Full Frontal T.0.: Writing and Photographing our City

September 10, 2013 | Tita

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Toronto Public Library is naturally always very excited by the Toronto Book Awards short list announcement and later, by the announcement of the winning title every year. Established by Toronto City Council in 1974, The Toronto Book Awards honour authors of books of literary or artistic merit which are evocative of Toronto, published in the preceding year. The annual awards offer $15,000 in prize money. Each finalist receives $1,000 and the winning author receives the remaining prize money. This year’s shortlist, as always, sports an impressive contingent of rather different titles.

Book Buzz will be reviewing each of the five short-listed books, starting this week with a review of Full Frontal T.O by Patrick Cummins (photos) and Shawn Micallef (text). Full Frontal T.O. is published by Coach House Books.

Full Frontal T.O.; Exploring Toronto’s Architectural Vernacular is, in my humble opinion, the obvious winner of the 2013 Toronto Book Award because how could you be more evocative of Toronto than with a book full of stunning photographs of Toronto architecture through the decades, accompanied by Micallef’s amusing stories and fascinating quotes? Whether you’re just casually looking through the ample photos, or taking the time to read through Micallef’s annotations (well worth the effort!), clearly the book has both the literary and artistic merit qualities covered in spades.

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Full Frontal T.O. is a great book if you love Toronto and its tangy mix of cultures and people, and its peaceful (if sometimes jarring) mishmash of architectural styles and building materials. I can’t usually name the particular architectural influence on each building, but I know I like old, and detailed and charming. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book was the fact that looking through this book takes me back through my life –- we moved around a lot when I was a child and the book showed me not only the harsh war-time rowhouses on the wrong side of the tracks where I lived after my dad had his heart attacks, as well as the nicer, almost-but-not-quite Leaside homes where we moved after he recovered.

The book also offered lots of examples of the King West area near my late dad’s gas station where our family fortune faltered and recovered with the economy, and where I had worked my first summer job. The Second Empire structures on Strachan Avenue brought back happy memories of my childhood. I had no idea that the government back then had an architectural preference for this style; this is particularly interesting given the nefarious activities that often took place in the back parking lot and around the then mostly abandoned near-by buildings (probably condos now I believe).

The book is fairly representative of all parts of the old city of Toronto (if a little bit heavy on the west-end -- us east enders are always a little sensitive about being overshadowed by the west). I particularly enjoyed the photos of the Victorian row houses and cottages near where I live now (even one on my street!) –- houses in that area Formerly Known as Sketchy South Riverdale, now know as Trendy Leslieville. (I’m happy to say that the neighbourhood has definitely improved since I bought; the crack house just up the street from me when I moved in 20-odd years ago just sold for three-quarters of a million dollars.)

The beauty, the charm, the gargoyles are all there but so are the misspelled signs, the inexpert repair jobs and the somewhat embarrassing combination of discordant architectural details. This book shows Toronto at the height of its Victorian grandeur, then transformed by waves of immigrants and then again as it was subjected to less financially stable times. But it also traces the individual transformations -– 140 Boulton being one example –- from sad little house, to “General Contractor” (of increasing means over the years apparently) right back to sad little house. Unfortunately the book was published before the sad little house was demolished recently, probably to make way for more condos.

                Old house 3 Old house 2 Old house 1 Old house 4

Micallef’s accompanying text was very helpful in outlining the grittier details of Toronto’s transformation, as well as providing the historical context in which change took place. He answered many of my questions before I even had the chance to think them, and I learned a lot about this city I love. Except for the section on variety stores –- I was very curious about how it came to be that almost everyone seems to have read the same marketing advice on variety store signage which clearly dictated that all text has be big, goofy, yellow and red?  Why is that?

Throughout the book, the Gothic cottages were my favourites –- I’ve never been a fan of big fancy houses (too much to clean), and I love the gingerbread and intricate brick designs flanked by someone’s interpretation of “English” cottage gardens. I also love the unofficial murals and graffiti –- nothing says urban, arty hipster like illegible tags and intricate paintings on garages and otherwise boring walls.

Evocative, and provocative… a book with a title like “Full Frontal T.O.” has to be both, no? Whatever. I loved this architectural love song to Toronto, both photos and prose. It is more than deserving of the 2013 Toronto Book Award, and I send kudos to the author and photographer for their feat along with my thanks for taking me on a most enjoyable ramble down memory lane.