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Toronto Tour Q&A: Marta O’Brien of City Walks

Toronto Walking Tours - ArchitectureHow did you become a tour operator?
As an architectural historian, I love exploring, photographing, researching, and talking about architecture and wanted to share my passion through tours in addition to my courses and lectures. Walking through the city is the best way to see it.

Toronto has a bit of a reputation as a city made up mostly of boring buildings—cookie-cutter condos, all-glass office towers, etc. You must know something that the city’s detractors don’t.
I sure do! Toronto has great landmark buildings like the current and old city halls, and exciting contemporary buildings like the AGO and OCAD U. Architecture tells the story of our city: its manufacturing past, for example, is reflected in the intricate Victorian and Edwardian factories that are now repurposed as condos and offices.

What’s your most popular tour?
With tourists, it’s Old Town. I tell the story of the city’s beginnings and interpret the early architecture. Locals’ favourite tour is Cabbagetown: people love exploring this Victorian neighbourhood and learning about its architecture and social history.

What are some of the most photogenic buildings that you cover on your tours?
Brookfield Place’s Allen Lambert Galleria, the Gooderham Flatiron Building, George Gooderham House, which is now the York Club, the Financial District’s bank towers and the Distillery Historic District.

Architecture does not simply indicate the physical appearance of the structures in which we live and work. It’s also tied to the history, culture, politics, etc., of a place. In what ways do you seek to present Toronto’s “bigger picture” to your clients?
I discuss why the buildings we see are in this area and explore why people came to work and live here, what changes have occurred over time and how architecture tells those stories. I also cover how technology, wars, immigration, religion, and politics have affected built form.

What question are you asked most often by your clients?
What is my favourite building, and why?

What can a person do to ensure they get the most out of their City Walks experience?
Before the tour: dress comfortably and for the weather. During the tour: enjoy looking around as we stroll, and ask any questions you want.

Are there any sites in Toronto that you wish you could include in one of your tours, but cannot?
It would be incredible to take people up to the long-closed observation deck of the building that’s now Commerce Court North. I also wish some of the buildings demolished in the 1950s and ‘60s were still here.

• City Walks; citywalks.ca
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