Eradicating names, eroding memory, erasing imageability: “Mnemotechny in Toronto”

Ephemeral toponyms, streetscape illegibility, and gendering the territories of condo development

Part 2 of 6 in
Mnemotechny in Toronto.
Figure 1. Site of the Museumhouse condo tower, as proposed, 2007. Prominent branding of the name was visible at the site until project neared completion in 2011 and all units were (presumed) sold. [Idlewild]

Figure 1. Site of the Museumhouse condo tower, as proposed, 2007. Prominent branding of the name was visible at the site until project neared completion in 2011 and all units were (presumed) sold. [Idlewild]


This is second in a six-part series, posted from June 6th to 11th, on the relationships between temporary condo names and their impact on public space wayfinding and legibility. Catch up with the previous instalment.


From a streetscape vantage, new-build condos in Toronto are discernible, if briefly, by name [Figure 1]. This happens during the interim sales and construction phases of a new condominium development. Signage with comprehensive graphic design language — often adorned with cultural tropes, vivid palettes, and aspirational names — encircle the walls and scaffolding of sales and construction areas. This signage alters the streetscape’s pastiche, yet Torontonians can come to remember, at least for a short while, where the M5V, the Museumhouse, the Murano (and Burano), and other condos are located. During this interim, they can use those new landmarks to give directions for nearby destinations within the vicinity: “We’re meeting at the craft burger joint next to the M5V.” Named landmarks facilitate a way of describing the space they occupy within the city. They become co-ordinates, anchors, and potential mnemonics for inscribing the city with legibility and context.


Figure 2. Site of the completed Museumhouse condo tower, 2012. No inscription of the ephemeral toponym “Museumhouse” and no commercial inscription for the suite space. Small overhang at right is the discreet pedestrian entrance to the secured building. [Idlewild]

Figure 2. Site of the completed Museumhouse condo tower, 2012. No inscription of the ephemeral toponym “Museumhouse” and no commercial inscription for the suite space. Small overhang at right is the discreet pedestrian entrance to the secured building. [Idlewild]


Figure 3. Street view of Museumhouse nearby another new condo tower, One Bedford at Bloor (background), 2012. The Intercontinental Hotel, the brick-clad, mid-rise edifice, was prior to 2010 the tallest building along this corridor (and the only with permanent inscriptions). It is adorned with an “I” brand mark. To describe One Bedford at Bloor and Museumhouse is challenging: they typify the built form of Toronto’s new condo towers. [Idlewild]

Figure 3. Street view of Museumhouse nearby another new condo tower, One Bedford at Bloor (background), 2012. The Intercontinental Hotel, the brick-clad, mid-rise edifice, was prior to 2010 the tallest building along this corridor (and the only with permanent inscriptions). It is adorned with an “I” brand mark. To describe One Bedford at Bloor and Museumhouse is challenging: they typify the built form of Toronto’s new condo towers. [Idlewild]


A toponymic ephemerality — an involuntary amnesia and “symbolic erasure” (Rose-Redwood 2008, 433) — ensues once construction is completed and tenants begin to move into sold units [Figure 2]. After a few years of visibility during construction, the branding seen on scaffolding is wiped from all but a few developments. What remains are nondescript towers or mid-rises with fairly negligible variations on the architectural tropes of either the basic glass box or “fortress”. If other new condos of similar stature are added to the immediate vicinity [Figure 3], it can render the streetscape inscrutable, if imposing in its resistance to be described or visualized readily by both itinerant travellers and everyday denizens.

The death of commercial novelty

For condo towers sited in mixed-use zoning (typically “mixed commercial-residential”, or “MCR”), a necessity to rely on storefront tenants as wayfinding aids can complicate urban navigation, as higher square-foot costs for leasing commercial space in new-build condos tends to necessarily restrict tenancies to “chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks” rather than unique entrepreneurial activities (Jacobs 1961, 188). What mattered a half-century ago is no less germane now: new-build commercial suites at the street level of a new condo can generate a repetitious pattern of Scotiabank branches, Starbucks cafés and, periodically, a larger retailer like Dollarama. Where active, but older commercial properties get demolished to make way for new MCR development, the cost-per-square-foot threshold for these new commercial spaces is much steeper than the older commercial spaces they replaced. The financial risk hedged on leasing these spaces tends to skew necessarily toward conservatively established enterprises over the entrepreneurship of new ideas. Repetition of the same retail business along a major arterial may not only detract from streetscape legibility, but it may also deprive a diversity of uses which enriches city districts with their own markers of significance — if not their relevance.

As a consequence, this model of re-urbanization strips away the civic memory of a street’s unique thumbprint. A streetscape peppered once with independent and locally established businesses, housed in since-demolished older buildings now occupied by MCR condo developments, may not only become inscrutable and tougher to recognize as more condo projects get added, but the variety of businesses along that arterial will also become constrained and less diversified. For visitors who seek out civic experiences considered unique to a host city, this eradication also risks making the city a less vivacious place to explore: if the same sites of consumption can be found in one’s home town or district, then what incentives and attractions survive to endow the city with revenue from visitors who desire those novel experiences? What would Minneapolis be without Lake Street; Seattle without Broadway Avenue; or Toronto without the Danforth?

Social activity, meanwhile, tends to respond negatively to paucities of commercial diversity, affirming the developmental sanitizing of a street by generally avoiding it. Even if condo toponyms remained permanent, intensive condo development may strip bare the vitality which made an older street or district desirable (if not identifiable). Bay Street, north of Queen, is emblematic of how dramatically and profoundly this shift can disrupt and sterilize the organics of a streetscape: in less than thirty years, scores of smaller buildings and shops were replaced by a corridor of mid- and high-rise edifices sharing repeatable architectures — many of them MCR condominiums and few, if any, distinguished by anything beyond a street number (or façades which hint only at the decade it was erected).

Figure 4. “B.streets” proposed site, 2011, will occupy the former Loretto College building at Central Tech School at Bathurst, near Bloor. The project launched with unusual fanfare, including a prominent piece in the Toronto Star in September 2011. While conceptual mural art depicts a lively street life reminiscent more of New Orleans or Portland than of Toronto, the inset illustration of the edifice shows no trace that the “B.streets” name will survive once construction is completed. [Idlewild]

Figure 4. “B.streets” proposed site, 2011, will occupy the former Loretto College building at Central Tech School at Bathurst, near Bloor. The project launched with unusual fanfare, including a prominent piece in the Toronto Star in September 2011. While conceptual mural art depicts a lively street life reminiscent more of New Orleans or Portland than of Toronto, the inset illustration of the edifice shows no trace that the “B.streets” name will survive once construction is completed. [Idlewild]


Building the ephemeral toponym

There is a predictable rhythm behind the début of a condominium project.

Hardly unique to Toronto, other global markets like Melbourne and Singapore share this rhythm, and they even inform one another (Fincher 2004, 325; Smith 2002, 441). Feagin and Parker (1990, 66) attest how “real estate entrepreneurs and developers can have profound effects on the physical face of cities.” Condo developers — some of which having only tenuous civic ties to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) — hire branding agencies to market their proposed real estate aspirations. At a fraction the cost for construction, this commission goes to one of a few marketing communications agencies; for the GTA, the dominant players include Montana Steele, L.A., Inc., and Blackjet. Each specializes in branding solutions for the real estate sector. These agencies task their art direction and copywriting teams to devise turnkey brand lexicons — the marketing design language of logos, imagery, and name — to develop a myth. These lexicons entice investors and target audiences to entertain the proposed development for its proximity to existing amenities, perceived vibes, and potential resale values [Figure 4] which the developer hopes the brand will convey. The brands are crafted carefully to evoke an ephemeral (i.e., temporary) but cohesive narrative to reify an imagination of place which never existed before (and probably will not exist afterward). They are aspirational, not reflective: artifice, not authentic.

Figure 5. Public defacing at the site of the One Bedford at Bloor development. The conceptual illustration was one of the streetscape treatments surrounding the perimeter of the construction site, 2008. This illustration lacked inscriptions denoting the development’s name (or toponym). Paradoxically, its generic presence served as an ephemeral wayfinding landmark for a half-decade (2006–2011) before post-construction removal. The depiction of a suicidal stick figure plummeting to their death was removed after a few weeks. [Idlewild]

Figure 5. Public defacing at the site of the One Bedford at Bloor development. The conceptual illustration was one of the streetscape treatments surrounding the perimeter of the construction site, 2008. This illustration lacked inscriptions denoting the development’s name (or toponym). Paradoxically, its generic presence served as an ephemeral wayfinding landmark for a half-decade (2006–2011) before post-construction removal. The depiction of a suicidal stick figure plummeting to their death was removed after a few weeks. [Idlewild]


Typically, brand lexicons for condo developments will incorporate five elements: digitally-generated composites of what the finished product, the condo, will look like in situ with surrounding streetscape (with much of that streetscape greyed, ironically, into insignificance); architectural concept renderings [Figure 5]; a model of a suite’s interior; lifestyle stock photography; smartly-designed name marks; or a combination of these to carry the imaginations of potential buyers (Fincher 2004, 329; Kern 2010b, 217–9). The end game is to nudge buyers toward closing on (or investing in) a new condo unit and to facilitate the developer to sell every unit as efficiently and promptly as possible — in short, to capitalize quickly on “the exchange value of urban land” (Feagin and Parker 1990, 63).

Depending on location and context, brand lexicons may strive to stir historically benign memory (e.g., The Berczy, across from Berczy Park) or nod at activities endemic to the area (e.g., Theatre Park, in the Entertainment District). The tradition of naming places is longstanding, even as the motive for how buildings are named has changed (Nas 1998, 546; Tan 2009, 931). Unlike older buildings, these ephemeral toponyms do not christen for permanency. They are used to stimulate imaginations at the sales stage more than to enshrine a sense of place in the form of the condo itself. Even in other global cities, developers are consciously aware of how much value is weighted toward ephemeral condo toponyms during the sales stage with less concern to what happens afterward: “‘When you’re shopping with a buyer and looking at 12 or 15 products,’ said Stuart Moss, a senior vice president of Corcoran, ‘it’s easier for a client to recall the Lucida, the Touraine, or the Brompton’” (Kaufman 2011, RE1). These brand lexicons are designed to entice potential condo buyers — situated locally and abroad — to buy into a real estate commodity whose perceived use value is contingent on the state of the area at the moment of purchase. It is not contingent on how the state of the area will be altered by the disruptive nature of the unlabelled condo building into which buyers are closing. In short: ephemeral condo toponyms are not designed to strengthen or improve upon a civic mnemotechny. Rather, they are designed to weaken it.

Figure 6. One Bedford at Bloor, completed in 2011, was the subject of considerable controversy by residents and existing businesses before pre-construction demolition began in late 2006. Residents’ concerns of excessive height (relative to existing built form) and lost business were allayed, allowing the project to proceed. No inscription of the “One Bedford at Bloor” toponym remains. [Idlewild]

Figure 6. One Bedford at Bloor, completed in 2011, was the subject of considerable controversy by residents and existing businesses before pre-construction demolition began in late 2006. Residents’ concerns of excessive height (relative to existing built form) and lost business were allayed, allowing the project to proceed. No inscription of the “One Bedford at Bloor” toponym remains. [Idlewild]


Once every unit is pre-sold, a developer may transfer the newly-built condo to a property-asset management firm in order to profit from the exchange value of the land — that is, capitalizing on the “production of space” (Gottdiener 2000, 266) — to concentrate on projects elsewhere, and to allow for a quiet exit without staking further vested interest in their built creation or its impact on surroundings. No longer needed — and this is key — so disappears the ephemeral sales brand name promoted vigorously during the condo’s construction phase [Figure 6]. While these toponyms may still appear in real estate or building listings after opening for occupancy (e.g, Urban Toronto online forums), it remains rare in Toronto to stumble across a finished condo edifice adorned with a permanent toponym used during its construction phase — or visibly adorned with any name, for that matter.

From the sidewalk, the only identifier for most condos is an address number and, if coupled with commercial space, the current retail tenant(s) occupying that space. The practice of numbering buildings with a rationalized address dates to the eighteenth century, originating from an imperative to optimize militaries by inscribing private addresses textually with a number to mobilize billeting soldiers efficiently (Rose-Redwood 2009, 199). A street address number, however, is with rare exception a poor mnemonic device for most to usefully describe, spatially situate, or effectively recall the location of a building. With rare exception — a single-digit prime number on a major arterial, for instance — address numbers alone do more to complicate the psychogeographic[2] legibility of place than a permanently visible toponym (or other mnemonic inscribed on the building itself) might. Consequently, a mnemotechny for the city cannot improve when spatial amnesia worsens.

There are exceptions which depart from the routine of condo development and ephemeral toponymies because they are not strictly purpose-built as residential condos. Rather, as condo-hotel hybrids (the Shangri-La, the Trump International Hotel & Tower, and the Four Seasons Residences as recent arrivals to Toronto’s skyline), these straddle a residential-hospitality niche which necessitates their toponyms being legible so that visitors can locate them easily. For pedestrians and other non-guests, these hybrids are useful wayfinding markers — so long as their name is inscribed prominently or, as with 1 King West, they enjoy uniquely unmistakable architectural treatments.

Civic territoriality

When civic public spaces get replaced by public-private corridors, inside which public spaces function more as a “string of places of consumption” (Cowen, Lehrer, and Winkler 2005, 194) than they do as one side of a legible boundary, a tacit entente, or friendly alliance, to maintain public spaces from private territories erodes — and with it, the forfeiture of defensible spacing. This entente, the legible means to describe place within space, can be maintained by how a building is named or identified; how it articulates itself to the street’s public; and how it may be used as an index for wayfinding. Similarly, a legible architectural feature, something readily describable or conveyable, may also be suitable for articulating the legibility of place. By chiselling a name into a lintel; mounting it on a façade; or embedding it in the building’s landscape architecture, a toponym anchors that place to the civic memory and imagination and improves one’s mnemotechnical command of space.

When they are visible to the streetscape, permanent toponyms stake a claim and occupy that space precisely because they make that place namable. They reify that place into the existence of one’s consciousness. They enable denizens to discern a building from its surroundings. This naming produces an imageability, facilitating what Lynch (1960, 119) describes as “a clarity of structure and vividness of identity [which] are the first steps to the development of strong symbols.” To empower people with signifiers to describe their surroundings meaningfully provokes an engagement with the city — that is, these signifiers endow the city with meaning and aid one’s memory to reduce the entropy responsible for triggering unfamiliarity, fear, and anxiety in the indescribable. In other words, “the naming of places is one of the primary means of attempting to construct clearly demarcated spatial identities” (Rose-Redwood, et al. 2010, 454). These names contribute to the meaningful lexicon of a city as a readable text. This readability is essential for developing a sense of place — what Tuan (1977, 198) regards as a “deliberate and conscious” orchestration of bringing “perceptual quality” to give denizens a way to develop a greater awareness and consciousness of space (ibid., 171).

Sense of place

What is the value in a sense of place?

As a humanistic approach to understanding spacing, Hough asserts that its importance is “a question of societal values rather than necessity” (1990, 101). As a Torontonian writing prior to the present era of condo development, he opines that Toronto does not, compared with other cities, have a “distinguished historic architectural heritage,” but it does have strength in its “familiarity and sense of security”; of knowing “nooks and crannies”; the “safety of its streets”; and the “involvement of people in the everyday affairs of the city” (ibid., 14). Such familiarity comes from the ability to name places which are otherwise unexceptional, architecturally speaking. The very inscription of place even happening, argues Hayden, must come first from one’s attachment to the “material, social, and imaginative,” as each helps to inscribe a “public history in the urban landscape” (1997, 43). Tuan, meanwhile, argues that while physical features in the city — houses, streets, buildings, etc. — alone are not enough to engender a sense of place, if they are in some way distinctive, they can “greatly help the inhabitants to develop the larger place consciousness” (1977, 171). Such distinctiveness, when a name is not displayed publicly, can be inscribed in architecture. The most prominent architectures in Toronto, however, tend to be institutional in their function; residential mid-rises and towers are less so. The Sharp Centre for Design at OCADU is a remarkable case of inscribing a memorable sense of place around McCaul and Dundas streets. Its architect, Will Alsop, defends his decision behind the radical design, asserting that Toronto benefits from the architectural use of colour: “[it] is refreshing [and] aerates the city,” how unlike Toronto and London, which are typical in their shyness to colour, tsarist Moscow applied colour generously as a counterbalance to long, grey winters (Saltsman 2010). For undistinguished architectures, colour can deliver an urgent mnemonic device to Toronto’s condo developments, whose designs, Alsop laments, “have no real personality to them… little individuality, and virtually none are done by any serious designer or architect” (ibid.). The architectural use of distinctive colours or materials (e.g., neon art, anthropomorphic shapes, etc.) could conceivably substitute for missing toponyms.

To inscribe a sense of place is to also generate a memory and bonding with one’s surroundings. Tuan, who distinguishes the notion of place along two metrics — public symbols and “fields of care”[3] — notes that an awareness of place is never greater than when one is homesick for a place where they are not. One need not be in a different physical space to feel homesickness, either: even “the threat of loss” of a place can evoke a grieving comparable to homesickness (Tuan 1979, 419). To be divorced from familiar places, whether by destruction or displacement, is to threaten one’s perception of safety and identity, their psychogeographic memory and, thus, the markers which help to inscribe meaning and legibility to that sense of place. Locations with a strong sense of place, Williams argues, can have a therapeutic quality “through lived experience… moral, value, and aesthetic judgements are transferred to particular sites which… acquire spirit or personality” (1998, 1197). The appearance of a fields of care hybrid in the 2010 film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, reminds Torontonians that were the Honest Ed’s complex lost to a fire or demolition, its void would monumentally disrupt their therapeutic memory of Bloor Street and sense of place in the Annex neighbourhood.

So if this sense of place, the very quality marketed to draw buyers to new condos (i.e., to “be in the middle of the action”), is in any way dependent on the legibility or imageability of one’s surroundings before move-in, then the erasure of those places — by removal, replacement, and disappearance of inscriptions to describe this new terrain — detracts from the use value of that place and from the streetscape as a medium for hosting the fundamental elements of urban wayfinding. It forecloses on the entente between public streetscape and private spaces — the former dependent on an assurance of the latter’s inscriptions. Meanwhile, efforts to foster a sense of place (which is, ironically, at the heart of the ephemeral condo toponymies devised by marketing agencies) reveal themselves to be a simulacra of place which vanishes once branded scaffoldings are torn down. The public realm becomes less readable, less legible, and less welcoming for everyone.

This cycle is what occurs whenever a new condo edifice breaks ground in Toronto at the expense of demolishing structures which still demonstrate their use value for legibility. First, a developer replaces old built form with something new. Second, the new-build environment utilizes a temporary device for imageability (i.e., ephemeral branding). Third, following construction, those devices get removed and replaced with nothing permanently ascribed to the edifice, erasing legible traces from the past whilst rendering what now exists as illegible. Lastly, commercial arrivals to this new-build environment, which tend to depend on established brands to open new branches or franchises, does little to replace what was lost.

How this transition becomes a liability for the long-term exchange value when producing space may not seem obvious. If, however, homeowners who buy a condo unit hope to forge their own sense of place based on how they came to know their surroundings (realized during the developer’s marketing phase when entertaining the prospect of moving in), then this gets threatened further each time another nearby condo development arrives to re-urbanize and remove Hayden’s aforementioned “public history in the urban landscape”. It harms one’s ability to wayfind. Use value is compromised and a diminished desirability for the area compromises the long-term exchange value of adjacent real estate lands.

Part three introduces how the geographies of new condo developments are inherently gendered between developer and buyer.


References

A complete index of references for the “Mnemotechny in Toronto” series is included with part six.

Footnotes

[2] Psychogeography, an idea coined by Guy Debord, a principal of the Situationist International movement, is preoccupied with “the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously or not, on the emotions of and behaviour of individual” (1955). Psychogeography today is realized by meandering walks through the city without a destination or objective in mind, instead “taking in” the sensory perception of spaces through which the pedestrian, or stroller, moves. Source: Debord, Guy. 2008. Introduction to a critique of urban geography (English trans. Ken Knabb). In Bauder, Harold and Engel-Di Mauro, Salvatore (Eds.), Critical geographies: a collection of readings, 23–7. Kelowna (BC): Praxis (e)Press.

[3] “Fields of care”, contrasted to “public symbols”, are what Tuan (1979) describes as buildings which do not project exceptional imageability. See p. 412. To outsiders, “fields of care” may have little meaning; to locals, they evoke affection. Tuan forewarns that “fields of care” are not prescriptive or standardized in how to identify them. Some sites can be a hybrid of both. For Toronto, a good case for a hybrid is St. Lawrence Market. An obvious public symbol is the CN Tower, and a “field of care” may be the Green Room on Bloor Street. For Seattle, a hybrid may be Pike Place Market; a public symbol may be the Space Needle; and a “fields of care” may be Beth’s Café on Aurora Avenue.


This unpublished manuscript was drafted in 2012, and edited for six-part serialization in 2016. It was reviewed by Nik Luka at the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. Prepared originally for Luka’s reading course (URBP607), winter 2012, at McGill University.

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