Doors Open: Toronto and Beyond

By Allana Mayer

Now in its fifteenth year, and steadily adding buildings of note to its roster, Doors Open Toronto is a city-wide weekend festival that encourages architectural exploration and urban-planning discussion. Public and private locations open their doors to the public; special events include lectures, walking tours, and a photography contest; everything is free.

France lays claim to founding “La Journee Portes Ouvertes” in 1984, but Doors Open events are now popular all over the world. Toronto is inordinately proud of its participation, claiming to be the first in North America. The events themselves are not governed by any sort of international Doors Open committee; participation is entirely self-proclaimed — and can range from small towns and municipalities, to province-wide affairs, to entire countries.

Bridgepoint Hospital expansion, left, on the former Don Jail, right. Photo courtesy of Doors Open Toronto.

The mandate being vague (often billed only as “a celebration”), sometimes the purpose of Doors Open events can be obscure. In Toronto, it provides all of: exclusive access to private spaces; guided tours for public spaces; special events and discussions; outreach opportunities for little-utilized public services; and promotional opportunities for new buildings and services. Of the former in recent years, crowd favourites have been tours of the Historic Don Jail (before its renovation into the Bridgepoint Hospital), the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, the Russell Carhouse (for maintaining Toronto’s iconic red streetcars), and the long-abandoned Crystal Ballroom at the King Edward Hotel.

The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy Doors Open Toronto.

The philosophical underpinning of the event is, in essence, democratization: making private spaces public, and increasing knowledge about public spaces. This can be interpreted in a number of ways: is the experience of visiting a participating site about the architecture found there, or to learn architectural history generally, or just to see what might not normally be seen? The online directory describes the buildings by year of construction, style, and building function, and there is a short summary of the experience on offer, so tourists can tailor the weekend to their particular interests. Often tours will include a bit of everything: the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, for example, showcased both the renovations of their historic house (from 1858) and the history of the organization, as well as their ongoing exhibits and collections.

(Notable about Doors Open Toronto is their release of data-sets through Open Data Toronto: while they don’t produce a festival app every year, their data are free for developers to work with, and they actively encourage third-party apps for maps and festival guides.)

As more locations across the world join in the tradition, we can predict an upswing in citizen-scholars, casual architecture and heritage discussions, and new and innovative entries into built-heritage events and initiatives.

Of particular interest to architecture librarians and archivists will be opportunities to capitalize on or help coordinate these events. There are plenty of ways to communicate with organizing bodies in your area, to offer expertise and perform outreach, or to feature your collections, exhibits, and resources. In Toronto, the city and provincial archives organize showcases adhering to both the yearly theme and the interests of architecture and urban-planning enthusiasts: maps, land deeds, floor plans, news clippings, and vintage photographs.

Inside the Toronto Archives. Photo courtesy of Doors Open Toronto.

Toronto’s populist theme for this year focused on ghost stories, mysterious disappearances, and supernatural experiences throughout the city. However, there were plenty of recently-completed entrants in the festival, with no such stories to share.

New buildings of particular note to heritage aficionados include the Toronto International Film Festival Centre (and its TIFF Film Reference Library), and the new Archives Ontario headquarters at York University. These three examples of modern architectural work complement Toronto’s recent wave of cultural-heritage renovation (most notably the addition of the Libeskind-designed Michael Lee-Chin Crystal to the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Gehry redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario).

The new Archives Ontario building at York University. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A number of speaking events included a lightning-round session of architects, urban planners, and artists discussing Toronto-specific projects and issues. While some designers took this opportunity to showboat their portfolios, many chose to delve deep into particular problems or overarching theories.

The very first presentation spoke to ideas of heritage and preservation, and how to make time for the past in heady, forward-thinking days; another presentation simply urged audience members to change their thinking from “When will the Gardiner Expressway [an elevated highway dividing most of downtown Toronto from the shore of Lake Ontario] finally be torn down?” to “How soon can we make it happen?”

The crumbling Gardiner Expressway. Photo courtesy of CBC.

Amidst all this activity, the question remains: How do these participatory events change people’s knowledge of and interaction with our urban spaces? Or is the focus on architecture a sort of ruse for generalized PR opportunities, billed as educational but merely passive tourism? Of course promoting access and use of resources is both economically and socially beneficial, whether public or private; the question is whether people stay engaged after the weekend’s events.

The statistic I have to offer here is, unfortunately, unsourceable: an archivist for the Toronto Archives mentioned in conversation to me that they see about 800 new visitors every year due to Doors Open — “new” meaning people who would likely have never set foot inside their institution otherwise. Besides being an argument for better metrics for cultural heritage institutions and events, it is hard to conclude the festival’s success in promoting education and participation. I’ve been hard-pressed to find online discussion of the lightning session, for example, even though the room was packed and plenty of audience members asked questions.

There is a fantastic opportunity for scholarly and popular studies on how the public interprets and engages with architecture, and how those interactions change with new programming such as Doors Open (much like the opportunity to study engagement with libraries). I, and many other cultural heritage professionals, am curious (and grossly under-informed) as to where the line gets drawn between architects who create new work and those who work for restoration and protection of existing buildings. Where cultural-heritage and built-heritage discussions cross over and converge must necessarily be a discussion for another time.

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