"Just Etobicoke". Perhaps
it involved a potentially lethal compromising
of the Old Mill ruin we all love dear; but it's all in the name of
"enhancing" the complex, and it's "to the benefit of the community".
To the benefit of the community. Progress-minded New Yorkers might have
claimed the same about their state-of-the-art new Madison Square Garden in
the 60s. And in a sense, they were right--it's been a well-used facility,
a comfy old shoe for 30+ years of sporting-event- and concert-goers. While
in sporting/entertainment-facility terms, MSG may be nearing its natural
"replacement age"; New Yorkers should feel as proud of it as Etobians feel
about their Olympium. But the spectre of its having been the villain in
the failed battle for old Penn Station--a signal event in preservationism's
"heroic period", which practically gave birth to the New York Landmark
Preservation Commission--has never faded. From the time the place opened,
the letters MSG have been scarlet. Even 60s Modern afficionados are left
with a lump in their throat and sweaty brow.
If New York worked like Etobicoke, there'd be no end to Penn Station-style
calamities--it's progress after all. Besides, it may be argued, you can't
simply freeze-dry the past; it's better that it be made useful. In a
topsy-turvy way, this addresses the EHB/LACAC inertia dilemma I've been
referring to--but it addresses it with an even more naively yesteryearish
notion of "progress"! And nobody's been properly prepared to argue that,
perhaps, there might be more viably sympathetic alternatives...
A personal caveat, which may be my way of adjusting to the "Etobicoke
situation"; I like to strategically distance myself from what I call a
"no-scrape extremist" approach to preservation. The principles may be good
and proper, but in uncompromising practice, they're as much a double-edged
sword as the political endorsements of a Buzz Hargrove or a Craig Bromell.
I agree with many that the best solution might have been for the Old Mill
ruin to be bequeathed to the Toronto Region Conservation Authority,
stabilized and maintained "as is"--and that should have been done ages ago.
But it wasn't. So, it remains in private hands; I can accept that. I can
even accept the novel "opportunities", the urge to "do something" with the
ruin, even to the point of creative "intervention". And yes, I can accept
that a little careful dismantling & reconstruction might have been
necessary, especially in light of a rubblestone ruin that's endured well
over a century of ill-maintained weatherbeating...
In which case there are several possibilities I might envisage. Besides
the "as is" solution, the most decently conservative method might be to
enhance the ruin--as a ruin--in a primarily landscape,
neo-Dunington-Grubbian kind of way. And if, for any reason, it was felt
necessary to build within the ruin, there's any number of alternative
models; for instance, one thinks of the creative postwar museum
restorations in Italy by BBPR, Carlo Scarpa, et al (and subsequent others
in a similar spirit, some of which, by the likes of Sverre Fehn et al, were
displayed at the recent Pritzker Prize exhibition at the ROM). Or, to use
a Canadian example, imagine what someone in the spirit of the late Ron Thom
might have done with the Old Mill, creatively fusing a bit of Prairie
organicism with the c19 industrial vernacular and Old Englishness; or maybe
bolder solutions by West Coast counterparts like Arthur Erickson or the
Patkaus could be referred to; or the local award-winning fashionings of
Shim & Sutcliffe, who've successfully tweaked Thom classics such as Massey
College and the Frum house into the modern age. Or even, to use an
Etobicoke example, the current work on the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital
grounds--a far more exemplary, au courant demonstration of how a
sympathetic mix of old building and contemporary interventions can enhance
a site. Or, to go to the other extreme, imagine a huge titanium gefilte
fish in the middle of the WASPy Old Mill as, at long last, Frank Gehry's
architectural contribution to Toronto...
Logically speaking, any of the alternatives I've been alluding to should
have preserved some significant aspect of the Old Mill's "ruinousness",
right down to the irregular profile, and claims of potentially lethal
structural instability are a lame excuse; there've been endless examples of
ruins all over that've been, sometimes through a touch of creative
engineering or sleight-of-hand, kept "ruinous". Even the 1983 report on
the Old Mill's provincial designation referred to its "gray and crumbling
ruins"--something which should have assured their maintenance (and,
technically, could now be argued as grounds for de-designation).
But here, it was dictated that the Old Mill's ruinousness was, if you
pardon the expression, a millstone. Thus, we've wound up with, in effect,
a new structure within the footprint of the old, where the only the lower
level's been kept in situ, albeit hollowed out into a "cavity wall" and
stripped of remnant burnt timbers and plasterwork, a fillet of the
edifice's soul; the upper stonework's been reduced to a veneer,
and--perplexingly--they sacrificed the "gray and crumbling ruin" profile in
favour of extra guest-room floors within a half-timbered upper roof
structure. They "finished the mill", and in a misguided manner that had
less to do with the actual history of the place than with the Home Smithian
"Old English" theme of the Old Mill Tea Room complex--and it winds up being
a travesty of both.
Another caveat: in addressing the Old Mill transmogrification, I've meant
to separate it from the complex's more general expansion programme (or
other close-by development projects, like an additional condo complex
adjacent to the 1960s apartment tower). These may be criticized by
neighbourhood activists and their like, rightly perhaps, but in purely
pragmatic municipal-planning terms they're "plausible", if arguably
regrettable, or at least to wrench them into my critique adds too many
kettles of fish to the equation. Well, almost. While the Etobian
pragmatist in me can accept on paper the Old Mill complex's "will to
expand"--after all, it only really continues the theme and programme of the
70s expansion, which was arguably equally "overwhelming" in its time, while
perhaps tossing in a bit of "Bruce Price" flair--the built result so far
may or may not suggest a little less prepossessing, like the 60s "Miami
Beach" addition to the Guild Inn (effectively the Old Mill complex's
Scarborough counterpart) melted down a bit and slipcovered in "contextual"
Old Englishness. Its scale is such that it would've made the ruinous Old
Mill look like a mouse, suggesting that the latter's new encumbrances,
half-timbered roof superstructure and all, were necessary in order to
"bring it into scale"!
Again, there could have been method to the madness. The suggestions I
offered above indicate such--to do anything plausible with the Old Mill
should either have required the utmost in kid gloves, including the option
of "straight" conservation; or else something so bold and stylish and/or
well fleshed-out and, yes, a break from the pattern of banal "Old English"
complacency as to neutralize the rightly concerned critics. For the
latter, if the landlords' thinking caps were on straight, they ought to
have acquired a "name", a "giant-killer". Perhaps a Frank Gehry; perhaps a
Shim & Sutcliffe. Otherwise, they could have done what the developers of
the controversial Concourse Building project did; hire a prominent
restoration architect and consultant--in this case, Michael McClelland of
E.R.A. Architects--who, with all attendant in-house historical site
studies, can carry out an arguably terrible idea in as exemplary a
"thoughtful" fashion as is darned possible. (In fact, the E.R.A. studies
for the Concourse/Richmond-Adelaide site could very easily be transposed to
a project that maintains the Concourse in toto, in situ--and without
sacrificing E.R.A., either!)
What did the Old Mill have for that giant-killing "shot of credibility"?
The same architect who'd been working for the Old Mill's owners for the
better part of 3 decades. Good, dependable, old-shoe consistency, you
know, and a professed understanding of the place like no other. Which, in
context, is like the Group of Seven's oeuvre "logically" leading to A.J.
Casson. Yes, maybe, but...
On an on-site visit, I commented to the architect on the need to remove
the inner-wall remnant plaster (which, it was claimed, was in unsound
condition, disintegrated upon touch--of course, if it wasn't for the
drastic nature of the Old Mill project, this euthanizing of ruinous plaster
might not have been necessary), raising an "interesting" Etobicoke
comparison point. When Montgomery's Inn was restored in the 1960s, upon
removal of the roughcast facing the architect in charge of restoration was
so enthralled by the "nude" stone walls--perhaps a byproduct of architects'
then-current "nature of materials" obsessions--that he let them be. And
they've been unadorned ever since. While I'm in no rush to demand that the
roughcast be reinstated (in a way, Montgomery's Inn's nudity is a by-now
eternal document of its own time of restoration), it's the sort of liberty
that, according to current preservation standards, would not be so easily
The architect's response was to gush over Montgomery's Inn's exposed stone
walls. I'm not sure that he got my point.