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Time and timing issues leave architects in a quandary

I've just walked around City Hall, Toronto, for 10 minutes. While doing so, three different coach-loads of people parked, unloaded, photographed it and left. These were not the infamous herds of Japanese or American tourists - they were Canadian.

Furthermore, from what I could glean from the names of the coach companies, they were all from Ontario. They could, of course, have been flown in from somewhere else on an organised trip, but I do not think so. They appeared to be more local. If I am right, it shows how large not only Canada is, but also the state of Ontario.The frequency of the visitors' trips to the state capital are probably rare. So why did they not spend more time looking at this magnificent edifice? The building, designed by Viljo Revell, a former student of Aalto, put the city on the map. It symbolised a growing confidence and an eye for modernity. The plan of the two curved blocks forms a circle around a domed central space. The towers are remarkable because they are thin and single sided. The offices look towards each other and the domed space, but on the outer face they present a ribbed concrete wall, unrelieved by fenestration.

Today they would not see the light of day because the wall-to-floor ratio is abysmal.

So how do we value these buildings in their design stage in a manner that is wholly inclusive of their actual worth? Buildings are an investment that can reap rewards long after the client and the architect are dead.

Revell actually died before the project was completed and yet today there are people who still make the trip to capture it on film.

This is a good argument for building the extraordinary. How can I justify this when I contrast it with that of my former employer and teacher, Cedric Price, who argues that buildings serve a purpose for a limited life and that time and timing are one of the most important considerations for the architect?

Buildings are pieces of equipment that lose their relevance due to continual change, both in social and technological circumstance. He would suggest that a building's life should be anticipated and designed for, and was upset that his Interaction Centre in Kentish Town might be listed and retained.

The building was designed for a community arts organisation, for use until 2001, when the facility would be removed and the land considered for more contemporary needs. At present the structure exists and the original client does not. The local authority probably does not know what to do with it.

The 25-year life of the building resulted in the user not being able to justify any maintenance and it is currently in a poor state.

The implications of Price's vision for the city are interesting. In the case of Toronto it assumes that the original City Hall would be redundant by now because the nature of local politics might have changed or the process of debate might have gone beyond the need for council chambers. Perhaps the evolution of cities does not require symbols of anything, let alone democracy, and yet it continues to perform as a tourist attraction.

At a time when we have just completed a new building for the GLA in London, concurrently with the Policy Research Unit issuing papers on the need to create town halls that would be more inclusive to activities of the electorate, the debate is clouded. What is clear is the reduction in power and selfdetermination of local councils.Our town halls are full of meaningless debates, dealing with very few of the issues that affect our lives.They might be beautiful to photograph but the debate is held elsewhere.

WA, from a downtown square in Toronto

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