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Which building or structure would you say best symbolizes Toronto?

I tweeted this out last night:

blogTO then picked it up and it got quite a bit of engagement.

Some people, okay a lot of people, used it as an opportunity to be tongue in cheek and respond with things like: cheaply built condos, boarded up Starbuckses, Hooker Harvey’s, Drake’s house in the Bridle Path, the crumbling Gardiner Expressway, and that McDonald’s at the northwest corner of Queen and Spadina (this one is no longer a contender for me now that they’ve gotten rid of their walk-up window).

Of course, there were also a lot of the usual suspects: The Sky Dome, The Gooderham Building (our miniature Flatiron Building), Casa Loma, The Royal Ontario Museum (specifically the expansion by Studio Libeskind), “New City Hall”, The Royal York Hotel, Honest Ed’s, The St. Lawrence Market, Robarts Library (University of Toronto), and a bunch of others that you might find displayed on the seat screen on your next Air Canada flight.

But I’d like to unpack the initial question a bit more. Because what does it really mean for something to be a symbol of a city? And is there an important distinction between the symbols that resonate with locals on a personal level and the symbols that get exported around the world as a city’s brand and identity? Indeed, one of the criteria in most global city rankings is a prominent and recognizable skyline. Icons are important.

Let’s consider an example. I agree entirely with Sean Marshall that “New City Hall” is a deeply symbolic building. Built in the early 1960s after decades of work, New City Hall was the outcome of an international design competition. And it was decidedly modern at a time when Toronto really wasn’t that modern. Montréal was the biggest and most global city in the country and multiculturalism hadn’t yet become a federal mandate. And so New City Hall symbolized our genuine ambitions to becoming something more.

But does the rest of the world care? If you were to ask somebody my question on the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo, what would they say? What would they remember? The thing about most tall buildings or other city symbols is that they become abstractions. They turn into pictures on social media — like logos of a company. But maybe that’s all we can reasonably ask of the world. Maybe all that really matters is that a symbol has local significance; it’s then up to us to export it and tell that story to the rest of the world.

2 Comments

  1. doug pollard

    Well my vote for something that to me symbolizes TO is a rather ordinary house which is common all over the place. While not worthy of a place in any tourist brochure but somehow if I see it in a movie or TV show it always feels like TO no matter what city the show is pretending to be in. It is a two story brick home with a porch fully across. In North Toronto it has often been “upgraded” with a new sophisticated porch treatment. In other areas it gets a decorative metal porch railing and posts and even perhaps a metal awning instead of the old porch roof. The latter version always reminds me of how the city is the landing place of many immigrants and how tastes vary and how varied the TO culture is.

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  2. doug pollard

    I should add that I think the Regent Park redevelopment is also representative. Not as much the built-out project as the process behind it . The community consultation process identified (75?) languages that were spoken there and thus picked 7 or 8 that everything was translated into, they conducted the consultations in response to numerous cultural traditions (in parks and playgrounds, or private homes or public meetings) and the result is the rebirth of what was once considered Toronto’s crime ridden slum into a neighbourhood, developed through a set of sustainable principles where both immigrants and TO natives now live side by side. it sums up the profile as TO being the most culturally diverse city globally as well as the fastest growing city in NA and a place where genuine dialogue can get things done.

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