23 January 2009

Water Mythologies

building civic narratives that read like novels
In the skin of a Lion in many ways parallels Roman Polanski's equally mythic film, Chinatown. Ondaatje's dream-like quality sets it apart from Polanski's harder-nosed struggle over water supply in the creation of modern Los Angeles. Certainly there is a comparative reading in the privatised and violent nature of American birth as opposed to the civil service Canadian approach. But in the end there are the respective stories and their artefacts.

Paul Whelan
Lacking any kind of magical foundation story, Toronto craves a mythology. It's often left up to artists to create the magical bedrock for a city's future mythology. In Toronto, poet bp Nichol developed an urban imagery through a creative re-reading of its geography and street names. And it was Michael Ondaatje's 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, that widely disseminated a personal myth of the city's coming of age. The novel focusses on the Bloor Street viaduct and the Victoria Park Filtration Plant, both constructed in the 1920s and 30s through the bullheadedness of a remarkable civil servant, RC Harris, Toronto's Commissioner of Works.

Harris proposed that a 2-mile intake tunnel be built under Lake Ontario, terminating at a new filtration plant. In Ondaatje's novel the filtration plant is referred to as the Palace of Purification. The industrial processing of water may seem an odd choice for the basis of a new mythology, but as was well understood by all ancient cultures, the regulation of water underlies both the foundation of the city as well as its on-going well-being. Ondaatje portrays Harris as a mythic hero who provides the vision, ambition and political will while Thomas Pomphrey, the filtration plant's architect, provides the architectural expression to house Harris's project.

Early in the book, while talking with Pomphrey, Harris muses, 'before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting'. Toronto's filtration plant is a testament to this kind of imagining, an architectural anomaly mysteriously beached on the shores of Lake Ontario. Contemplating this beaux arts composition with its grass terraces, palaces and commanding views, it is almost sacrilege to believe that its raison d'etre was simply to solve Toronto's water purity problems by processing millions of litres of lake water.

The architecture is modernist in the direct way that structures sand their placement reflect the inward flow of water and the industrial production of clean drinking water. In contrast, the architectural styling shares nothing with a reductive modernist sensibility. The materials alone – yellow brick, limestone, copper, bronze, terrazzo floors, black marble, herringbone tile work and fine plaster, coupled with inventive detailing and fine craftsmanship – create a sumptuous environment in which the mechanics of the pumps and controls are elevated to a shining, functional art.

The pump house, in an elegant ballroom, is at the lowest terrace, nearest the water – an aqueous anteroom to the purification project further up the terraces. The alum tower marks the nest step on the water's path to purification. Water passes under the tower and coagulant is dropped into it before the underground pipe turns 90 degrees to approach the filer building on axis, a simultaneous beaux-arts compositional rule and a modernist functional diagram. Small particulates in the water adhere to the alum, sinking to the bottom of settling tanks. Clean water is then piped to the city. The tower could easily have been a simple metal tank, but is instead a vertical punctuation mark on a horizontal process. The functionally unnecessary top floor belvedere exists only to offer powerful views of Lake Ontario.

The upper ground is dominated by the sprawling filter building, buttressed by administration towers that flank a monumental arched entry. An octagonal rotunda marks the crossing of the filtration building wings and the administration building. In the centre of the rotunda is a pylon providing data on filtration rates, water capacity and time of day. Like the entire plant, this device only needed to be a prosaic piece of equipment, but instead is celebrated and elevated in an elaborately detailed stone obelisk.

At every turn our expectations about water filtration are eclipsed by the exuberance of Pomphrey's architectural ambition for mere infrastructure, almost as if Nicola Salvi and Pope Clement XII had re-imagined a Trevi Fountain to celebrate the arrival of water in the modern city.

What of Ondaatje's fascination with the Palace of Purification? It is possible that the Harris Filtration Plant is just one site for inventing a Toronto mythology. Perhaps Ondaatje's novel is a single particle of alum dropped into raw lake water. With enough alum, maybe a movie or two, the ooze that settles from the raw water will become the material of rumours and tall stories. And while we wait for the stories to accrete, we celebrate the delivery of clean water.

Whelan, Paul. 'Water Mythologies' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Paul Whelan and On Site review

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