The Asylum Grounds

1001 Queen Street Master Plan personal thoughts by Adam Sobolak

I speak as somebody who's had a long and active engagement with the built fabric of Toronto, including activity and membership within ACO/TRAC (which, of course, helped sponsor the recent book on the Provincial Asylum). But I also speak as a survivor of depression as well as an overzealous childhood "autism" diagnosis, and while my experiences have only scarcely involved the Queen Street property (and not at all as an inpatient), my insights probably carry a retroactive critical-yet-empathetic undertone of "the inside" about them. (And it helps, too, that my mother --who lived around the corner from "999 Queen" as a child, and was party to its hush-hush stigma with at least one neighbourhood parent mysteriously "taken there"-- was motivated into studying psychology in part by my experiences.)
             As we all know, the Queen Street site has had a horrific last century in public image and public relations, whether through the real-or-created sins "generated" by 999, or through the well-meaning attempts to alleviate or atone for said sins (the destruction and replacement of 999, or the deinstitutionalization/"community-based" solutions that led to group homes unscrupulously proliferating in nearby neighbourhoods, etc). And the morale, curiously enough, may be lower among staff than among the devil-may-care-or-otherwise-impaired inpatients --for those on staff, especially, it's a site that's been haunted into dysfunction. The "superblock" that's existed in one form or another since the 1840s isn't a problem in and of itself; but in its desultory, latently needle-parky current state, nobody's been able to rally up the good and lasting inspiration to "do something constructive" with it. The big paradox is that had John Howard's masterpiece been saved and restored, the superblock --integral to its setting-- might *not* be seen as part of the problem. In fact, it, too, might now be "restored" to a closer semblance of its c19 landscaping. Thus when they destroyed 999 Queen, they theoretically destroyed the raison d'etre for cherishing the superblock setting as well --it heretofore became as uncherishably expendable as the 50s and 70s buildings that remained.
             Because of the depth of history behind the hospital site *as a whole*, I have some strong misgivings about the self-conscious desire to eliminate its existing, unified, century-and-a-half-old parklike character on behalf of "urban integration" in the name of addressing a "stigma". At the same time, I understand that the proposed Urban Village concept is one with strong Toronto precedents (St. Lawrence, et al), and the Queen Street scheme, due no doubt to the institutional sponsorship, promises to be one of the better efforts of its sort. But while urban-village principles may make sense in, for instance, clean-slatish "brownfield" circumstances (as at St. Lawrence, or even the Massey-Harris lands next door), their application here remains questionable. In a sense, it's only a kinder, gentler version of that same fatal desire to will away a "poisonous" past which claimed John Howard's building a quarter century ago. And the more the new scheme "integrates", paradoxically, the more it violates the site's original spirit--if you must go through with this at all, please, make sure the site's still "shaded orange" on the map. It must not vanish into the same integrated-out-of-existence urban miasma as the original Upper Canada College on King, or the original Toronto General Hospital on Gerrard, or Scarborough Beach Amusement Park, or any number of old estates around town (or, for that matter, the Massey-Harris complex).
             And while the extension of existing gridded street patterns constitutes a kind of urbanist "politically correct" fashion (although keep in mind that the "pre-integrated" urbanism of neighbourhoods like Parkdale haven't made the group-home culture any less inhospitable or hostile), I have strong concerns about the extension of Ossington into the grounds, because the street has by historical divine right been sturdily founded upon Queen on axis with Howard's portico and dome (or the ghost thereof--no comment on the present pallid 50s front with the crude 70s pillbox up front). With the new plan, that sense of a strong and stately south end to Ossington has not only been violated through dissipation, it appears to have not been given much thought at all--the absence of a southward Ossington view in the "Tour of the Urban Village" indicates so much. (The main southward-looking distinguishing features, from what I can discern, are a too-slight bend in the road and an overhead pedestrian bridge --the latter, an ironic hallmark of "anti-urbanism" within an otherwise urbanizing plan. Ossington deserves better. Much better.)
             But the clearest signal of the sadly self-perpetuating allergy and superstition attached to all vestiges of "999" and what it represented is the continued debate over "the wall" --and most particularly, what remains of it along Shaw. Regardless of how much of the wall's fabric is "original" or not (the argument over which is immaterial; if you're going to preserve some of the remaining outbuildings, why not the wall?), this debate only further infantilizes the "urban integration" ideal. In my estimation, to remove the wall along Shaw would be kowtowing to the mentality that led to 999's destruction in the first place. Perhaps it's a sentiment held by fatally oversensitive CAMH staff eager to brush away the "tainted" past in whatever way shape or form, a literalization of the hackneyed concept of "breaking down the walls" attached to overcoming mental illness. And you may toss in neighbourhood oldtimers still possessed over memories of the pre-1975 "blight" in their midst, or a few dumb-yuppie newcomers for whom the wall *might* interfere with their ill-informed rose-coloured vision of urbanity. However, keep in mind that with John Howard's 999 an over quarter-century distant memory, the Shaw wall--which is, after all, only a fragment of the original engirding the hospital site-ikes a benign presence nowadays; any "threat" the property now poses surely cannot be blamed on it. Indeed, with its warm c19 brickwork, the Shaw wall elicits a latently less hostile, more naturally sympathetic reaction these days than either the 50s or 70s edifices on the site (although the 70s complex was ironically intended as a "humane" antidote, akin to a suburban community college, to 999's horrifically outmoded facilities). In fact, the wall along Shaw is likely the site's most distinguished extant built object, conceived as it is (unlike the remaining works buildings or S and W "party line" walls) for "public display". With that point under consideration, to overzealously remove the wall on behalf of an imagined urban "higher purpose" would be unbelievably shortsighted. Like it or not, it helps define the site --the site as an important feature in Toronto history. And it isn't nearly as "penitential" as it once must have seemed. Furthermore, consider that the neighbourhood has followed a distinctly artsy or artsy-pretension trajectory over the past generation --a contingent better conditioned than any to creatively "see through the stigma".
             Though the most fundamental problem may be that, like much modern art, mental institutions (and other institutions of confinement and/or incarceration, such as prisons) are too "difficult" for "mere mortals" to respond to positively, although they've long been fashionable idée fixes for architectural historians or Foucaultian intellectuals or theorists of the sublime. But alleviating this disjuncture somewhat is the fact that the long-in-uncertain-limbo old Don Jail has been the "star" of the last two "Doors Open" events, surely a sign that intellectual fashion is not nearly so perennially locked-in as supposed (if literary and cinematic horror can be a draw, why not its archi-historical counterpart?). It's true that there's a disconcerting, perhaps repellent "immediacy" to obvious psychiatric presence; but that would be the case regardless of what form architecture takes. It is the case amidst the crude group-home/rooming-house conversions of Parkdale, or the missions and soup kitchens and homeless shelters elsewhere about town, or --to take an extreme case-- in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. And as long as these continue to be among the people "served" here, it'll be the case in the proposed "Urban Village".
             Too much of this talk about "alleviating stigmas", in fact, strikes the same insipid, simplistic note as much populist criticism of architectural and artistic modernism, painting it as a wholesale failure, bla bla bla --no wonder many of the afflicted feel misunderstood and condescended to. (Remember the old saw about the fine line between genius and madness.) Thus, the self-perpetuating in-house staff phobia toward "999" and all it represented becomes akin to, say, a phobia toward Mies van der Rohe's TD Centre and all that *it* represents. (And any number of thoughtful aesthetes would warn you that to "humanize" the TD Centre is a philistine no-no.)
             I'd suggest that a good approach to "dealing with" the site is to confront, co-opt, adapt, and accept, even celebrate --not to deny or whitewash. "Confrontation" may sound like too difficult a concept to accept --keeping in mind that "confrontational behaviour" underlies why many are treated here-- but remember that Jack Diamond's 1970s plan for the reuse of 999 was exactly the kind of creative, constructive "confrontation" (of a stigma, above all) I have in mind. And keeping the wall along Shaw, etc, would be in that same constructively confrontational spirit. Indeed, the TRAC/ACO book on the Provincial Asylum is a gem of constructive confrontation, presenting it all as plain history, as a history of the site, of architecture, of psychiatric care--and in so doing, proving that historiography is stigma's best subversive. (Even the darker "final years" of 999 are humanized, allowing us to sense the building as less of a raw horrorshow in the end than legend has it.)
             Needless to say, the denizens of Lower Manhattan currently have a monumental task of "confrontation" ahead of them--how else may they live at peace with Sep 11 and its aftereffects? It's certainly better to confront than to flee and shrink--to confront the *place*, of course. Catastrophe should not stigmatize the environs of Ground Zero.
             Perhaps that's the tragedy of the CAMH's Queen Street site; for eons, it has been a Ground Zero relative to its immediate neighbourhood. Or at least, its landlords have forever been incredibly self-conscious regarding that notion--and forever incapable of alleviating it. Maybe they're underestimating--especially today--something stronger within the neighbourhood. Too strong even for easy "urban village" panaceas.
             And finally --it's interesting to compare the fate of the three historic provincial psychiatric "campuses" within the GTA. At Lakeshore, early plans for "urban villaging" the site have taken a backseat to simple creative renovation and reuse of the existing buildings, and maintenance of the grounds as parkland. And at Whitby, as if to demonstrate that there's a plethora of architectural approaches to psychiatric care these days, the reverse has taken place --a wonderful "village" of artsy-craftsy early-c20 dormitories has been replaced by, well, a single unified "megastructure".
             Oh well...

Adam Sobolak
November 2001


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