Fort Book (the Turkey) and the Illicit Thrill


There are quite a few libraries in Toronto which hold a special place in my heart. I’ve shown the lovely Yorkville and mentioned the even more original and architecturally exquisite Wychwood library, both of which came from Carnegie’s still reverberating library building program. Hundreds of those beauties are still in use around the US and Canada roughly a century later – truly effective (as opposed to the modern affective) philanthropy.

I spent more hard-librarying hours at Raymond Moriyama’s once superb reference library than any other (now sadly much diminished by crude later additions). He also designed our still futuristic looking Science Centre, which my international friends might have seen rather perfectly used not long ago in Del Toro’s poetic “The Shape of Water”.

By hard-librarying I mean they knew me in the Music Department (where I dutifully checked out decoy classical piano scores, so I could book a bit of delicious playing time in their electric piano studio), Science (lifelong maniac), Literature (where I was into “the stacks” every day for months, when I got obsessed by the lovely and silly Frances Bacon / William Shakespeare “Bilateral cipher” conspiracy, and went in search of my own typographic clues and evidence in reproductions of the original folio editions) and the fantastic cinema department, tucked away at the back of the ground floor (where they would cheerfully run a few real 16mm film-movies for you on a projector – or for you and a pal – just for the asking). Nothing like greasy clunky Koss headphones with tangle-cords!

I should stop to note a bit of chronology and morphology. Even in my early twenties when I was working as a “tower walker” (downtown courier), I was still getting teased for being a scrawny waif, by impossibly well groomed corporate secretaries. And the hard librarying I’m talking about was mostly between my 12th and 15th birthday, so you can add short to scrawny, and wide-eyed to waif.

Nevertheless, being part of a crazy educational experiment that involved a lot of smart kids with creative parents and way too little supervision, a whole troupe of us “older kids” used to not only visit several different libraries a week, but even sneak into libraries to which we were in no way entitled.

The Crown Jewels for knowledge and sneakery were the libraries of the University of Toronto – not only lovely and excellent, but also within easy biking range from our home turf in the always book crazy (and back then, run-down and cheap) Annex neighbourhood.

OISIE (Ontario Institute for Studies In Education) was super easy, all you had to do was wait and go in with a whole gaggle of students. Some days when I was bored I’d go there just to have a bit of peace and quiet in one of their especially fantastic study carrels – soundproofed rooms on a raised half-floor, with big outward tilted windows in front of your built-in desk, looking down and out onto the library and busy Bloor St beyond.

“Sig Sam” (The Sigmund Samuel Collection) an especially ugly new building on the lovely old campus, was the one that always scared me the absolute most. They actually had security and the team there seemed to outright enjoy rule enforcement. Fantastic medical science and psychology collection though (yeah, weird kid, tell me about it).

But the structure in my header picture – known to most Torontonians as either “Fort Book” or “The Giant Turkey” – which was designed by Mathers and Haldenby and opened in 1973 – contains the superb John P Robarts Library of the Humanities in behind (the body of the turkey) and the incomparable Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library out in front.

As my friend Michael Cafferkey has pointed out (with his typical contextual courage) despite many depressing examples of cheap and dirty brutalism (CAMH/Clarke OMFG!), there really are genuine masterpieces in the form, and we lose a lot when we oversimplify our way around such recognition (and useful design learning). With all due respect to Le Corbusier and the other early maniacs, this beauty is my absolute favourite (pretty) piece of Brutalism anywhere in the world.

And that’s not even counting what you find inside. The Librarians of the Fisher (one of whom lives down the hall in our building) are rather tired of explaining that contrary to internet rumours, they do not have Darwin’s annotated original manuscript of Origin of Species – they do have many of his other important (and yes, personally annotated) manuscripts, but not that one (the Mona Lisa of the Natural Sciences?)

They also have original folio editions of Shakespeare (if only I still believed!) and the extraordinary Nuremberg Chronicle – as close as there was to a European encyclopedia in 1493, before the modern approach was arrived at by none other than dear old Francis Bacon (there really is no escaping the guy). ;o)

They have the best collection of material on early leftism in the country (25,000 books papers and pamphlets donated and named after the Canadian Communist Robert S Kenney) and they even have the archives and papers of more recent Canadian notables like Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen.

In all, they have 15 million items of historical interest and importance – and beyond that, the interior is utterly beautiful (and low light and no photography, so I haven’t got a good image to share – but I will invoke my sneakery when I am next able, because it really is beyond delicious – a true temple for books!)

If all of this is brutalism, then please – don’t go too easy on me!

Just ’cause I can’t get in there with a big obvious camera – that doesn’t mean that thousand of students with cellphones haven’t shared their own stealthy images – sometimes the internet is actually almost cool! (almost) ;o)

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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