daily notes #5: R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant exceptionalism

If you aren’t an architecture person the only Toronto landmark that’s worth going out of your way to see is the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. Countless other pieces of internet writing will give you a précis of the institutions history. This one won’t because it’s the 2020’s and there’s no timeline, only an array of moments.

Downtown Toronto’s aesthetic chaos and speed aren’t given to… virtually anything. It’s best to embrace the void but R. C. Harris is far enough from the core that you’re completely abstracted from it as a treat. It’s separate and distinct even in its immediate context.

The plant’s interior is Toronto at its most first-half-of-the-20th-century. What’s your middling grab bag of aesthetic references? Anyways, it’s Art Deco. Everyone likes that. Time and place, it’ll put you there. A Canadian Gesamtkunstwerk? It was at least a possibility.

Can’t get inside? The overall site is still an experience. On entering the front gate a hairpin road guides down to the lake. Looked at from outside the buildings have an abattoir-vibe. In daylight any creepiness is undermined by the fun facades. At night you can lean into it.

No piece of Toronto public grass is manicured like the R. C. Harris lawn. A curving railing contours the divide where the groomed grass meets the sparkling water’s edge. Here, you can pretend you aren’t anywhere. A flat plane greets a flat plane and there’s nothing nearby.

There’s something very sensual about it. Music videos and fashion photography are shot at this exact spot for a reason. The R. C. Harris grounds are a make-out spot for east-end teenagers who, when kicked off, keep partying on the endless beach that starts just steps away.

Forget about the interior, it’s almost never open to the public anyway. Instead, aim to be at R. C. Harris for sunset on a summer night with a full moon. Have dinner on Queen St. first and then ease down to the water. As the sun sets start west along the sand.

Witold Rybczynski on architecture as “fantasy”

“Whether one is looking up at the tall dome of the Pantheon, descending the spiralling vortex of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, or standing in the living room of Venturi’s small house, the experience of architecture is above all the experience of being in a separate, distinct world. That is what distinguishes architecture from sculpture -it is not an object but a place. The sense of being in a special place that is a three-dimensional expression of the architect’s imagination is one of the distinctive pleasures of architecture. To create a strong sense of place, the surroundings must be all of a piece; space, mass, shapes, and materials must reflect the same sensibility. That is why details are so important. A jarring detail or an inconsistency -something “out of place”- and the fantasy begins to crumble. Yes, fantasy. Illusion has been a part of architecture ever since the ancient Greeks made columns with a gently swelling taper to deceive the eye. This is not to say that architecture is stage décor. When the wind blows, the canvas scenery blows over; the building resists the elements. Architecture surrounds and shelters us. It is the real world but it is also a vision.”