PLEASE NOTE: As this interview was held in the past academic year, many things have changed since then, such that: the course ARC238 does not exist anymore, and Christopher Hume is currently not teaching this year. Sad face. Courses of similar content would be ARC253 and ARC355.
As someone whose faculty constantly punishes us with 2-3 hour 9am classes, there was only two things that motivated me to get up and go to these classes this semester: coffee, and my professor for ARC238, Christopher Hume. His passion for cities and architecture and his dynamic personality was so contagious that it was evident how excited and engaged everyone felt as soon as he said “Alright, well I’m going to natter on about some important course things for a bit then we’ll get right to it” the first day of class. Every single thursday morning after class you could tell people looked so happy to be there which is a first in my opinion for three-hour morning lectures. This is why I thought he’d be a fantastic interviewee, as both my first interview with someone from my faculty and a professor.
Christopher Hume was a columnist for the Toronto Star and taught Topics in Urban History and Theory, or ARC238, during my second year. For those needing to fill requirements or are looking for a fantastic course to take with an amazing prof I would highly recommend this one. If you need more convincing and insight, here’s a conversation I had with him the week after his last day of class, after he excitedly accepted my request to interview him for HerCampus:
Can you describe your work in the Toronto Star and teaching at Daniels?
Well, at The Star, I am the architecture critic and urban affairs columnist, and to be honest with you my beat is very broad. I write about architecture which is specific, but on the other hand urban affairs covers a lot of different things: politics, the public realm, the built environment, though I try to focus less on politics and more on the actual city that we live in but you can’t separate the two. For example, the big deal last week was the Gardiner, what to do with the East End of the Gardiner, whether to tear it down, which the board decided against that, or to make hybrid one, two, or three, and the politics of these things of course is what it’s all about, on the other hand politics and what’s best for the city are two different things, so I try to write columns that are about what the city should be, what it could be, in my opinion. My opinion is that it should be more urban, it should embrace its future as a big city, which Toronto denies, which to me was what Rob Ford was all about, y’know, so that we could turn ourselves back into a suburb. I’m trying to convince people and show people that the only way forward, to thrive as a city, is to embrace our future as a city and not to try to continue to be a small town forever, it’s not gonna work, we have to get beyond the car and do a thousand things that we don’t want to do, so that’s what I do and write about.
I’ve taught two years at Daniels, and before that I’ve taught at various continuing studies programs including at the UofT. I’m trying to, in the courses that I give, get students to look for themselves, see for themselves how a city works, because nobody really knows for sure, yknow, we trust Jane Jacobs, we don’t trust Robert Moses on the other hand some of the things Robert Moses has done, we have to have, so we need people who can look critically at a city and say ‘this works because of x y z’ and ‘this doesn’t because of x y z’ so not just here are the ten theories, here are the ten greatest cities, this is why they’re great, it’s more look for yourselves and see what works, what do you like, what don’t you like and try to figure out why you do or don’t […] it’s worth trying to figure out what attracts people to certain areas, what makes things so successful, if there are certain principles that apply, as well we can avoid doing things that are not the kinds of places people don’t like, we can avoid these mistakes […]
What do you think is your most memorable experience working at the Star?
Writing a column for a newspaper is exciting because you have such a large platform, such a big voice in the city, and in Toronto The Star is the biggest paper so I have literally hundreds of thousands of readers and it’s always exciting to think that they’re gonna read what I write; some of them are gonna think I’m full of it, some of them are gonna think I’m brilliant, but that’s the most exciting thing to me, is just to have that platform and to be able to have a voice in the big discussion that’s going on[…]. Somebody said once that I was the conscious of Toronto, and I never thought of it that way but I can see why people might think that; I get angry, I get scolding and it’s exciting to have that relationship with the audience that is a city and of course with the internet, you have an audience that goes around the world and it’s exciting to think that you can get responses from people in New Zealand, or the United Arab Emirates, it’s amazing. I actually started as the art critic and nobody reads about art really, nobody cares that much. I think in 2000 I switched from Arts and Entertainment to the City section and that’s when it started to get really interesting; I was nervous about switching and I needn’t had been because it was a good move and I hadn’t realized the extent of the reach of the star until I made that switch and then it got really interesting, so other than that I can’t think of a single event that I found the most exciting. It’s all exciting.
Do you think that excitement translates to you teaching your classes?
I hope so! I mean that’s what I want. To think most of my readers are actually young people; my generation is a dead loss but I love the thought that I have so many young readers, because they’re the future, like Trudeau. Look at the difference between Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, it’s astronomical. How old is Trudeau? He’s in his forties, while Harper was well over his chronological age, and I think that’s so important that that switch has to happen. For example, who is living in all of these condos downtown? It’s young people, and so many of them grew up in, say, Scarborough, Etobicoke, and they couldn’t wait to get out of there and come downtown. They don’t care about the things my generation did, they have other interests. I think that’s the sign of enormous sophistication, a sophistication that my generation, the baby boomers, didn’t have so to speak. I think I see the course as an opportunity to inspire and make these kids think about the city, since they’re all living in it. […] Y’know there are kids who don’t care, who are just there because they feel they have to be, and there’s the few, always the minority, who are there because they are interested and engaged, and I love those kids and I think that it doesn’t take a lot of people to make a big difference, it doesn’t take everybody, it takes a dedicated few and I think they’ll come from places like UofT and they would’ve taken classes like mine, so I’m hopeful. Oh I hope I don’t sound arrogant but I think it’ll make a difference.
What advice would you give to prospective students and current students?
You know, the kids that I talk to seem to be so focused on marks and of course I understand the importance of marks, but on the other hand I think that getting an education is about learning to think critically and learning to think for yourself. One of the things I try to make clear for example in my course is that the things, the principles, the assumptions we are told are ‘the truth’ are very often not ‘the truth’; in fact they’re very often the opposite of the truth. Whole cities and vast amounts of money and effort have been put into these false assumptions and that’s not good or smart so we don’t know what exactly this truth is but we can either get very close or further away from this truth. What I want, what I think is important, is to learn to see for yourselves […] People like Jane Jacobs weren’t part of the mainstream, the faculty, but they came in and looked at things with fresh eyes, were appalled by all of this nonsense, and were able to see things for the way they were and I think they presented the world to us that was all new but in a way which we were all in denial about, but this is not say that we should all start with no education. I think that education is not necessarily learning fifteen rules but it’s learning a way of thinking and that’s the important thing, especially if you’re going to be an architect or a planner. What are the buildings that people need? That we want? And if it puts you up with the odds that be, if people in power try to go against you, that’s probably a good thing! Because a lot of the people in power have a vested interest in doing things a certain way, there’s one whole orthodoxy that reigns supreme and still does for decades and decades that should be thrown out! We should bring fresh vision, fresh eyes, to the situation, and we’re getting there and it’s happening but there’s still a long way to go and that’s what I would say is the important part of getting an education: the ability to see and think independently and critically.
This is going to sound like a cliche question, but what is your favourite city?
Barcelona is a fantastic city, New York is a fantastic city. New York might be my favourite in terms of where could you live if you could afford to live there, I love New York. Barcelona is the most exciting city I think, just amazing stuff that got built there, the whole layout is quite fantastic. Some of the Scandinavian cities are really interesting, I love Copenhagen, I like Stockholm too, and of course they’re so smart they have it all figured out. Of course there’s Paris, we all love Paris it’s a beautiful city. I don’t know, probably if I could live anywhere in the world right now, at this point in my life, I would live in New York. To me, they’re years ahead from other cities, like look at what they did to Times Square, y’know a few cans of paint, some planters and benches, and you don’t need to spend billions. I think it’s so interesting. The world is hungry for urbanization, why don’t we encourage it, why don’t we take advantage of it? […] We just need to be a whole lot smarter than we are and go with the flow instead of fighting it. That’s what I’ve always been trying to do, and things are definitely getting better. […] If people don’t think critically and don’t keep their eyes open to what’s going on, things will never get better and remain in control of the developers and politicians who approve whatever comes along, so that’s…I’ve forgotten what you’ve asked me but I think that’s the important thing.
Do you think Toronto can save itself from the issues it has now or do we have to work with them?
Some of the mistakes we’ve made, they’re once in a lifetime, generational thing, for example the Gardiner at the East End that’s going to cost a billion and a half, and more after it’s done. We are actually in a position where we are rebuilding a section of a raised highway/sixties relic at vast expense and bigger than ever and we’re also gonna move it further north from the water to open up some space for redevelopment and that’s a good thing because of all the possibilities and alternatives the hybrid three which was the one that was chosen which was least offensive the least damaging. But wouldn’t it have been something if the city decided to take the final step and go all the way, take it down, and have this boulevard. Imagine! But that opportunity has come and now it’s gone, it’s a great shame so I have a feeling a lot of huge opportunities are being wasted like that one, your generation is gonna come along in forty or fifty years and say ‘this is ridiculous’ but that they’ll say ‘this doesn’t make sense to have this raised highway we don’t want people driving anyway, we need to give people a better transit alternative’ but I think in the end the question is does Toronto whither away, continue to prosper, do people still choose to come to this city?