ERA Architects

On mapping

With any exercise in mapping there are a whole series of interesting Borges-like adventures that reveal themselves.  There is the story or stories the map-writer wishes to tell, but to the map-reader there are countless other stories which may appear as unpredictable discoveries beyond the intentional.

As a child, playing the game of ‘connect the dots’ is an early exploration in map reading.   One carefully draws the lines from dot to dot until the little rhinoceros reveals itself, and there is a moment of discovery, recognition and pleasure.   With every map this same moment of discovery lies in wait – and the more complex the map, the greater the pleasure there is in reading it.

In reading any map there are the representational issues between the map and the place on the ground; the real place to which the map corresponds.   The map is a selective recording of some specific data.  The reader must connect the dots between the data, and find the correspondence that tells her more about that place.  Beyond the simplest of storylines the reader’s own experience and knowledge of the place and knowledge of the data can provide a rich, nuanced, synergistic reading.

A map can also be like an architectural drawing – which is a series of visual instructions, or a map for action – in that it can be a delineation of something that does not yet exist.  And in this case, can the reader visualize the impact and understand the potential should this mapped fictional place slip into the real world?

Mapping of places is an act of the imagination, both for the map-maker and the map-reader.  Wellbeing Toronto presents new and different data from what we have seen before and has the potential to reveal patterns of the city that had previously been unreadable.  With this mapping tool the City of Toronto are opening up room for discussion leading to multiple readings, multiple interpretations, and the potential for action.

The image above overlays the 1894 and 2010 built-form maps of Toronto, produced by ERA.

What do architects do?

Apartment complexes at 1440-1442 Lawrence Ave. E. in Toronto

David Watkin’s book on The Rise of Architectural History has always held for me an almost Darwinian appeal — which I’ve interpreted as a delicious recognition that the cultural value related to architecture has never been static but has had its own evolutionary process.  This strikes at the heart of the idea of architecture as a monument forever holding meaning and veers towards architecture as something that is intrinsically mute.  Architecture may have cultural meaning only as an interested community applies it, from time to time.

Why and how do we apply meaning to architecture?  The publication of Concrete Toronto by ERA and Coach House Books (edited by Graeme Stewart and myself) was intended as a deliberate provocation to explore this production of cultural meaning and valuation. We didn’t approach the topic as historians, but as architects. The writing in Concrete Toronto is intentionally addressed to a broad audience leaving the theory to lurk beneath the text, theory from architectural writers like Watkins and Juan Pablo Bonta, or sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, or philosopher Richard Rorty, or even the artists General Idea. We started with some of the city’s most neglected buildings and collected what Bonta would call the pre-canonic voices — the many different opinions about the buildings and how they are perceived.  As architects we express our enthusiasms. We are honest but we also recognize that negativity does not make a city and that architects must have a heightened sense that it is their obligation not only to build buildings but to assist in the cultural production of their associated values.  General Idea asked, “if we are artists, what do artists do?” and in producing Concrete Toronto we asked, if we are architects, what do architects do?

photo by Jesse Colin Jackson