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el Guapo

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Deconstructing clever on a downtown corner



By DAVID MACFARLANE




Monday, January 6, 2003 – Page R1


There is a building under construction a short distance from our house. It is an eight-storey student residence at the University of Toronto, and as it is on my dog-walking route, I have been able to observe twice daily its steady and remarkably swift passage from conception to reality. Whether this building will prove to be beautiful, or well-designed, or striking, or imaginative remains to be seen. It could turn out to be either very good or very bad -- if the architectural extremes of the rest of the campus are anything to go by.

The residence is still a skeleton. It's an impressive one, certainly. But an unfinished building can have a spectral majesty that disappears entirely as it approaches completion. The Toronto Police Headquarters on College Street would be an example of a site that was fascinating in its early stages, but that ceased to look interesting three-quarters of the way through its construction. The building became more prosaic and, finally, more ornamentally ridiculous with each of its finishing touches. It stands now as an unhappy combination of architectural ostentation and mediocrity.

Whatever the judgment that inhabitants, neighbours and passersby will bring to bear on the new university residence once it is finished, I have to say that I have enjoyed watching it go up. It may not be the Brooklyn Bridge or the Guggenheim Museum, but even so, its creation has been the result of enormous industry and intricately complex activity.

You can learn a lot about the ingenuity of human beings by watching the materialization of what may prove to be a very ordinary building. From the casual perspective of someone being dragged past the construction site by a Labrador retriever, the planting of an eight-storey building on a busy downtown corner is about all kinds of things -- engineering skills, technology, innovation, budgetary efficiency, personnel management, trade co-ordination, mathematics, logic, physics. In short, the successful building of a building is all about being clever.

Cleverness is a quality that we respect so much, it often jumps the gap that is erroneously assumed to exist between the practical and the artistic. After all, sitting in a concert hall, an architect or a contractor could well dream of a building that is as clever in its conception or in its construction as a Mozart symphony is in its composition or its performance. Someone writing a book might wish that he could write something as solid, as confident and as intricately thought-out as a university residence that he stops to look at while it is under construction.

An engineer might well search for a solution to a problem that's as structurally clever as a poem by John Donne, or as elegantly simple as a song by Cole Porter. And when people scoff at contemporary art -- as I saw some people doing at the Art Gallery of Ontario the other day -- they are not necessarily addressing issues of aesthetics or intellectual content. They are concluding (sometimes far too hastily) that there is nothing clever about the teetering stacks of binders or the dangling typewriter ribbon that comprise an installation.

Whether in the artistic realm or the pragmatic, appreciation of cleverness is such that its absence actually makes people angry. People can't say, "It was a really dumb movie" without getting a little hot under the collar about the fact that a stupid movie could exist. And there are few things about which people are more angry -- so I've learned, standing at parties in this city over the past week -- than the absence of cleverness in the way we approach the business of living in an urban centre.

If half the brainpower, industry and unstoppable problem-solving that is apparent in the construction of a student residence, or, for that matter, in the mounting of an opera, were used to figure out -- let's pick a seasonal example -- how to buy groceries and gifts without filling garbage bag after garbage bag with plastic and unnecessary packaging, wouldn't we think ourselves clever? Instead of helpless and stupid?

We can build things, write things, perform things, create things with ingenuity, energy and creativity. Every time I walk the dog and stand on a nearby corner to look at a crane turning in the winter sky over a construction site, I think to myself: We are not a stupid species. Great artistic achievements attest to this, of course. But also the most mundane task -- pumping concrete eight floors up, for instance -- reveals an inventiveness and an intelligence that seems remarkable.

Why then, I can't help but wonder, do we do dumb things such as sit in traffic jams day after day rather than invest in public transit? And why, here in Toronto, do we have politicians who imagine that expanding the island airport -- thereby increasing noise, increasing pollution, increasing risk and decreasing the quality of life in the urban core -- is a smart thing to do?

Instead of spending funds on endangering and diminishing the city's waterfront, why are they not bright enough to invest in rapid transit to and from Pearson International? "Like a real city," as Margaret Atwood said to me the other day. Are our municipal politicians not as smart as the average architect, the average composer, the average engineer, the average writer, the average performer, or the average construction worker?

Are they really not clever? Or are they pretending to be stupid in the hope that rest of us won't be clever enough to ask why?

El Guapo's reply: Dumb Voters!
 
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