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Save Otter Loop?


(Otter Loop photograph by Richard Leitch)

Adam Sobolak of the Toronto Architecture Conservancy sent me this press release about the group’s desire to save the distinctive transit shelter in the loop at the corner of Avenue Road and Otter Crescent.

Recently, the TTC sold the “Otter Loop” bus turnaround (on Avenue Road at Otter Crescent, south of Lawrence and across from Havergal College) to the City for $1, Thanks to the efforts of Post City Magazines publisher Lorne London, together with the endorsement of Councillors Moscoe & Stintz, it is slated for conversion into “Heart Park” (“North America’s First & Only Heart-Shaped Urban Park”), with a call for submissions by July 1, and a prize of $1000 for the winning entry.

While not a proposal for the park per se, may I make a strong recommendation that the existing Otter Loop transit shelter—perhaps the last of its mid-c20 type remaining in Toronto, neglected and forgotten yet with its integrity remarkably intact—be accounted for in the proposals.

In the lore of early modern Toronto, the original Yonge Subway of 1954 plays an important part, not least for its station architecture: clean, simple designs reflecting the sensibility of pioneering Toronto Modernist firm John B. Parkin Associates. (Their legend has even survived the 1954 line’s brutal modernizations of the past generation and continuing.)

What’s been virtually forgotten by posterity, though, is that Parkin’s design consultancy to the TTC predated and encompassed more than just the subway. Influenced by Charles Holden’s designs for London Transport between the wars, the Parkin firm provided designs for a number of transit loops and shelters in the 1940s. These were, in effect, an aesthetic dress rehearsal for the Yonge line (and “TTC Modern” in general).

Virtually all are gone—mainly in the 60s and 70s. Some were rendered obsolete by subway construction; others, by perceived age, obsolescence, maintenance issues and the advent of the “prefab” bus shelter. And they are poorly remembered and documented, except maybe through the deeper nooks and crannies of the TTC Archives.

Aside from the Yonge line facilities (and maybe the altered and comparatively uninteresting Humber Loop, which, anyway, postdates the Yonge Line), all that remains of this particular design sensibility is the Otter Loop shelter. Whose date and provenance I do not know, but from all visual evidence is most likely 1940s, perhaps early 1950s at the latest. Even if it weren’t by Parkin (and it is modest by comparison to the firm’s other early loop structures), it reflects a common Holden/London Transport-derived stylistic demeanour, like a broken-off fragment of one of Holden’s 1930-35 Piccadilly Line stations. (According to Transit Toronto, the loop itself opened as early as 1936; thus it’s technically plausible that the shelter even pre-dates Parkin—though it still seems far too avant-garde for 1936 Toronto tastes; otherwise, we would have “heard of” Otter Loop long ago.)

The fact that the shelter survives at all, as if fell between the cracks of several decades of TTC infrastructural agendae, is astonishing. The last regularly scheduled TTC service to serve Otter Loop was in 1970; since then it has served emergency and short-turn purposes at most. Theoretically, the shelter still serves a purpose for Avenue Road North bus passengers; but such a purpose is negated by its impractical positioning relative to the bus stop in question—it’s oriented to the loop, not to the street. For all anyone knows or cares, the Otter Loop shelter is more purposeful as a rest stop for joggers, passing pedestrians, even (and maybe this can ultimately fit into the Heart Park schema?!?) lovers. At the same time, the location is too remote and middle-class/upscale-residential for the kind of “blight demographic” (i.e. the junkie/vagrant class) that might have made the shelter’s removal much more imperative, much sooner, were it located elsewhere.

It’s of sublimely simple “International Style” form: a symmetrical rectangular brown brick cell opened up at the front by an expanse of multipaned glass “corner windows” under a flat cantilevered roof. The tone and texture of the brick is, it may be noted, much earthier and more bricklayer’s-art primal than the more “machine-made” cast of the Yonge Subway stations—presumably indicating an earlier date. (Besides Holden, there are suggestions of Mies van der Rohe’s early brick architecture, or maybe of the Saarinens’ “Cranbrook modern”—the latter perhaps significant relative to Parkin, given that the building which “established” Parkin’s reputation, Sunnylea School in Etobicoke, was a derivative of the Saarinens’ Crow Island School—brick, corner windows, and all.) It appears to have survived virtually unaltered—right down to the wooden slat bench incorporated into the rear brick wall.

For all its integrity, there are definite signs of physical neglect as well—a missing window pane, as well as spalling, crumbling brick around the base (in one of the corners, exposing an underlying steel support column to the elements). To an unsympathetic or utilitarian eye, elements like this might be enough to seal the shelter’s doom as an “eyesore”, “beyond repair”, or at least “not worth repairing”. But to a creative eye, it’s a blessing that the TTC never sought to renew, never mind remove, the shelter—to the point where it sets the case for its retention.

All things considered, it would be a shame to blithely dispose of the Otter Loop shelter without further thought, in the name of a well-meaning “civic-beautification scheme”. And compounding this shame is the danger of the “Heart Park” concept becoming an open invitation to mawkish, sentimental treacle, to park/landscape design at its “Thomas Kinkade” greeting-card kitschiest—highlighted by the amateur-friendly “open to all” aspect of the design competition. (And as a rule of thumb, it’s the kitsch amateur that’s more likely to accept the shelter as a dispensible eyesore—look to the monster-home destruction of good Modernist houses in Don Mills for proof.)

So, why not have one’s cake and eat it too? Keep Heart Park—but why not retain a restored (yes, restored, not “adulterated” with ye olde anything) Otter Loop shelter as a park shelter, of a sort? (Maybe even, figuratively speaking, a lover’s shelter?) And perhaps enriching it with “historical” visual/textual material (with the collaboration of Transit Toronto?), thus having a Heart Park that also creatively commemorates, rather than denies, the site’s past. (If one really wanted to stretch things, perhaps even some of the extant trolley-bus poles within the loop can be incorporated into the schema.)

With these cues in mind, the general idea of Heart Park heads into an unanticipatedly richer direction and dimension. And in keeping with the “heart” idea, a richer idea of “love”…that is, love of the city, and its many-dimensioned history, as well as that of each other. Allow the site’s past, and its future, to mate, so to speak.

Some may think the idea subverts what Heart Park was meant to be. I’d see it as enhancement, rather than subversion. (All it subverts is the likelihood/inevitability of thoughtless kitsch.)

Let’s take it from there!

…Adam Sobolak
executive, Toronto Architectural Conservancy