Feature / Summer 2008
Joan of Architecture

While everyone else was tearing down historical buildings and throwing up mega-developments, architect Joan Burt spoke up for preservation


They say you can’t fight city hall, but Toronto architect Joan Burt has spent much of her career doing so – often successfully. She’s probably the single greatest friend the Victorian row home has had in this city, saving many of them from demolition in the period when they were most threatened – the 1960s and 1970s – then renovating and modernizing them, making them better places to live. She’s always operated on the fringes of the architecture profession. There are no bank towers with her name on them; nor does she have any libraries or art galleries to her credit. But her impact on this city has been major.

In May, Burt marked 50 years of operating her own firm, Joan Burt Architects. You’d think that she would be winding things down at this stage of her career, but the 77-year-old agrees to meet on a Sunday because the week is packed with deadline-driven, paying work. “I can’t tell what age Joan is,” says a client, for whom Burt is building a large estate home and guest house on the Niagara Escarpment. “It doesn’t seem to matter. She has so much energy.”

It’s typical of Burt that she is not celebrating her half-century in the business. “I’d never thought of doing anything about it,” she says over brunch, with one of the breezy laughs that frequently punctuate her conversation. “You know, I’m not much of a one for trips down memory lane. It’s the present and the future that I really care about.”

But the past has its uses, too, and the story of Burt’s progress in the architecture profession highlights both changing views about the preservation of historical buildings and the growing clout of women in a traditionally male-dominated field. Burt was the only woman to graduate from the University of Toronto’s architecture school in 1956, and just the 21st woman to make it through the program since the first one, Esther Marjorie Hill, did it in 1920. “There were six women when I started in the program, and I was the only one to finish,” she says matter-of-factly. A new book, For the Record: the First Women in Canadian Architecture (Dundurn Press), documents the travails and triumphs of female graduates of U of T architecture from Hill’s era, the 1920s, to Burt’s, the 1950s, and demonstrates just how long it has taken women with the academic credentials to rise through the profession’s ranks.

Fanfare greeted Hill’s graduation as the first “girl architect” in Canadian history (that’s what the papers called her), but, unable to find architectural work after she completed the degree, she initially earned her living teaching in a rural school and advising Eaton’s clients how to decorate their homes. She made ends meet through the Great Depression by teaching weaving and glove-making. Although she did cobble together some architectural or quasi-architectural work over time – adding to a motel or sitting on a town planning board – her career was far from brilliant.

Many of the women who followed Hill were consigned to teaching or interior design positions; if they married well, female graduates could use their training to design the family cottage, or, if they found someone congenial while studying at the faculty, they could marry him and work alongside him in the practice.

Burt is among the first of those documented in For the Record to open the profession’s door herself, then walk through and keep on going unaided. She has never relied on anyone else to support her or funnel work to her, though she, too, has had to improvise. She ran an antique shop in the 1960s and taught at the Ontario College of Art from the ’60s to the ’80s. But unlike most of her predecessors, she’s managed to make the actual design and creation of buildings the centre of her work life. A modernist house she built in the hills above Guelph occupies the book’s front cover.

While almost everyone else in Toronto was tearing down historical buildings and throwing up mega-developments, Burt was coming up with practical ways of revitalizing dying downtown neighbourhoods, without resorting to the bulldozer. If Jane Jacobs talked the talk, becoming the leading proponent of allowing cities to develop almost organically, Joan Burt walked the walk. And Burt was on the ground a good decade before Jacobs’ ideas hit the mainstream. “She went out and found the work, coming up with the ideas for the projects like developers do and then designing them like architects do,” says Joan Grierson, the editor of For the Record. “It was very novel. I don’t know of anyone else who was doing it.”

When persuaded, eventually, to revisit parts of her past, Burt takes me to a Toronto quite different from today’s multicultural metropolis – a much smaller city dominated by the Anglos, of course, but also one with pockets possessing some real, slightly haphazard charm.

There were few signs growing up that Burt would go into the profession – or that she’d always remain so self-sufficient. She had a middle-class upbringing in the Kingsway, the only child of a businessman and homemaker. She developed a passion for sailing at her all-girls summer camp, Glen Bernard – a pursuit, like architecture, attractive to those whose imaginations work in three dimensions.

Her parents assumed she’d go to university and take a general degree. But she bucked their expectations right from the start: to her father’s considerable dismay she switched academic streams at U of T from sciences to architecture. “He understood the sciences, could have seen me taking a job in medical research even,” she says. “But architecture? No. He didn’t speak to me for a long time. And he never really came around.”

Although many of her professors were proponents of spare, less-is-more modernism, two among them turned Burt on to old buildings. New Zealand ex-pat Eric Arthur, who’d go on to write the quintessential book about Toronto’s architectural heritage, Toronto: No Mean City (1963), had his pupils doing measured drawings of historically important, local structures to learn how they were put together. “He was fond of Georgian architecture of English origin. They’re lovely drawings, still in the archives, I believe.” And Cambridge-educated Tony Adamson taught architectural history. “He showed us slides that he’d taken of great buildings, and his information was first-hand, not out of a book.”

Her male classmates tended to treat her with chummy familiarity. “When they went to the burlesque on Queen Street, I was invited.” Did she attend? “Oh, of course. Sure.” Big laugh, rakishly cocked eyebrow. A trip to Europe in the late 1950s rounded out Burt’s education. “Yugoslavia was still recovering from the war,” she recalls. “It was so expensive just to live there. Housing and work were in short supply. The students were so political, in a way we weren’t in Canada. It was a real eye-opener.” She declines to label herself a socialist, but her trip helped push her toward her eventual prime focus, creating homes for those of modest, not lavish, means. “I enjoy the challenge a small budget presents.” A jaunt to Scandinavia taught her to place a high premium on good design. “They didn’t have many things but they might think nothing about spending a month’s salary on a bowl that you use in the kitchen.”

Burt, who never married, found companions who shared her interests in social justice and aesthetics in the bohemian Gerrard Street Village (between University and Yonge) where she moved toward the end of her schooling. Demolished to make way for a nurses’ residence and hotel, the basic workers’ row houses there were stuccoed, with fronts bellying right up to the sidewalk. “They were very colourful, in blues and yellows and pinks, wild colours,” she fondly recalls. “They had just a door and one window in front and were very charming.”

On the street behind the house Burt was renting, Av Isaacs set up his trend-setting gallery – which later relocated to Yorkville. Next door lived painter Albert Franck (“a quiet and humorous man”), whose canvases often featured Toronto street scenes. Down the street was Millie Ryerson, the dancer and staunch pacifist. Burt had found her people, and this vibrant, artsy district would become her template for a successful urban neighbourhood.

But securing a place in the architecture profession would prove more of a challenge. As part of the post academic training needed to register as an architect, Burt did a two-year placement at Mathers & Haldenby. (In 1951, the firm completed the art deco Bank of Nova Scotia building at King and Bay, and would later produce Robarts Library.) “Since I was a lady, I did everyone’s kitchens,” she recalls, without animus. “It was a good office.”

She then persuaded the developer Irving Grossman to let her come in and organize his portfolio, even though he said he had no work. When commissions did begin to come in, Burt was of course on the spot ready to help out. She also assisted developer Irwin Burns on detailing The Colonnade (at Bloor and Avenue), an unusually playful modernist building. “I could never make up my mind on the bathrooms,” she remembers.

However, after registering as an architect in 1958, she had no job awaiting her nor the prospect of obtaining one. She fished for a curatorial position at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but her interviewer encouraged her to try to make her way in the practice. “He said, ‘Listen, you get in there and swim.’”

Easier said than done. She had no familial contacts – even if her father had endorsed her career choice. So she opted for an odd specialty – repurposing old buildings to save them from a terminal decline. This bucked against the demolishfirst, design-second approach taken by most of her contempo-raries. It was a risky business, but she went about it cannily. First, Burt identified a row of houses in decline, if not yet falling down. Then she’d find a developer willing to fund a radical renovation of the entire row, owners willing to sell, and buyers prepared to purchase, and often live in, the finished properties. Where most architects deal with a single client, she always had to deal with many, herding them toward a destination like the proverbial cats.

Her first such row was on Belmont Street, then a forlorn lane, halfway between Yorkville and Rosedale. She brought her former employer, the developer Burns, onside. “I’d tried to convince him to invest in another house in Yorkville years earlier, and he said, ‘What are you going to do with that old building?’” Of course, Yorkville real estate shot up in value after he passed on her recommendation, so this time he got on board. The houses, originally built in the late 19th century for labourers in a nearby brickworks, had become shabby, structurally and aesthetically suspect.

Shirley Uyesugi, who worked at an ad agency across the street and later became a client of Burt’s, recalls, “I’d sometimes seen one house renovated, but never a whole street.” Nice ironwork gates were added up front to unify the complex, and all the brick houses were painted the same beige (“I wouldn’t necessarily do that today”); the insides were gutted, sensitively modernized.

The project, completed in 1962, succeeded: a small, festering spot of urban blight was eliminated, and some rather handsome buildings on the verge of dereliction were saved.“At that stage of Toronto’s development,” Uyesugi asserts, “that row would almost certainly have been torn down. Now it’s a highly desirable street. It started people thinking about moving downtown rather than out of the city.” So impressed with Burt’s work was Uyesugi that she later employed her to transform an Orangeville schoolhouse she and her husband bought into a home.

Next, in the late 1960s, came a row of Victorians on Alpha Avenue in Cabbagetown. The city was planning to extend Regent Park north and intended to demolish many old homes, including those on Alpha. This was to be the first of Burt’s many fights with city hall. The bureaucrats made the mistake of issuing her a building permit before arranging for the demolition of the area. The city tried to revoke the permit, but Burt fought it. Through publicity and a series of angry meetings, she and her co-conspirators got the city to shelve the Regent Park expansion plan. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but they closed their development office and backed off.” A neighbourhood was saved.

Then came rows of houses on and around King Street East (most notably on Wilkins Avenue and Berkeley Street), on Clarence Square, on Norway Avenue and on Waverley Road – a list that includes many of the prettiest little byways in today’s city. With respect to the Berkeley Street project, she again locked horns with the city who wanted to rezone the row from mixed-use to residential. “Before, you could work, you could have a little factory, you could live,” she says, with, even now, some of the fight coming back into her melodic voice. “It was very successful and pleasant. This everything-the-same-thing is boring.” Again, she took a Jane Jacobs perspective – the mixed-use neighbourhood was working, why monkey with it?

In addition to deserving kudos for tenacity, Burt has demonstrated over time her ability to sniff out up-and-coming urban neighbourhoods – where good bargains are still to be had. Those houses she saved in Cabbagetown and sold for $6,500 are probably worth 100 times as much now. “She has an intuitive sense of which areas in the city and areas in Southern Ontario will be developed next,” says Mel Quirt, one of her former Ontario College of Art students and an interior designer with whom she often collaborates. “And she’s always been right.” In a sense, she discovered what ingredients make an urban neighbourhood work because she saw them in the place she spent her salad days, the now long-gone Gerrard Street Village. Today, for instance, she sees promise in the Junction, in parts of Weston and the area north of St. Clair and just east of Jane.

What does Burt think of post-millennial Toronto? She’s sad, like most people, about the way we’ve developed our waterfront. “You used to come off the QEW, and see the lake and it was beautiful,” she says simply. And the financial district turns her off. “Maybe it’s my age, but I never want to go down there.” Still, there’s much to admire in our bigger, more diverse metropolis, and Burt is a resolutely forwardlooking person.

A week after I brunched with her, I toured Marianne McKenna’s important addition to the Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor Street, which is set to open this fall. Burt, I reflected, is a transitional figure. She marks the halfway point between the “girl architect” Hill, who barely got her foot in the profession’s door, and the current generation of female practitioners, some of whom, such as KPMB’s McKenna, are joining the trade’s mainstream and taking on important public projects. “What the women who went before me had to face,” McKenna says with a grimace.

But Burt isn’t one to complain. She’s mastered all the details connected to her trade, from the ethereal, designing, to the solid, laying bricks. “A German bricklayer taught me. I could show you how if you have a moment. I’m not fast, but I know how to do it.” A small laugh.

“It was sheer accident that I went the way I did. I picked a corner that nobody else was into: renovation. That wasn’t the thing. Doing big projects was the thing.” A little chuckle.

“I guess I stumbled into something,” she concludes. Another laugh, a last one, a fitting way to end our brunch. Joan Burt insists on picking up the tab.

Alec Scott is a 1994 graduate of the Faculty of Law and a relative of Elisabeth Whitworth Scott, the first woman to have designed a major public building in Britain.


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