“When Dennis asked me if I wanted to go to Rochdale, I asked him about courses and policies. He said the students would make those kinds of decisions. Well, that impressed the hell out of me, so I said ‘yes’ right away. I guess that made me Rochdale’s first student.” — Paul Evitts, Rochdale’s first student and later a member of its Executive Council
Of all the nondescript high-rises that tower over Bloor Street, this one appears especially insipid. Known to some as 341 Bloor Street, Senator David A. Croll Apartments, or simply as “that building on top of G’s Fine Foods,” the concrete that graces its stark brutalist exterior hides a secret history, one sewn into the countercultural roots of downtown Toronto in the late 1960s.
Rochdale College, which began as an educational endeavour, fully embraced the satirical attitude that the younger generation had towards the established social and political norms of the 1960s. Born from a desire for education that didn’t conform to existing power structures, students were encouraged to create their own courses and engage directly with their professors. (Rochdale later became famous for selling its degrees: a BA cost $25, an MA sold for $50, and a PhD for $100.)
Similarly, Rochdale had a thriving social community: it had a bar, convenience store, daily newspaper, security force, radio station, cafeteria, library, post office, and even a theatre troupe.
An idealist’s pipedream, the college was planned as a massive social experiment. Housing roughly 840 people, Rochdale was a vertical village of anti-establishmentarians, iconoclasts, and dreamers. Students and teachers lived together, designing and teaching their own courses, all partaking in the community that the building offered. It was run like a small country, complete with executives, councils, and committees. Social norms were lax, with drugs becoming central to Rochdale’s culture. To many students, it sounded like a modern Garden of Eden.
It was also an unprecedented, spectacular failure.
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In 1967, while Rochdale College was under construction, another alternative housing project was coming alive just 300 miles away. The brainchild of recent architecture graduate Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67 was a modular housing project commissioned for Montreal’s Expo 67 world’s fair. It was an ambitious project on several fronts; as Adele Weder puts it, Habitat 67 was to serve as “a manifesto for universal, affordable urban design,” and was “Canada’s first truly ideological government-sponsored architecture.”
The project favoured the utilitarian and the affordable: 158 individual prefabricated concrete units, all piled onto each other asymmetrically, composed the core structure of the building (the original plans called for over 1,200 such units). The low cost of production was intended to keep the sale price of units low, and the tight arrangement of units was designed to foster a communal living experience through shared courtyards and open spaces; the stacking of units even meant that every person’s roof was another’s garden space. As Safdie put it, “for everyone a garden.”
Still widely regarded as a modernist masterpiece, Habitat 67 was praised for its cubic design and use of concrete as a means of creating affordable housing solutions for low-income families. It is surprising to learn, then, that Habitat 67 has since matured into a semi-ironic mockery of the ideals it once espoused. A 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom unit costs upwards of $500,000, and Habitat 67 has become a home for Montreal’s cultural elite.
After a few years running the project as a real housing venture, the government realized how truly expensive Safdie’s proposal turned out to be. The enormous expenditure required for creating the individual units (when it came to producing concrete modules, the world just wasn’t technologically “there yet”) was added to the high maintenance and support costs for keeping the building going. Soon after the government sold all its Habitat 67 units and divested itself of the costs, real estate brokers snatched up most of the units. Capitalizing on the project’s rock-star status in the architectural community, they began charging much higher rates aimed at high-income brackets, and it worked. Habitat 67 had been effectively and almost immediately gentrified, any semblance of its utopian, communitarian, low-income ideal now completely destroyed.
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Rochdale College seemed to similarly suffer from the idealistic excesses of the 1960s. Planned as a mixed-residential building, Rochdale included standard single and double rooms in its east wing and basic apartment-style rooms in its west wing. More experimental “ashram” units were built in the middle, and were composed of four double rooms and four single rooms, all sharing one kitchen and bathroom opening into the main lounge.
In the case of those living in ashram units, the college’s reliance on self-governance meant that most responsibilities that would normally fall on the shoulders of landlords were downloaded onto the tenants themselves. As a result, those living in ashrams also ended up being the people most involved in Rochdale’s alternative education program. The divided nature of those living in the building — that is, those who only used Rochdale as a living space and those who were fully immersed in the Rochdale educational experiment — ultimately led to a mutual animosity that would last for as long as the community existed.
Rochdale also suffered from a few serious design flaws. Most glaring was that “the shapes and sizes of individual rooms were determined for the most part by the structural grid system in the parking garage,” as Howard Adelman, one of the principal founders of Rochdale College, explained.
In fact, even the parking garage was poorly designed. As a cost-cutting measure, parking spots were downsized — meaning that every room in the building was subsequently smaller. Residents would only get a modicum of karmic justice: one of the officers working for the company that developed Rochdale destroyed his car’s fender trying to park there.
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Like Habitat 67, Rochdale College was doomed to fail. In the late 1960s, the government began a concerted effort to “eradicate” Yorkville — which by this point was the de facto hippie capital of Canada — of the drug addicts and youth that had taken root there almost a decade earlier. As police presence began to grow in Yorkville, the hippies slowly moved west down Bloor Street to Rochdale, a place already known for its relaxed attitude towards drugs. Soon, Rochdale became a drug haven. Speed became a major problem, with several overdoses reported, and a biker gang called “The Vagabonds” distributing drugs throughout the building.
Rochdale’s drug culture proved to be its undoing. By 1973, both locals and politicians were calling for the building to be closed down, and in 1975, they finally succeeded. After dragging the remaining few residents out of the building, police welded the doors shut: a final nail in the gigantic coffin that Rochdale had now become. The building was eventually repurposed as the Senator David A. Croll Apartments, a home for the elderly. It was an ironic end to one of the most interesting educational and residential experiments Toronto had ever seen. The community’s legacy persists to this day: cultural groups such as the Theatre Passe Muraille, House of Anansi Press, Coach House, and This Magazine all originated, or were developed there.
Rochdale College now exists only in the memory of those who lived there and, as with Habitat 67, as a relic of the experiments in alternative dwelling that punctuated the 1960s.
“This is the contradictory desire in our utopia. We want to live in a small community with which we can identify, and yet we want all the facilities of the city of millions of people. We want to have very intense urban experiences, and yet we want the open space right next to us.” — Moshe Safdie