Toronto’s suburban homes have cultural value even as they reflect flawed urban planning

The perceived lameness of the suburbs is well recorded in the last 70 years of North American popular culture. Accusations of worldliness, uniformity and repression all feature strongly in anthems like Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” and Rush’s “Subdivisions” (which is about Willowdale). A 1957 writing in Esquire magazine went so far as to call the suburbs “corrosive to the soul and unfit for human habitation”.

I’ve spent the past six months obsessing over what many Torontonians still call “boring suburban homes.” As project manager at the Toronto branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, I researched and photographed over 1,000 single-family, isolated homes in North York, the city’s most populous neighborhood. I then created a detailed profile for each building in To buildthe organization’s digital catalog of heritage architecture and landscapes.

Few neighborhoods in North York are dense, walkable, or near rapid transit. They almost all require car ownership and are found in extensive networks of two-way streets leading mostly to other homes and wide thoroughfares brimming with cars. Yet, on my many trips through the old borough, something else came to me: Toronto’s “subdivision-style” houses are sources of culture. I have documented a range of home styles in North York that are unique to South Central Ontario and possibly the GTA itself.

Although familiar across Canada, the Victory House takes on distinct regional forms in Toronto, where it is disappearing. These modest square houses resembling Monopoly board game pieces were built in sections for returning World War II veterans on the outskirts of town. This is the prototypical suburban home, which paved the way for future sprawling Toronto developments. I profiled hundreds of exampleseach of which is living proof of the postwar consciousness that has so dramatically shaped life in the 21st century.

Another style of suburban home I have documented, the archvilla, is rarely mentioned despite being one of the most common building designs in Toronto. Built between 1950 and 1980, it is distinguished by its successive round arches, curved iron railings and covered porches. These hallmarks were often added by the owners – usually Italian-Canadians – rather than appearing in the original plans, and are inspired by Architecture of Renaissance villas.

Stacked next to Toronto’s infamous bay-and-gable townhouses, its archvillas could make for a taller tower. Don’t they capture our cultural imaginations as richly as Queen Anne’s Revival, the Second Empire and Edwardian homes?

This question is usually even less accessible when applied to new suburban homes, most of which have been snubbed with one overly broad term: neo-eclectic. Neo means “new” and eclectic means mixing contrasting elements, so neo-eclectic homes are new homes that combine several architectural styles. But what these styles are, and which houses combine which styles, is rarely singled out. Thus, suburban homes built in Toronto in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are often dismissed as indistinct and bland.

A neo-eclectic home in Newtonbrook is no less multi-dimensional than the famous Tudor Revival or arts and crafts homes in High Park. The difference is that one has been interpreted and legitimized while the other has not. Imagine if the latter two styles were lumped together in a fuzzy category called “historical revival?” I’m not saying Toronto’s contemporary suburban homes are a good answer to its various housing and transportation problems. But they are culturally relevant, if only by virtue of their expansive influence on the reality of millions of people.

As this young century progresses, the houses of Humber Summit, Maple Leaf and Bayview Woods acquire increasing historical importance. In 20 years, many Victory Houses will be century-old houses. But it’s worth remembering that houses, suburban or otherwise, don’t have to be old to be considered culturally interesting. They are as sharp at understanding the present as they are at learning more about the past.

Alessandro Tersigni is cultural critic and director of research at the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.