So it's all a matter of
insulating oneself from a broader context, and
settling for the "familiarity" of A.J. Casson. And, as is so often the
case these days, I've been prone to raising the current McMichael
controversy, particularly in the way that it's become a rallying point for
a stolid "old values" aesthetic conservatism in resurgence --an artistic
"Common Sense Revolution", as advocate George McLean likes to put it. It's
an interesting issue, as at its core it can dovetail into the more
traditional, "Old Ontarian" preservationist sensibility --but it's also akin
to the final nail in the coffin of preservationism's once-promising
vanguard spirit. Unless the "vanguard" one has in mind is
neo-conservative --less the sensibility of Thom-Shim-Sutcliffe patrons
Barbara and Murray Frum, than of their offspring Linda and David and
daughter-in-law Danielle Crittenden. (Who happens to be the stepdaughter of
columnist Peter Worthington, perhaps the press's most avid champion of the
so-called "original" McMichael vision ...so things come around in a circle.)
Say what one will about the Concourse project and others like it; they've
got that layer of plausibility, if not conceptually, then at least through
the individuals involved (Michael McClelland et al). One may argue that
they're like the recent forays of the Royal Ontario Museum and the
Art Gallery of Ontario, for better or worse, into sometimes arch or
glib commercialism; however controversial or deserving of criticism they
are, within the curatorial circles in question they still "make sense".
While, as I've suggested, the Old Mill, and perhaps by extension the Etobicoke
preservation "establishment", is closer to "McMichaelism" --a
standpoint that, in its funny way, is more threatening to the aforementioned
curatorial circles. The likes of the ROM and AGO might accept sub-Disney
dioramas; they might accept overhyped/oversponsored "theme" exhibitions;
they might accept the gift-store kitsch that usually accompanies said
exhibitions --but they will not accept the kind of "silent majority"
conservative-populist reprogramming that banishes the Claes Oldenburgs and
Joseph Beuyses and their Canadian compatriots on behalf of Bateman, Danby,
et al. Why, it's like Mitch Miller vanquishing rock'n'roll.
And as with curators, so with preservationists. Interestingly, there has
been recent discussion of over-rigorous standards breeding a potential
"heritage priesthood", not properly mindful of the variability of personal
and cultural values, and that there should be greater looseness and
flexibility allowed. Yet when this kind of argument is offered, it is
usually framed on behalf of the hitherto dispossessed or isolated, the
regional and neighbourhood characteristics, the concept of a building or
place as a "living being", a vernacular object, a many-layered piece of our
cultural landscape. (Not unlike my own arguments on behalf of
"understanding Etobicoke", in fact.) Therefore, what may be cherished
under this elbow room is something like the rows of c1920 workers' housing
in New Toronto, whole swaths of which have been "debased" through aluminum
siding, artificial stone, contemporary sash and other "unsightly"
accretions, and whose supposed "original form" an overearnest
heritage-priesthoody "purist" might desire to reinstate.
It is, at heart, a "politically correct" goal --more akin to the
controversial-in-its-own-right arts policy under Bob Rae than that under
Mike Harris. It might allow for Montgomery's Inn to retain its
roughcast-less random stone walls. It might, retrospectively, have allowed
it to stay a community centre rather than being co-opted as a house museum.
But when it comes to this kind of monkeying with the Old Mill, well uh-oh,
that's where, one presumes, the priesthood has to come in with its holy
A parallel 1997-98 incident in Kingsway Park in fact helped set the stage
for its current Heritage Conservation District application; a young
family's application to demolish a house on Kingsway Crescent and Strath
Avenue for their own dream house. What added to the controversy was that
not only was Kingsway Crescent something of a "signature street" for the
neighbourhood, the house in question was unique; a stuccoed "Mediterranean"
anomaly amidst all the variations on "Old English". And furthermore, it
was across the street from the home of the (since moved) then-chair of the
Etobicoke LACAC! There was the talk of this replacement being a "monster
home" complete with a --egad!-- 3-car garage, there were rumours of offshore
money; the counter-argument was that the place was neglected and in bad
repair and obsolete for the family's needs; besides, they had the right to
do what they wanted on the property, and furthermore, it was argued that
the new dwelling was in fact going to be quite sympathetic to the
neighbourhood and more in keeping than the existing structure. (An
interesting yahoo interpretation of "contextualism"; imagine, if you will,
if the existing house was not Mediterranean, but machine-age Moderne.
Imagine the horselaughs that'd ensue if something like that was replaced or
disfigured on behalf of "contextualism" nowadays.) Altogether, it was a
bit of a pathetic spectacle --evidence in miniature of how stunted
(hypothetical response: "Stunted? Us?") Etobicoke's broad planning and
heritage culture was.
Well, the old house was demolished, and while it perhaps took a bit of
negotiation for it to be so (for instance, the garage is only two-car, not
three), the replacement actually isn't half bad --a bit of contemporary,
albeit conservative, neo-Georgian historicism that succeeds quite well in
disguising its purported "monster" quality. One can understand --especially
in light of some much more obviously appalling "monster" replacements
nearby --that the owners, in their inside-out way, weren't fooling when they
promised to really make an tasteful effort to respect the neighbourhood's
character. Yet the whole backdrop of the affair still leaves a queasily
unnecessary taste ...or perhaps not, according to one's perspective. I
argued some months back --long before the recent Federal Election-- that
within this conservative neighbourhood, it's akin to the weak, pinkish,
Globe-reading Joe Clark Tories being sideswiped by the brash, ambitious,
principled young Post-reading Canadian Alliance supporters, and being left
with little to do than to babble epithets, throw pathetic brickbats, etc.
Thus, we don't have a tacky eyesore, but purebred Frum'n'Crittenden
architectural neo-conservatism; the response to the "heritage priesthood"
from the right. It can also be discerned in the attitudes of the Kingsway
Park HCD's neighbourhood critics, who, perversely, show their neighbourhood
pride by denying any discernable heritage worth. The word "heritage" as
the eternal obstructionist, bureaucratic, progress-stunting stigma; of
course, according to said standpoint, there might be virtually nothing in
Etobicoke with said heritage worth. You know, not particularly "unique",
or there's much older stuff elsewhere, bla bla. And that's just peachy
keen. Etobicoke heritage: an oxymoron; Etobicoke's not in the "heritage"
business. And thus the ruin of the Old Mill might become a rallying point
for this kind of boilerplate-establishment-cult I'm-all-right-Jackism;
after all, an affluent-culture "restoration" project that tilts against
heritage's politically-correct wing doesn't kill people like Walkerton
water does. (And besides, they'd say, it's a darned sight more tasteful
than that hideous new
graduate residence at Spadina and Harbord; now, there's a scandal.
Oh yeah; those cultural elitists actually like it. Tells ya where they're at.)
(Personally, the Pevsner-perambulating rebel in me would love to give these
stuffed shirts nosebleeds by taking them on a meta-Sewellesque
architectural-appreciation walking tour amidst North Etobicoke's "projects".)
But it is all post-facto judgment. As such, it could make for intriguing
debate over the politics of heritage preservation, the "for whoms"
and "to whose benefit", and in some eyes it might quite
conceivably turn the anti-Old Mill argument upon its head. As with
the McMichael mess, it can give the so-deemed bourgeois/middlebrow
a feeling of tilting-against-the-wind militant energy --they're doing it all for
themselves, without being tied down by cultural-elite diktats.
Yet there can also be a sinking feeling that through militancy, this
self-styled silent majority hurts their own cause more than helping
it --that it gives the hitherto innocuous and even genuinely admirable
and/or commonsensical a bit of a queasy, repellent feeling. Sure, the
McMichaels may have been wronged when the provincial government originally,
heavy-handedly swept their gallery from under their feet; and sure, one
might say the institution subsequently fell peril to a self-consciously
applied "curatorial priesthood" --but in the end, the curdled "original
vision" cure is even less likeable in its presentation. Even Robert
Bateman and his like don't deserve such offputting inglory, however
complicit they were in its generation. It's plain old crankism, cubed.
Needless to say, I would be concerned about this attitude taking sway in
the realm of heritage, as it works entirely against my expansive vision in
favour of myopic retrenchment, or even entrenchment --exactly the sort of
status quo which allowed the EHB/LACAC in the past to be so horribly
ingrown, impotent, and out of touch with current reality, a laughing stock.
In fact, despite the more garrulous neo-con blatherings, the actual
momentum may be in the "expansive vision" end because --quite simply-- it's
expansive, and expansively enlightening. Perhaps a little subversive in the
process --uncovering not a few skeletons in Etobicoke's closet-- but in the
end, it comes back and celebrates that which it's just subverted, and a lot
more besides. It even, in a sort of gentler counter-subversion, ventures a
bit beyond the raw importation of downtown "urban sophisticate" principles.
Altogether, it makes Etobicoke richer --messier, but richer. It's democratic.
And if it means a little self-criticism, so be it. Even the exemplary
Colonial Williamsburg organization has allowed itself to grow over the
years, to be attuned with intellectual currents, to the degree that it
openly recognizes that its original 1920s/30s "restorations" --the creation
of an earlier version of a "heritage priesthood"-- are not only far from
correct, but enlightening documents of their own time.
And to return to that pesky house on Kingsway Crescent; maybe the
"principled conservative" approach isn't so airtight after all, even a
neighbourhood where one assumes they're a dime a dozen. Rumour has it that
due to their pesky little act of neighbourhood "vandalism", the house's
occupants are being shunned by their neighbours. Even their kids aren't
allowed to play with others in the neighbourhood. By simply "meaning
well", making the proverbial kinder-gentler better mousetrap out of their
so-accused "monster home", and doing it through a veil of lawyers without
doing the proper neighbourhood homework, the poor interlopers --"vulgarians"
in spite of themselves-- have become pariahs. And gee, it isn't like they
built some Frank Gehry chain-link-and-corrugated-metal eyesore or
something ...maybe they would even have been better off doing such a thing...
Was it all worth it?
Remember what happened to the Alliance's supposed PM-in-waiting Stockwell
Day --or, for that matter, the Tories' supposedly hapless Joe Clark-- in the
course of the last federal election.