In 2013, Marty, a former crack user, took me on a tour of one of Toronto’s roughest corners. With the filmmaker Hugh Gibson, who was working with Marty on a documentary about harm reduction, we walked south through Moss Park, past the community housing tower and the Salvation Army men’s shelter, to the intersection of Sherbourne and Queen Street East. Here, Marty explained, were the shops where you could score, the places you could go to use. Across the street, on the southwest corner, slouched an abandoned, old brick building covered in flaking grey and white paint. It was the corner’s least noteworthy landmark, inaccessible and therefore of little use to the streetwise.

What I didn’t know about the building at the time was that my great-great-grandfather had built it. George J. Foy commissioned the Kormann House Hotel in the late-nineteenth century, riding high on the wealth he’d accrued selling liquor and cigars to a puritanical city. Completed in June 1897, the building was later submitted for listing on the city’s Heritage Register, where it was described as “a representative example of a late 19th century corner hotel, typical of those found at major intersections in Toronto.”

Its design is highlighted by a beveled corner, the application of Classical detailing, and the varied fenestration associated with the late 19th century Renaissance Revival style. The cornice, stepped parapet, and corbelled brickwork are noteworthy architectural features.

In recent years, the property has cycled through at least two different proposed redevelopment projects. The current one under review would balance a thirty-one-storey mixed-used tower on top of the old hotel. Since parts of the building have been deemed to be historical enough to earn heritage consideration, the facade may ultimately be preserved, no matter what monolith rises in its place. There could soon come a day when I’ll stand at Queen and Sherbourne and watch as its guts are ripped out to make way for a glass giant that will wear, at street level, the thin mask of the hotel my ancestor created over a century ago.

Most old buildings in Canada eventually die. They become unusable, inconvenient, or unsightly and are torn down. We have a history of destroying our history, and this is what Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic at the Globe and Mail, and Montreal-based illustrator Raymond Biesinger focus on in their new book, 305 Lost Buildings of Canada. The collection is, literally, a book of facades. Each entry shows the front of a now-lost building, rendered in Biesinger’s flat, iconic style: compositions of stark black and white space that evoke the high-contrast paintings of an ancient Greek vase while using detail to suggest, with nothing but line and shape, the depth that existed within these structures. The book’s introduction tells us that these are “buildings from across the country that are now gone but still have something to say.” They are “places that mattered.” Bozikovic pairs each illustration with a complementary paragraph about the history and life of the space. It’s great fun to pore over Biesinger’s illustrations—to find, for instance, the metal bands Venom, Slayer, and Razor gracing the marquee of Montreal’s Le Spectrum venue or the tiny winged wheel atop Hamilton’s Mercury Mills textile factory.

The book has become a bestseller in Canada, perhaps because of its alluring mix of poster-ready nostalgia and latent melancholy. It moves from east to west, with more than a third of its entries clustered in Quebec and Ontario. The oldest building listed, La Maison Arnoux in Quebec City, was 219 years old in 1893, when it was destroyed; the land is now home to unassuming shops and apartments. Many of the lost buildings that Bozikovic and Biesinger document have met similar ends. Shockingly, only nine seem to have been replaced with condos. (Several in development will increase that number over time.) Twenty-four are now parking lots. The bulk (193) were built in the twentieth century and testify to that century’s dreams and downfalls: there are twenty-two lost theatres and cinemas, fourteen restaurants, and two crystal palaces. You can see the ebb and flow of the country by paying close attention to dates. The 1960s apparently loved destruction, wiping out fifty-eight buildings. Seven of those were hotels, which, with thirty entries overall, account for the single largest segment of lost buildings—their natural transience reflected in the number that have disappeared.

The authors present the book as an “impossible architectural walking tour,” and it is very much designed in that spirit. Bozikovic hides volumes of research in his short blurbs, but the book is most enjoyable to pick up and leaf through now and then. Closer study can cause frustration: I found myself wanting an index and more context from certain entries. But, as in life, that’s not what you get when you pass an old building on the street—only a glimpse of the facade, a whisper of history.

Buildings fall for a host of reasons, and their variety is on display here. Fire is a common leveller, as is urban renewal. Why certain structures are deemed worthy of salvation is less concrete. Many municipal and provincial heritage policies hinge on the notion, which the authors express in the introduction, that some places matter more than others. But 305 Lost Buildings of Canada underlines the complexity of codifying that idea. Architecture reveres permanence, encapsulated in classical temples and towering cathedrals. Yet buildings are organic and evolve through their lifespan. They cycle through uses and identities, fortunes and failures. In sixteenth-century Rome, the Colosseum was a glue factory.

What constitutes “permanent” is itself in flux, as the climate crisis throws old certainties into new relief. Miami and Osaka always seemed solid enough; these days, as water levels rise, we aren’t so sure. The production of concrete, that paragon of architectural solidity, accounts for about 7 percent of global carbon emissions. Millions of tons of construction waste go to landfills each year.

In a 2016 article, the architecture critic Aaron Betsky argued that, rather than continuing to hew to the idea that buildings “should last for as long as possible and then make a good ruin,” architecture should be making buildings adaptive and “figuring out how to invest as little material as we can in any given structure.” He critiques the notion of “expensive monuments,” built by and for the elite, and points to pop-ups as an example of architecture that can “dissolve into our popular culture as quickly as possible, leaving behind changed perceptions of place, a new sense of community, and a sense that you can make a place your own, together, if even for a moment.” Certainly, our culture’s recent taste for ripping down literal monuments points to a future in which we lean less on the foundations laid in our past by powerful leaders and learn to adapt, collectively, to the moment at hand.

Yet, ultimately, our society is material. In his 2022 book, How the World Really Works, Czech Canadian scientist and University of Manitoba professor emeritus Vaclav Smil identifies four pillars of modern civilization—cement, plastics, steel, and ammonia—each of which produces substantial emissions, and none of which is going anywhere soon. According to Smil, in a 2020 IEEE Spectrum opinion piece, “In 2017 and 2018, China made slightly more cement (about 4.7 billion tons) than the United States had made throughout the entire 20th century.” Sustainability makes the headlines, but we keep putting cars on the road, plastics on the shelves, cranes in the air. Buildings disappear, to be replaced by new ones.

Developers in Canada and elsewhere are now exploring replacements for steel and cement. The European firm Urban Agency has proposed Vancouver Forest, a 200-unit residential high-rise made from timber and bamboo, for the city’s corner of Cambie Street and West 65th Avenue. Near the new Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, crews have broken ground on the T3 Sterling Road project, a 420,000-square-foot office space made from heavy timber; Hines, a Houston-based developer, has previously led timber construction projects in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Barcelona. According to the New York Times, as of 2020, there were already 384 buildings constructed from laminated wood panels and beams in the United States, with another 500 on the way.

In its 2022 Heritage Day report, entitled “Keep, Fix, Reuse,” the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario makes the case that “the greenest building is the one that already exists.” Architectural Conservancy Ontario criticizes what it calls a “throw-away mindset” and recommends policy focused on keeping and repurposing existing buildings to limit material waste and carbon emissions that result from teardowns and new construction. Specifically, it asks for changes to the building code that would “require full accounting of the environmental, economic and cultural value of buildings/properties as part of the development and infrastructure approval processes.”

According to the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, there are three primary conservation treatments for any given project: preservation aims for ongoing maintenance; rehabilitation adds a new use or physical change to an older building while maintaining historic character; and restoration restores a property to a specific moment in time. On determining which buildings have value in the first place, however, the standards and guidelines are less clear. Conservators, they say, assign value to buildings based on a set of characteristics, which “generally include the aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural, social and/or spiritual importance of a place.” They are also specified as “subjective [and] wide-ranging,” “differently assigned by different groups,” and “may even change over time.”

In other words, buildings mean different things to different people, depending on circumstance and just about everything else. There are rarely simple answers when deciding what should stay and what should go.

Over coffee in Toronto, beside the towers sprouting up on the corner that used to house Honest Ed’s discount store, I ask Alex Bozikovic how he feels about the issue. He emphasizes the risk of regulations being exploited to stifle necessary growth and save buildings for reasons that go far beyond what the first advocates of heritage preservation would have imagined. “The way we conventionally think about heritage tends to protect certain kinds of places, and those aren’t necessarily the kinds of places we should be worrying about,” he says. He is skeptical of giving heritage status, for example, to whole blocks of storefront space on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue while neglecting to protect a building like the original Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in North York. Built in 1963 and listed as a heritage property since 2006, the building is now in the hands of developers who are seeking allowances to gut it and crown it with a residential high-rise.

“The heritage profession has often overlooked modernist buildings,” Bozikovic says. “[The original JCCC] was designed by Raymond Moriyama, who was interned as a kid, for members of his community in Toronto, many of whom had also been interned. Architecturally, it managed to deliver on his understanding of traditional Japanese architecture as well as Le Corbusier. This was a guy who went on to design the Ontario Science Centre. The combination of changes in social history, architecture, the social and economic structure of the country . . . if [heritage] doesn’t capture that, [it’s] missing a lot of what makes the country good.”

Ultimately, though, Bozikovic is just as concerned with what’s not being torn down. In particular, he calls out the swaths of single-family homes that make up most of Toronto’s streets. “If you look at it purely through a climate lens,” he says, “what we should be doing is allowing houses to be torn down—small buildings that don’t have a lot of people and are made of wood—and keeping everything else.”

“Cities change,” Bozikovic and Biesinger write in their introduction. “Buildings come and go. We all know this, and usually it’s something we take for granted.” This rarely applies, however, to buildings with which we have a personal connection. Despite its fine organizational system, I suspect, most readers, on opening 305 Lost Buildings, will do what I did: go straight to the places they know or knew. My pulse raced on seeing the duelling neon discs of Sam the Record Man and the blocky modernist slabs of Jock Harty Arena in Kingston, Ontario—both places that featured heavily in my youth and both buildings that I have trouble imagining are actually gone.

Touring 305 Lost Buildings of Canada is a reminder that, while change is fundamental to cities, we don’t necessarily get rid of the bad stuff and keep the good or vice versa. Gems are levelled to make way for eyesores. A beloved structure that is saved and restored could, like the ship of Theseus, have had almost every material piece of itself replaced with something new over time; think of Notre-Dame, in Paris, or Namdaemun gate, in Seoul, both national treasures resurrected from fires, piece by piece.

Indeed, the Western notion of architecture, in which 305 Lost Buildings of Canada operates, ignores the many whole systems of building and habitation that existed in North America before colonization. Two entries tidily sum up Canada’s awful treatment of Indigenous peoples. The Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 was designed by white architect J. W. Francis, who also built a residential school, to resemble a teepee (although it included works by Indigenous artists that raised some hard questions about colonialism). And, at the Regina Indian Industrial School, Bozikovic writes, “one historian estimates one hundred children died.” The authors purposely included these uglier spots to challenge the rose-tinted, continental idea that old always means good. Some buildings, we must acknowledge, are better lost.

The average lifespan of the structures in 305 Lost Buildings of Canada is 66.7 years, less than most people’s time on Earth. But architecture, unlike other arts, literally creates place, and so it shapes lives and memories around itself. How we remove, memorialize, and remember these places—and what we learn from that process—should be considered as much as what replaces them.

I’m happy some remnant of George J. Foy and his Kormann House Hotel may still exist on Queen Street after a developer transforms it from a ghost building into another specimen of Toronto’s relentless gentrification. But I know that the only truly impossible walk is the one on which nothing changes—and that heritage is not, as we tend to think, only about how to keep things but also about how to lose them.

J. R. McConvey
J. R. McConvey has worked as a print editor, documentary producer, VR director, educator, and digital strategist. He has been shortlisted for the Journey Prize and the Bristol Short Story Prize. His 2019 story collection, Different Beasts, won the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for speculative fiction. He lives in Toronto.