Posted by: Andrew Pask | January 14, 2012

Field notes from Toronto, pt 3: city art, urban metamorphosis

Harry Enchin - King & Bay

Harry Enchin – King and Bay

The nice thing about a vacation is that it allows you to slow down a bit. It’s literally a change of pace… and the ‘time out’ is reflected in a different way of walking through the city. Too often during the busy-ness of the week, one’s pace is all geared up the hustle and bustle of work, school and who knows what appointments. There’s stuff to do, places to get to, less time than would be ideal. The stride of everyday life is seldom taken at the sauntering pace that Thoreau found most ideal.

But when your schedule becomes loose and flexible, when you’re on an out-of-town sojourn, you can meander a bit and be a bit more attentive to your surroundings. And then… you never know where your feet will take you.  For me this means actually taking more time to slow down and step inside the cool little galleries that I find punctuating the neighbourhoods I visit.

On my recent trip to Toronto I happened unexpectedly upon a number of these places – three of which were showcasing a display related to the city itself. Each was quite distinct but wonderfully complimentary to one another. I’m showcasing two of them in this post and will save the third, on the subject of civic engagement, for later.

Dusan Petricic and the illustrated city.

The first came the day after I landed when, fresh from skating at Nathan Phillips Square, I found myself at Campbell House – a lovely old Georgian structure dating back to 1822. It bills itself as the oldest remaining building from the original town of York. It had been years since I’d last been inside, and I didn’t realize they had a little gallery upstairs.

What a treat! On display was a collection of political cartoonist Dusan Petricic’s work. Petricic, an émigré from Belgrade, brings what journalist Rick Salutin calls “an intellectual style of drawing” to his portrayal of city issues. While the themes he covers in his work are wide ranging, a good number of the drawings on display were about planning and matters relating to public space.

For example, in the last few years Concord Pacific (and other developers) have been building condominiums in the old railway lands near the CN Tower. The massing and height of these buildings has created a noticeable change in the Toronto skyline. Seemingly unimpressed, Petricic points a finger at city planning on this one.

Dusan Petricic - City Planning

(As an aside, coming back to Vancouver I was struck by how slender many of our downtown condominium towers are compared to their often gigantic, slab-like counterparts in Toronto).

Here’s an image that seems particularly germane to Vancouver. It was done around the time that public discussion on the future of the Gardiner Expressway was at its height. (The Gardiner is the aging elevated expressway that runs along the foot of the city, separating the downtown from the waterfront). At the time (and it’s still an ongoing debate) there was lots of talk about removing part or all of the highway, beautifying it, or trying any number of other schemes to mitigate the problems that it posed to the city. The conversation it provoked was (and is) not unlike the discussion we’ve been having around the future of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

Dusan Petricic - How to Make Gardiner Loveable

This last one is my favourite, playfully illustrating the idea of distance in Toronto and the walkability of the city.

Dusan Petricic - How Big is Toronto

One of the things that I found so appealing about it was the fact that it used the walking time between public clocks as a basis for the image: a splendid trope to use, and one that gives an affectionate nod to the role that these timepieces play in city life – both as reference points and icons, and for there more functional aspects. (Indeed, despite the fact that a digitial, iPhone literate city changes things a bit, the Downtown Design guidelines for Vancouver still encourage the placement of clocks in public gathering areas.)

Harry Enchin: change, continuity and juxtaposition.

A few days later I had a chance to hit the Twist Gallery on Queen West. Quite by luck I walked in on one of the last days of an exhibit called Toronto Tranformed, featuring the work of Harry Enchin.

Those of you who are fans of Vancouver’s Changing City blog (and props to our friends John Atkin and Andy Coupland for their excellent work on this) will appreciate Enchin’s images. They juxtapose digital photographs of city life taken over the last couple of years with archival photographs. But rather than stop at a site-by-site, side-by-side, before-and-after comparison, Enchin actually weaves old and new images of the same place together into a single picture.

Here’s a particularly striking example that will appeal to fans of Toronto’s streetcar network:

Harry Enchin

And here’s another that puts a 21st century CBC ad for George Stroumboulopoulos into an early 20th century street scene. The same building – now about 8 decades older and many retail turn-overs later – has worn the ‘Strombo’ ad for a few years now.

Harry Enchin - Strombo
There were several dozen of Enchin’s works on display. Some held together better than others, but all of them produced a remarkable and overlapping sense of change and continuity.

Both Petricic and Enchin play with the theme of time and place in their work – one from the perspective of an illustrator providing comment on the issues of the day, the other as an photographer and archivist who revels in the nature of everyday city life. In so doing, both regard the Toronto as a dynamic entity – one marked by resilience, adaptation and metamorphosis.

Thankfully, in the process, neither seem too inclined to the sort of nostalgia and wistfulness that can easily wash-over the deck of projects like these. Theirs is work that respects the city on its own terms, as a living organism rather than a museum piece.


  1. What ridiculous illustration. Many of the new buildings in Toronto are absolutely gorgeous.

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