The Impermanence of the Ordinary: Full Frontal T.O.

Listen to the author read this essay:

Reviewed in this essay:
Full Frontal T.O. (Coach House, 2012), photographs by Patrick Cummins, text by Shawn Micallef

Paul Strand, Wall Street, 1915

Cities have been photographed since the birth of the medium, but camera lenses have tended to focus on urban life: its characters, opulence, industry, and grime. Where architecture was concerned, photographers were more often than not content to portray modern buildings with the same aesthetic principles as the building’s designers, emphasizing clean lines, bold shapes and empty spaces.

Patrick Cummins’s new book on the colloquial architecture of Toronto’s downtown core draws our gaze instead to the intersection of these subjects: the human element in the built form. With words by Toronto’s resident flâneur, Shawn Micallef, Cummins’s collection of photographs consists of studies of the city’s homely small-scale commercial and residential architecture. The book includes longitudinal studies that trace the transformation of buildings over a roughly 30-year period and typographical studies that highlight variations of a single architectural form.

Cummins’s longitudinal studies each suggest a narrative at once intimate and broadly social. From the poignancy of a second-floor half-shuttered window that does not change for a generation to the abrupt transformation of a storefront from local furrier to Money Mart, the series chart stories of decline and renewal, of transformation and re-contextualization. Photographs of a family business in slow decline elicit an emotional reaction while the hardening of residential facades on a major thoroughfare suggests a lesson in urban development. In one typographical study we see various examples of the Gothic Cottage form after decades of use. The refractions of this basic form and their rich diversity emerge from the background to themselves become the subject of the series.

Cummins’s photographs suggest that the virtue of their subjects lies in how the buildings change, in the stories implied by how they adapt, expand, shrink, or vanish. By photographing building facades and street elevations head-on and excluding wherever possible people and cars, Cummins’s work brings to the fore the oft-thought but rarely expressed idea that these humble buildings and how they change constitute the muscle and bone of Toronto’s architectural identity. Toronto’s humdrum architecture is full of implied anecdotes, good and bad design decisions, and the traces of histories ranging in scale from graffiti battles to great stylistic movements. The photographs can be mined for different stories endlessly, and Micallef’s commentary, sometimes humorous and sometimes informed by educated historical and architectural insights, offers departure points for our own exploration of the complex and changing city.

Once the narcissistic thrill of seeing one’s own city captured in photographs wears off, however, one may be left with the uneasy sense that the fine-grained urban change that this book presents as a virtue is of diminishing significance in Toronto. Current development, driven by a now-dominant concern for the investments of downtown home ownership, may not allow homes and storefronts to reflect anything other than their most expensive uses. In Full Frontal we see the passing of one modest business into another, one middle- or working-class resident selling to another. The book pays little if no regard to what has undoubtedly had the greatest effect on the qualities and forms of urban development during the 30 years it covers. In a word, rising property values have occupied the space that allowed for the incremental neighbourhood change we see in this book. The Annex, Harbord Village, and Cabbagetown, to name a few, have been recast as idealized and unchanging images of their original forms. Meanwhile, new developments no longer bother with the meagre profits of small-scale residential or commercial projects. Instead, the character and dynamics of a neighbourhood are changed in one gesture. Outsized condominium and commercial developments trade on the diversity of the neighbourhoods to whose homogeneity they are in fact contributing.

In the interests of protecting these spaces for human-scale neighbourhood change, it is worth noting that the buildings and neighbourhoods that draw Cummins’s attention and Micallef’s commentary are similar to Jane Jacob’s Greenwich Village and Annex neighbourhoods. Both have since become exclusive and aesthetically rigid neighbourhoods as their property values have increased. Their value as workshops for understanding human-scale urbanism, as places that allow for the cultivation of community and creativity, has been undermined as decisions on urban development have become increasingly concerned with the exchange value of their properties.

Stan Douglas’s Every Building on 100 West Hastings (2001)

Micallef’s comparison of Cummins’s work to Vancouver artist Stan Douglas’s Every Building on 100 West Hastings is in this sense apt. The work is a 16′ by 3′ composite photograph that shows an empty and derelict block in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The shuttered windows and aging signs tell the story of a human presence now either absent or alienated from the city’s built form. The buildings serve as squats and venues for art galleries and events periodically, but their grip on the space is tenuous. The photograph is a portrait of a once-active area whose users have been steadily excluded from local agency because of rising rents and the logic of property speculation that prefers empty buildings to the upkeep of inhabited ones. In the ten years since that image was first published, nearly every single building on that block has been occupied by residents and businesses from outside the neighbourhood. The change appears to be permanent. Micallef suggests in his introduction that the work captures some aspect of Vancouver identity, but it also depicts the end state of an area from which original residents have been steadily estranged.

Full Frontal T.O. shows us a city that grows on top of itself through renewal and decline, exhibiting both its mortality and persistence. The book shows us parts of the city where the built form evolves but is always shaped to some degree by the occupations of those who have come before. Cummins’s photographs do not display human subjects, but, more poignantly, objects and buildings in which people have invested themselves, and that are erased or transformed by subsequent layers of human activity. In Full Frontal T.O. the city’s quotidian architecture is a dynamic and human subject central to the city’s identity, even as the forces that now threaten this delicate character escape understanding.