The continued commemoration of the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan has included contemplation of how his influence should be permanently represented in Toronto. Historical plaques are nice and all — but the rustic McLuhan Coach House, relatively hidden along Queen's Park East, may benefit from being a less enigmatic structure.
With a wave of digital upgrades at universities around the globe — particularly just a few blocks away at Ryerson — the centenary couldn't overlook that the building designated for The Centre of Culture and Technology in 1968 has remained in a static state. Shouldn't a room synonymous with media evolution feel futurist?
The challenge was posed to several architectural firms for a design charrette, held nearby at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto throughout Monday. The brainstorming marathon culminated in presentations that hypothesized about how to transform the Coach House to help influence a makeover strategy.
Architects attempting to contextualize McLuhan was at least a change from the infinite number of armchair media theorists who project "The Medium is the Message" on everything that is happening around us. But the rationalization for some ideas in his name might have benefitted from an Annie Hall-style interjection.
Curiously, beyond the retention of the Coach House itself, a challenge posed to the teams involved figuring out how to retain the revenues from its parking lot. For an intellectual who was no fan of the car — and whose only apparent participation in a protest was in opposition the Spadina Expressway through the middle of the city where he lived — an investment in a downtown Toronto eternally plagued by automobile congestion seems slightly ironic.
With our collective consciousness transcending physical transportation, environments capable of stimulating innovation will be increasingly valued — yet spaces that profess similar promise sprout up everywhere. What would make a McLuhan building more inspired than a Wi-Fi-enabled McDonald's?
Well, the Coach House lab has a cachet that few other places in the city can duplicate. And physical representations of Toronto's media legacy are limited after an era of condensation and consolidation. No one seems too sentimental about the impending expiration of the dreary building The Globe and Mail moved into in 1974, in favour of new headquarters nearby, and a similar fate for the neighbouring CBC headquarters wouldn't draw much outrage.
Positioning the heritage building as a McLuhan museum is all but inevitable, regardless of what is constructed around it, although architects may not be the best people to ask how to fill it. The series of McLuhan-inspired Monday Night Seminars at the Toronto Reference Library this summer reinforced how the digital age has allowed the development of media to hypothetically extend to every corner of Toronto. Central institutions may no longer be as vital when technology allows us to open a window on everyone.
Perhaps the only realistic way to keep the legacy of the Coach House intact, then, is to leave it as is, drawing little attention to itself in the shadow of Queen's Park — a monument to the fact that the greatest possibilities are spawned off the radar. Plus, a meaningful refuge from our present tense of media-induced distraction would be valued more than another reminder of it.