the Pan Am Games, the sign is one of the most popular legacies of the event. It is a highly photogenic addition to City Hall, offering the perfect spot for selfies amongst the sign’s many Ts Rs and Os.

The old saying is that “life imitates art” — but with the immense popularity of the TORONTO sign, it might be more accurate to say that these days, “life imitates graphic design.”

The dominance of graphic design culture — researchers now estimate we’re exposed to5,000 ads per day, and the number of graphic designers in Canada has increased rapidly over the last few years — has reached its apotheosis in the 3D TORONTO sign. Photos of Nathan Phillips Square and City Hall now automatically take on the look and feel of a highly designed poster.

The TORONTO sign is part of a global trend of huge letters in prominent public space. It’s most direct precedent is the I amsterdam sign. Situated behind Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum since 2005, friends visiting the Netherlands are almost guaranteed to post photos of themselves climbing the iconic red and white letters. The ONLY LYON sign followed in 2010 and the BUDAPEST sign in 2014. It was only a matter of time that big font would come to Toronto.

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Budapest sign

This isn’t the first time art has affected landscape. Big, wooded parks with meandering pathways like High Park in Toronto, Central Park in Manhattan, and Mount Royal Park in Montreal, were all inspired by Romantic landscape paintings of the late 19th century. Spreading as a park format worldwide (most major North American cities have an equivalent), these pastoral parks are a reflection of what people in burgeoning industrial cities needed from their landscapes — and how they idealized them.

But the blending of graphic design and landscape architecture is evidence of a new kind of relationship we’ve developed with our civic spaces. No longer pastoral retreats à la High Park, with our smartphone cameras always close at hand, a landscape must be striking and photographable to make an impact. And giant, Instagram-able letters are the most effective way to communicate the core of most messages on social media — “I was here.”