Tag Archives: Architecture

The Quantum Museum

Typically, once a year, when the weather is hateful, when I can’t muster the will to shoot while standing on a street corner in the rain, I go to the museum instead. I tell myself that what I’m doing is shifting my photographic habits indoors. Street photography inside a big building. Capturing people in the act of being people. But when I get there, I discover that what I think I’m doing and what I find myself in fact doing are two different things. Yes, I find myself watching people in the act of being people inside a big building. But this isn’t any big building. This is a museum. This is a repository for our oldest memories. I find myself watching people in the act of brushing up against their collective memories.

Triceratops in Royal Ontario Museum dinosaur exhibit

I can’t remember the first time I came to this museum—this Royal Ontario Museum. I was born in Toronto, and it seems to me that this museum is part of my psychic bedrock, mixed in with my earliest memories. I remember sitting on the family room floor while my mom played the piano. I remember a Hallowe’en night watching from the front window as all the other kids collected candy while I sat in my skeleton costume and tried not to scratch my chicken pox. And I remember the first time I saw a dead person, the mummy (Antjau) in this museum. I remember the horrified fascination I felt as young child staring at the teeth and empty eye sockets, and realizing that these remains had once been a living person, like me.

Walking between galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum

There are many ways in which the museum is the collision of time past and time present, death and life, stillness and motion. Fossils, mummified remains, taxidermied animals, sit in glass cases and testify to times so remote they scarcely seem real. We gaze into the glass and simultaneously see reflections of ourselves. Grandparents pause to catch their breath while the young grandchildren race ahead to see the next exhibit. The building itself—a mashup of architectural styles—embodies this collision. Century-old Romanesque Revival gets swallowed up or overwritten (or enhanced?) by Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal.

Old and new architecture in the Royal Ontario Museum

Carrying a camera to a museum, I feel a kinship to the curators who develop the exhibits. How do we classify a vase or a bust or a coin? By geography? Historical period? Influences? Provenance? Materials? How does it speak to us? What do we discover about ourselves when we examine it? And how do we think ourselves into the future? Something similar happens with my photographs. I don’t shoot the bare exhibit. That’s mere record keeping. Besides, the museum can do a better job of it, with proper lighting and shooting conditions. But what I might be able to do at least as well as the museum staff is observe the way people interact with the exhibits and the enclosed space of the building. When I get home, I have my own curation to perform. How do organize my photographs? By the location of people in galleries? By their age? By whether they’re active or inactive? Distracted or thoughtful? I ask myself how these people make me feel. I wonder what I might discover about myself as I gaze at their images. And I project myself into our collective future.

Sketching Korean pottery at the Royal Ontario Museum

I have a secret theory that the camera was invented by quantum theorists. Niépce and Daguerre and Talbot where really physicists seeking a way to stare into the deepest secrets of the universe. With their early processes—daguerrotypes and calotypes—they discovered that the world presents simultaneously in more than one state. In their images, we see that the world is both living and dead, both in motion and at rest. It turns out that things we thought were dichotomies belong to the same structure. Though we would like to, we cannot capture photographs and present them to the future as a record of our faded world. That future has already come and gone. Its traces are already in the photographs we present to it.

Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery in the Royal Ontario Museum

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Buildings In Thunder Bay

The last time I was in Thunder Bay, I overheard someone say: “For a city in the middle of so much natural beauty, it sure puts up some ugly buildings.” I’m not sure if that’s entirely fair. For one thing, the place has some serious weather. After a long winter, exterior surfaces can start to look worn. While there are brick buildings, especially in the downtown part of Port Arthur, a lot of houses and smaller businesses are wood frame and painted. To my mind, the challenge is maintenance. The local economy struggles, and where businesses go under, buildings get neglected. Thunder Bay is also a university town with a transient student population and large rental market. Landlords may not have a commitment to regular upkeep. That, of course, is just an impression I get as I pass through. I could be dead wrong about the state of affairs in Thunder Bay. Maybe I’m just photographing buildings as a way to confirm my already-held assumptions.

Red River Road/Court Street - Thunder Bay

The Loop Clothing, Red River Road/Court Street

Algoma Street South at Night - Thunder Bay

Algoma Street South at Night

Dufferin/Algoma Street South, Thunder Bay

Dufferin/Algoma Street South

Wilson/Court Street South, Thunder Bay

Windswept House – Wilson/Court Street South

Secord Street/Cornwall Avenue, Thunder Bay

Church Door, Secord Street/Cornwall Avenue

Algoma Street South near Dufferin - Thunder Bay

Green Garage, Algoma Street South near Dufferin

Court Street South, Thunder Bay

Use South Side Door, Court Street South

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Modern Singapore

When I hear the word “development” I feel skeptical. Phrases like “structural adjustments” aren’t far behind. I wonder, too, if it isn’t just a case of Western financial institutions trying to make non-Western places over in their own image. When I hear the word “development” in connection with words like “modern” and “modernism” my skepticism turns up a notch.

We might say to a friend: “See the modern-looking building.” But our observation is far from neutral. Modern is not a stylistic quirk or a design decision. It’s an expression of an ideology. It’s a way of being in the world. It assumes the primacy of science, the certainty of progress, the promise of a bright and shining future, the value of democracy, the inevitability of capitalism, the cachet of consumption. Even those of us who turn a critical eye to its assumptions can’t help but note that we ourselves are moderns. We were born into it. We have internalized its values. As a result, we catch ourselves speaking out of both sides of our mouths. We fret for the environment but drift into malls and buy things we know will end up buried in landfill. We point a finger at late capitalism’s unjust distribution of wealth yet run out to play our lottery numbers.

Like all large cities suckling at the teat of late capitalism, it looks like Singapore has thrown its official plan into the shredder. Large construction projects have sprung up everywhere. The demand for cheap foreign labour goes up and up even as local citizenship requirements become more stringent. There’s a whiff of payola in the air. Dirty money in need of laundering. I’m no forensic accountant, but when every mall has a Rolex store, I get the feeling something is strange with the local economy.

Ceiling of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Ceiling of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Take the Marina Bay Sands – hotel, world’s largest atrium casino, convention centre, museum, theatres, shopping mall, 7 celebrity chef restaurants, infinity pool, skating rink, indoor river with gondoliers. With an $8bn price tag, it’s touted as the world’s most expensive standalone casino property. It all seems a bit grandiose. More to the point, it all seems a bit beyond ordinary people. The scale of its buildings reinforces that feeling. This is a place better suited for giants.

Supertrees and Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Supertrees and Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Within sight of Marina Bay Sands are the Gardens by the Bay which includes the conservatories. Shown above is the Flower Dome, the world’s largest columnless glasshouse. You get the impression that Singapore doesn’t mess around. It wants the biggest of this and the best of that.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel viewed from the Flower Dome, Singapore

Marina Bay Sands Hotel viewed from the Flower Dome, Singapore

I’m fascinated by the municipal fetish for waterfront ferris wheels. London has the Eye. Hong Kong has its prosaically named Observation Wheel. Singapore has the Flyer. Toronto’s former mayor, the illustrious Rob Ford, wanted Toronto to have a giant ferris wheel, too, reasoning that we couldn’t be a “world class” city without one. The city dismissed his proposal as the whimsical product of a sad man-child’s immature brain. One wonders if the city would have reacted differently had the proposal come from Toronto’s current and sober mayor.

View of Singapore Flyer, ArtScience Museum, and Double Helix Bridge

View of Singapore Flyer, ArtScience Museum, and Double Helix Bridge

Path alongside the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Path alongside the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

One of the problems with modern architecture – or modern anything for that matter – is that it plays to the future at the expense of the past. Old buildings are obsolete or inefficient. Historical concerns and cultural significance get in the way.

The Concourse business tower viewed over the tiled roofs of Arab Town, Singapore.

The Concourse business tower viewed over the tiled roofs of Arab Town, Singapore.

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Fire On Jarvis Street

Early on the morning of January 4th, my wife woke me with the news that there was a fire on Jarvis south of Carlton if I felt like getting up for some good photos. It was -15 degrees, dark outside, and I was tired, so I fell back to sleep. As is typical, I kicked myself afterwards for my lack of motivation. Now, all you can see of the site is the burnt out peak of the roof and a plywood fence to keep people out.


The building is 150 years old, an example of Beaux Art classicism (so says a Toronto Star article), and is designated a heritage building (which means it’s an impediment to further development). There’s no info as to the cause of the fire. It should be noted that the building was unoccupied and no one was injured.

Fortunately for me, I did have enough motivation to get to the site before the boards went up. It was still cold and a lot of the water that had been sprayed on the building had stayed behind to decorate the mayhem.


Naturally, there was a security guard posted to keep the gawkers out. He followed me around. I assumed that he assumed that I was going to try to sneak into the building for some interior shots, so I thought I better say something to assure him I’m not stupid. I should know better than to assume anything of anyone. Before I had two words out of my mouth, he asked me a gear question.

“Oh, so you’re a photographer too?”

“Yeah, I’m a bit of an addict,” he said. It turns out he wasn’t worried that I might do something; he was curious to know how I was seeing, how I was framing things, what I was shooting. Then he pointed me to the other side of the building. I might find the ice there kind of interesting. I thanked him and went where he pointed while he went back to his car to stay warm.

Us photographers, we’re like a secret society. We have a handshake and everything.




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When I moved into my current home (on the 15th floor of a condo), it was with the understanding that I would be moving into construction. The condo corporation had just contracted to replace all the windows and repair the building envelope. (Until I moved here, I had no idea that buildings have envelopes.) No sooner had I settled into my new space than a truck arrived and men started hauling metal poles out of the back. In short order, they’d put up scaffolding along the front of the building.

Man walking under scaffolding on Avenue Road in Yorkville, Toronto

Man wearing “scaffolding” shirt on Avenue Road in Yorkville, Toronto

Although scaffolding sites are temporary, and shift dynamically across the face of the city, the fact of scaffolding itself is a permanent feature of modern city life. Forgive the oxymoron, but scaffolding is an ephemeral permanency. There’s always a new project underway, and always a demand for temporary struts to support it, or to protect passers-by on the sidewalk below. Once the structure is complete, the metal bars and stagings disappear, only to pop up somewhere else.

Scaffolding at construction site, Queen's Quay, Toronto

Scaffolding at construction site, Queen’s Quay, Toronto

In documenting city life, I would be remiss if I didn’t allow scaffolding to creep into some of my photographs. In a way, my documentary obsession is a kind of scaffolding. I hold in mind a blueprint of the city. Call it a Platonic ideal if you like. It aspires to completeness: a whole vision: the city’s deepest truth. One day I’ll publish a photobook about the city, and implicit in its publication will be the claim that I’m presenting the city as it really is. That claim is a fiction, of course. I’m not omniscient; I don’t have a godlike perch from which to survey everything simultaneously, from the Rouge to the Humber, and from the lake shore north. I offer a sampling of what I see and, for a brief time, like metal rods and stagings, it props up a larger vision which can’t yet reveal itself.

North side of Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto

North side of Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto

Toronto's Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2015

Dundas & University

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Integral House

You wouldn’t think a solid grounding in calculus could make someone rich, but in the case of mathematician, James Stewart, his textbooks for high school and university students made him rich beyond imagining. Looking for something to do with his money, he purchased a property (194 Roxborough Drive) in the heart of Rosedale, leveled the house that was already there, and commissioned the Toronto firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects to design what the director of MOMA has described as “one of the most important private houses built in North America in a long time.” The result is Integral House.

Integral House

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Abandoned Grain Elevator – Thunder Bay

While in Thunder Bay, I paid a visit to the former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 4A and 4B elevators on Shipyard Road by the waterfront. I have no idea which elevator is 4A and which is 4B. I went in both and climbed onto the roof of the red one. It’s possible to climb the white one, too, but the owners have removed all the metal landings in the stairwell, which means you have to climb over each railing all the way up. Since I was carrying a backpack full of gear, a camera, and tripod, I opted for the easier climb.

Abandoned Grain Elevators

To be clear, the fact that the grain elevators are abandoned doesn’t mean that entering them stops being a trespass. But given that the elevators are visually arresting, trespass seems like a minor matter.

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Billy Bishop Airport Tunnel Opens

Toronto kicked off the civic holiday weekend by opening the tunnel to Billy Bishop Airport. Passengers no longer have to wait for the ferry when they want to catch a flight from Toronto Island. Heather Mallick’s op-ed in the Toronto Star nicely captures the feel of the place: “The pedestrian lake tunnel at Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop Airport has finally opened at the cost of annihilating the soul, plus $82.5 million.” She uses adjectives like tedious, stale, drab and dreary and suggests that the materials came from Home Depot. Step into the tunnel and it’s obvious that functionality was top priority. Review the comments below Mallick’s piece and it’s obvious that most Torontonians are happy with functionality. More numinous qualities like spirit, whimsy, or even aesthetics, don’t seem to interest people, so why should we care what the tunnel looks like?

Billy Bishop Airport's Tunnel

There is an upside to the Tunnel: with the construction completed, people can once again access Ireland Park at the foot of the Canada Malting Silos.

Canada Malting Silos

In the park is a limestone wall engraved with the names of those who died in Toronto in 1847 as a consequence of the Great Famine. 1186 people died, mostly of typhus, mostly in anonymity. So far, researchers have learned the names of 675 of the dead.

Monument in Toronto's Ireland Park

The park also features bronze sculptures, Migrants, by Irish artist, Rowan Gillespie. The derelict Canada Malting Silos provide a lovely backdrop for the sculptures because, as the new tunnel illustrates, aesthetics matter to people in Toronto.


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Photographing Buildings In Manhattan

Photographing buildings in Manhattan is a challenge, or at least it was for me last week, and for two reasons. First, I didn’t have the right gear, only my little mirrorless Fujifilm camera and a pancake lens. Second, even if I had the right gear, buildings in Manhattan have been shot to death. What could I possibly say that’s original or interesting? So I side-stepped the question. Instead of photographing buildings, I photographed people (since I was really there to do street photography anyways) and was mindful of buildings lurking in the background to give the people context. Here are some of the results.


Man sitting on fire hose connection with Flatiron Building in background


Flatiron Building viewed through scaffolding


Reflection of building in puddle at 5th & E 31st St.


Girl with violin & the Empire State Building in the background.


The Chrysler Building


Grand Central Station at night.

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The Luminous Veil

The so-called Luminous Veil is, for me, a symbol-laden structure. The Luminous Veil is a late addition to the half kilometre length of Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct. It was designed to end the viaduct’s reputation as one of North America’s premiere suicide destinations. Michael Ondaatje has paid homage to the viaduct in his novel, In The Skin Of The Lion, and includes an episode where a construction worker saves a nun from plummeting into the Don Valley below. The viaduct also appears in Bruce Cockburn’s folk song, “Anything Can Happen.” More recently, in “War On Drugs,” The Barenaked Ladies share their thoughts on the upgraded structure:

Near where I live there’s a viaduct
Where people jump when they’re out of luck
Raining down on the cars and trucks below
They’ve put a net there to catch their fall
Like that’ll stop anyone at all
What they don’t know is that when nature calls you go

Although Stephen Page’s lyrics suggest that the Luminous Veil has merely shifted suicides to other bridges, I have heard (from grief counsellors) that it may, in fact, prevent impulsive suicides.

Luminous Veil - Prince Edward Viaduct, Toronto

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