Monday, May 28, 2012

Many thanks to Doors Open Toronto and...

all the enthusiastic gargoyle hunters who came out for the Faces on Places walking tours! You have motivated me to update and maintain this blog after a lapse (due to the crush of work at my day job). Stay tuned - new posts coming soon! Keep looking up! For those of you who couldn't make it: CTV News walked with us on the first tour on Saturday ( - look under "Latest Videos" tab on the right for "Doors Open city architecture tours kick off"), and CBC Radio's Here and Now promo'd the walks on Friday but they don't seem to have archived the interview (or not yet).

Monday, February 20, 2012

More decorated Toronto schools

Harbord Collegiate Institute and Jarvis C.I., both by school-board architect C. E. Cyril Dyson in the 1920s and 1930s, have figures so similar in style that they must have been designed by the same person.

Flanking the main entrance to each building is an academic figure (the Jarvis scholar above - an apparent math phobe, and the Harbord scholar below),

and another pointing to a spherical object that may be a globe — or a ball. (The Jarvis figure is above, and the Harbord fellow is below).

The latter would suggest that the figures illustrate the mens sana in corpore sano philosophy— healthy mind, healthy body. (However, similar figures appear inside Northern Secondary School, where it is more apparent that the spheres are globes and not sport balls.)

Outside the third-storey art-studio window at Jarvis are more student figures, including a reader and a writer.

Central Technical School's scholar and journeyman

Of the four ornamented secondary schools in central Toronto, only Central Technical School has information available about its building’s carved faces — despite publication of individual histories of two of the other schools, and a book devoted to art (including sculpture) in Toronto public schools.

(The original school building was constructed in 1915, designed by architectural firm Ross & Macdonald.)

As described on Central Tech’s web site, at the top of each column supporting the main entrance arch is a “gnome”—a scholar in cap and gown, busily scribbling in a book, and a journeyman with hammer and chisel, representing the two sides of the school’s curriculum. (The tradesman’s hammer has broken and disappeared over the years.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The "Handball Gods" of Northern Secondary School, Toronto

I recently discovered the website of The Decorated School Research network, a largely European group whose focus is sculptures and murals in and on 20th Century schools, and the relationships between architects, artists and educators through that art.

"We are interested in understanding more about how the art came to be commissioned, how the subject matter was decided, what was its function, its life story and what ideas about education or childhood, if any, were intended to be conveyed," according to the website.

The network, which seems to have begun last year, has a two-year plan including seminars, a final international conference and a book, motivated by the fear that "many of these [artworks] may be in danger as school buildings are becoming replaced often with scant regard to the treasures that they contain."

Having found this group (which I've included in my list of links, to the right), I thought I'd revisit some of the schools I included in Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto (my 2006 book on Toronto's architectural sculpture) as well as to bring out pictures of school sculptures in Toronto and elsewhere that I haven't included here before.

Northern Secondary School, whose architect was C.E.C. Dyson, the Toronto District School Board's own architect, was built in record time in 1930. When I went to shoot the dozen masks all around building in the summer of 2005, a janitor leaned out a window and called to me, “You taking pictures of the funny people?”

“Funny people” they are indeed—and some are contented, goofy, frightened, frightening, or sad — but there is no information on the Oxford-like faces to be found in architectural journals, at the school itself, or in the Toronto District School Board Archives. (In fact, the archive does not even have a file on Dyson, who was the board’s architect from 1921 to 1949.)

I appealed for information — even pet names that students, faculty, or staff may have had for their stone classmates — on the website for Northern’s 75th anniversary in that year. I heard from several of the original graduates, who had a wealth of information on the history of the school, but nothing specifically about the faces.

Then I heard from Amir Fatemi, a more recent graduate. “When I attended Northern between 1993 and ’98, my friends and I played a lot of handball outside the south doors,” he said. “We frequently referred to the gargoyles as the ‘Handball Gods’ since they could oversee everything.”

There is also a wealth of sculpture inside the school (which is known for its art programmes, among other things), and I was recently told by the parent of a Northern alum that the students paint murals on the lockers in the corridors.