Concrete Furniture

Roman Mars(RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars
Sean Cole(SC): It’s a big, majestic building on Nathan Phillips Square.
RM: This is my friend Sean Cole in Toronto, Ontario.
SC: New city hall. It’s formed totally of concrete. These two towers that sort of curve like hands cupped around a clamshell.
Masha Kelmans (MK): So this was a big deal
RM: when it opened in 1965
MK: The first modern concrete civic building for Toronto, inserted very prominently into the victorian fabric.
SC: Masha Kelmans used to work in the City Planning office in the East Tower on floor 19. She’s an architect.
MK: The building really explored and exploited the possibilities of concrete.
RM: Everything was about concrete in Toronto back then.
MK: The play of opacity vs. transparency.
SC: Everything.
MK: So the furniture really picked up on that
SC: Yes, even the office furniture inside city hall was made, in part, of concrete. But let’s back up.
MK: In the 50s, Toronto decided it needed a new city hall. So there was an international competition and in ’58 there was a design selected by Finnish architect Viljo Revell.
SC: But he wasn’t satisfied with simply designing one of the most prominent buildings the city had ever seen. No.
MK: Revell proposed that he was also going to design the furniture.
SC: He wanted to design the furniture. He had a vision. But it wasn’t to be.
MK: The decision that city hall made was to commission the furniture through a second competition. So Revell was very disappointed, it was very dramatic, he called it the biggest disappointment of his life, and he subsequently passed away.
SC: City Hall felt bad. Or at least
MK: They felt the weight of the responsibility to award the competition to somebody who really understood and captured the spirit of the building.
SC: So they gave it to a company, Knoll international.
SC: And it was the only design that used concrete?
MK: Correct.
SC: Desks, coffee tables, cabinets. They all had concrete legs. The mayor’s desk was this sleek concrete-and-polished-wood statement. And all of this was really expensive.
MK: And there was immediate public outcry about this furniture.
SC: Particularly from the people who were actually using it.
MK: There were complaints that the desks were wobbly. And that when secretaries typed on them, they weren’t sturdy.
SC: But the legs are concrete! How could they not be sturdy?
MK: It’s hard to imagine, yeah?
[Toronto Star: Furniture Row Is On Again!]
MK: And we have, in our research file, many articles from that time, with all kinds of interesting headlines.
[Globe and Mail: Wobbly Desks at City Hall Spark New Furniture Controversy!]
MK: Various officials in city hall were fighting over it. There was even one that talked about somebody quitting.
Rusty George Bell Went Out As Coordinator Today, After A Blazing Row With The Board of Control Over Secretary’s Desks
MK: This was the 60s and hemlines were starting to get shorter.
SC: And there was nothing to shield the secretary’s knees. And the new desks had no drawers. And they weren’t big enough. But Masha Kelmans has sat at that furniture. She used to work at one of those desks. And it didn’t wobble. When she said
MK: It’s hard to imagine, yeah?
SC: It’s because some of the complaints make no sense to her. And she has a theory.
MK: Once city hall was up perhaps it was quite uncomfortable for people to internalize that this was really what they had chosen, and perhaps there was a kind of anxiety about this new modernism and this new concrete that we were inserting into our traditional city. So perhaps the furniture, which was kind of mimetic of the building
SC: Mimetic. Relating to, characteristic of, or exhibiting mimicry. Ok so perhaps the furniture, which was mimetic of the building
MK: really served as an outlet for that anxiety. And perhaps this is why the controversy didn’t seem to make so much sense. Later the complaint was that it was difficult to move and so on. So, of course, as city hall began to update itself over the years, the furniture, since it was not valued, it was lost. Just simple through replacements. It was actually thrown away.
SC: But not all of it.
MK: It’s kind of like a hunt in here, a treasure hunt looking for them. But they are here.
SC: In the late 80s, the city’s Director of Urban Design at the time saw what was happening.
SC: This is a very subtle one
SC: And put the word out to the rest of City Hall. If you’re replacing your concrete furniture, he said, send it up to floor 19. We like it.
MK: Which is why, today, whatever does remain is still housed in the Urban Design offices, which are in the City Planning Department.
SC: There’s a bit of it scattered elsewhere too. The Mayor still sits at a concrete desk. But mostly floor 19 is the Florida of retired concrete furniture.
SC: You wouldn’t notice the concrete unless you really squat down on the floor.
SC: The concrete legs are curved and smooth. The cabinetry is a little worse for the wear. It’s kind of furniture only an urban designer could love. People like
Robert Friedman (RF): Robert Friedman
SC: Who runs the Urban Planning Office now.
RF: There are certain aspects of it that aren’t that practical. It’s really heavy. If you want to rearrange your office, you need to call in a team of people to help you do it. And I think most of the planners and urban designers on 19- it’s part of your training, right? You are exposed to the different eras of design. So I think there’s an appreciation among our staff that may not exist among other divisions in the city.
SC: This bench. Look at this bench.
MK: Yep.
SC: Though I have to say, the furniture really grew on me.
SC: Wow. That is actually very pretty.
SC: And I found myself sort of rooting for its survival. Which is exactly what Masha Kelmans wants me to do.
MK: So the hope is that its actual value as a rather important piece of uniquely Canadian furniture design will be recognized. That it will receive the restoration and the protection that it deserves.
SC: Do you miss it?
MK: Um. No.
RM: This episode was produced by Sean Cole, with help from me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar: making a difference with creativity.
MK: I think life is much bigger than my old office desk, to be honest!
RM: It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and The Center For Architecture and Design.
SC: It’s a nice desk though.
MK: Agreed.

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