The scandal of interiors

Asked by a visitor what is the best way to see Greater Parkdale, I replied, on your back in an ambulance. I was serious, of course. At street level, transient franchise shopfronts bear no architectural relation to the older buildings they have been stuck on. But from a reclining position, only the unmodified upper storeys can be seen, yet nothing above the second or third (thus deleting most of the appalling highrises). The city thus retains something of its fine and fusty Edwardian provincial order. Prone in this way, one might drive for miles through repulsively glitzy shopping districts, without seeing what’s been added since the Great War.

I suppose this was a comfort to a dear old-Toronto friend I accompanied on his last ride to a hospital, a few years ago. He was a little hard of speaking, as well as hearing, on that last leg, but managed to communicate something droll, about how lovely the city was in late January. By the time we were in Emergency he apologized for being sentimental, explaining that his only regret in dying was that, at his age, all friends and loves had predeceased him. Therefore he was the only earthly being who could remember their voices and faces. With his passing, even their faint echo would be forever gone.

Dear “Mbob,” as he would sign himself. (A certain Robert Olson, inclined to nicknames in Greek, or Icelandic) — very kindly as well as Christian and I should think, gone to a better City.

I think of him today in relation to the Scandal of Interiors. I use the word strictly as a conventional term in domestic architecture. We both loved old houses, and old shops, too, and old low-life taverns, so regretted that none were left.

All things are a flowing, sage Heraclitus says,
But a tawdry cheapness shall outlast our days.

Real brick-and-plaster substance is, perversely enough, often smooshed then overlain with a plastic parody of some “olde” style. We live today in urban environments which are comprehensively fake — a contributing factor to the fakeness in ourselves. The tactic of developers is to append “poetic” associations from a happier past, to their ghastly provisional installations. This odonymical abuse has been going on for some time: “mountain-view” where there is no mountain, “river-side” where there is no river, “park-dale” with neither park nor dale. “Old-world charm” that consists of ticky-tack boxes, with stacks of brutalist concrete poking through.

The “downtowns” of cities in the eastern half of this American continent were built before the automobile, with pedestrian compactness. So prosperous did we become, so quickly, and so extensive was the building towards the latter end of the nineteenth century, that plentiful evidence remains. The ground-cover is still mostly older buildings, paradoxically thanks to rocketing property values: new buildings must accommodate phenomenal densities, upon tiny footprints. But ten-thousands of apparently “old houses” remain, going on and off market at a million apiece. The principles of money-management have “evolved” over the years, and the idea of “home” as a fungible investment has been universalized. All one needs to acquire one is a small saving and a large credit line. Then one is cut in for all subsequent rounds of poker.

You move in and “re-decorate,” less from personal taste than in anticipation of re-sale. After this process has been repeated a few times, nothing remains of the older building except its “historical” façade, itself somewhat tarted. Travelling about by foot and trolley, I have watched a likely majority of the city’s more attractive “landmark” buildings reduced to fronts only. These are propped by girders, while entirely new (and disproportionately larger) new constructions are bunged in behind.

Thus, nothing remains that is “authentic.” All continuities are destroyed, beyond this tip of the hat — the aesthetic equivalent of that homage which vice pays to virtue.