The gentle density and radical façadism of Toronto

One of the reasons I like to walk great distances through new cities is to experience the zoning and density. (You thought I was going to say I do this for snacking opportunities, didn’t you?)

We weren’t in Toronto long, but we got around, and I was continually impressed by how well Toronto does density.

Toronto’s population is similar to Chicago’s, but density looks different here. In Chicago, we have high-rises downtown and in neighborhoods near the lake, and then denser areas along the train lines that mostly have courtyard style buildings, two flats, or houses on smaller lots. In denser areas we also have what I call Secret Alley Houses, which are things like coach houses and garage apartments that cram extra living spaces in nooks and crannies.

So much of Toronto’s density is cheery and lovely—like these gabled row houses, zoned close to the sidewalk.

And then the mixed-use row houses with store fronts.

Row houses everywhere….and duplexes…and triplexes…even a few Secret Alley Houses.

Lots of people, living close together, riding on Toronto’s reliable and clean buses, trains and trams.

Density, but gentle.

Ah, but look closer. See that well preserved building? That, my friend, is the building version of a dicky.

Walk around and marvel: old buildings, hollowed out, with high-rises plopped inside.

Let’s say you have an old church in Toronto—don’t tear that bad boy down: keep the tower and build an apartment block around it.

Stately department building? Calls for a space-age tube.

Sharp Center of Design, OCAD University, Will Alsop, 2004

I mean, you could just put a whole new building on stilts, over a historical structure.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Frank Gehry 2008

And for a façadism finale: I give you a levitating stairway swirl over rather boring old Georgian.

I am not sniffing at Toronto’s façadism—-I totally dig it. While I’m a preservationist, I know this isn’t preservation at all. This is the palimpsest of the old city. See the outline of the original scale and materials, a memory of the old city. Watch it grow ever taller and fill with more people: a weird and gentle density.


  1. If this style of building has no other name, then maybe “the dicky” will stick.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would consider “the toupee”.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. DaveEcruecut · · Reply

    I like your analysis of the juxtaposition of old and new structures in Toronto. These examples are very interesting, and I too am a preservationist, I am happy to see the old structures saved. Though Chicago has a few that i am aware of, possibly the best known, is the space ship that landed on top of the iconic Soldier Field, the venue of the Chicago Bears and multiple entertainment shows. Do an internet search and see this bizarre juxtaposition of old and new.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I live in Chicago, so I’ve had the pleasure of speeding past Soldier Field on many us bus journey (and recently got a view from Northerly Island.) As a hater of all things neoclassical, I think the best of all worlds was to land a space ship on Soldier Field….


  3. If only London had adopted that idea! The City is so bleak and preservation of the facades would have made it much more human.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m no fan of bleak, but generic is equally disappointing. So many cities have disappointed me with their “could be anywhere” aesthetic.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I do find your examples of Toronto’s architectural juxtaposition fascinating. I usually believe in new developments being ‘good neighbours’, respecting older buildings in terms of scale and materials, for example, or at the very least complementing them.

    But then I live in and visit UK environments where historical structures tend to be more than a couple of centuries old and where context is everything. These Canadian buildings tend to work at street level, which is where pedestrians appreciate them, but when one stands back and looks up, confidence and creativity are what hit the eye. Thanks for sharing these!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, this is why I appreciate postmodern architecture (which is much sniffed at.) When you see a postmodern building there’s always the “good neighbor” effort to contextualize.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Clearly some parts of Toronto has changed and I haven’t seen the levitating staircase. I can tell you read a certain amount on urban design….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have you been in the Art Gallery of Ontario recently? Not only is the building design cool, it is a sensationally great museum,


  6. I was in the gallery about a decade ago when there was a major retrofit inside and complete reorganization of its permanent collections. It is beautiful inside. Group of 7 paintings comes from a wealthy publishing Canadian tycoon who died. His son is CEO for Reuters worldwide plus a pile of legal and business publications and its fee-based databases.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The AGO should be a role model for all museums.


  7. Can we expect 1 more new blog post in future about T.O.? I’m curious…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’ve written one about the museums. We got hit by Covid, and I am slowly catching up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: