Archives for posts with tag: art deco

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.


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.


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.


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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!



This post first appeared on Spacing Toronto

On a recent walk along Eglinton just east of Bathurst, I noticed that several blocks are lined with beautiful Art Deco apartment buildings. The apartments — most of them rental units — aren’t tall. At five to seven storeys each, they’re mid-rises. And they make for a very attractive, human-scaled streetscape.

With intricate brick-work and distinctive fonts carved into stone that spell out the apartments’ names (there’s The Crofton and The Forest Hill Manor and The Roycroft), Forest Hill’s Art Deco apartments feature quintessential characteristics of the international style-movement.

image from TOBuilt

The Forest Hill Manor, on Eglinton at Old Forest Hill Road, image courtesy of

According to the excellent building database, Forest Hill’s Art Deco apartments date from the 1940s — the height of Art Deco design internationally. The style, known for its whimsical, rounded and striking forms, represented a period when modern ideas were being expressed in traditional building materials, like stone, brick and wood.

Other cities’ mid-century experiments with Art Deco continue to define their contemporary identities. Gaudi’s Modernisme in Barcelona, most famously captured by the dripping stonework of Sagrada Familia, will forever stand as a symbol of Barcelona. The origins of Chicago’s smoky allure can be traced back to its Film Noir-Art Deco heyday. South Beach is Art Deco, Florida style. In Amsterdam, major swaths of the city are distinguished by expansive brick “Amsterdamse School” social housing complexes.

Mid-rise Art Deco apartment buildings line Amsterdam's outer streets

The intricate brick work of mid-rise Art Deco apartment buildings line Amsterdam’s outer streets

Not surprisingly, with its 1940s building boom, Toronto has its own abundance of Art Deco architecture. Think of the short apartment buildings in Parkdale, and the sturdy office towers that line St. Clair east and west of Yonge. (For more, check out Art Deco Toronto, or get a copy of Tim Morawetz’s book. Also keep your eyes open for exhibits like Smart Address, which just ended at the St Lawrence Market Gallery.)

Typical Toronto: this city can’t be defined by its abundance of Art Deco. Even though there are many striking examples,  most of Toronto’s Art Deco is less dramatic than its international counterparts. Toronto’s version plays more of a background role in the city’s landscape, as we can see in the genteel apartment buildings that line Eglinton east of Bathurst.

Strolling along Art Deco Eglinton, I can understand what Toronto Chief PlannerJennifer Keesmaat has in mind when she speaks of the importance of building mid-rises along Toronto’s avenues. Mid-rise population densities wouldn’t overwhelm the city’s infrastructure the way towers do, and their scale would promote walkable and strong communities. Building avenues of mid-rise apartments would put Toronto on the map with other beloved mid-rise cities like Paris and Berlin.

Keesmaat’s mid-rise Toronto would look and feel very much like Eglinton east of Bathurst does today. Based on my walks along Art Deco Eglinton, I agree with her. Eglinton’s mid-rise apartments make for a very functional and attractive cityscape.

Daniel Rotsztain is the Urban Geographer. After six years of formal and informal education in Montreal, Halifax and Amsterdam, he is happily back in his home-city of Toronto and ready to respond to it with words and art. Check out his website, or say hello on Twitter!

Leading photo by Robin Pope