The Q&A: Babak the Builder

The Q&A: Babak the Builder

Babak Eslahjou, the architect who wants to be mayor, heads Core, one of Toronto’s most prestigious design firms. He knows how to draft a city, but can he run one?

(Image: Adam Rankin)

You came to Toronto with your parents in 1982, after the Iranian Islamic Revolution. What were your first impressions of the city? It was very welcoming, especially around Yonge and Finch, where the Iranian community is concentrated. The stores there sell better barbari flatbread and tabriz cheese than you find in Tehran.

Do you live in that area now? No, but I still shop there when I have a craving for Iranian delicacies. I redesigned a small house at Bathurst and St. Clair, where I live with my wife, Mojan, and two kids. It’s very open, with lots of windows.

Did you always want to be an architect? My father and all his friends were architects with good practices. I thought they were pretty cool dudes. I was never going to be anything else.

Core is known for some of the city’s coolest buildings, like the Argyle Lofts. Aside from your own work, do you have a favourite building? The TD towers are the most impressive structures in Toronto. They’re clean, simple and appear as though they were built yesterday.

Architects build cities; they don’t usually run them. Are you qualified to negotiate the wilds of city hall? It’s true that architects don’t play a big role in running the city, but they should. That’s why I got into the mayoral race. Copen­hagen has 200 architects working at city hall. They have a plan; they have a vision.

What role would a phalanx of architects play in running Toronto? Architecture is the start of everything. It literally makes the city. Except for a couple of adventures in museum building, Toronto rarely puts architecture and design at the top of the priority list. It hurts us, in terms of how livable and competitive the city is.

If you had things your way, you’d bury the Gardiner Expressway, which would be a multi-billion-dollar undertaking. You’re scratching at an old wound there. How would you fund it? We have to put both the Lake Shore and Gardiner under­ground. It would cost about a billion dollars a kilometre, but from the sale of the land above the tunnel, we could generate, in my estimation, about $3 bil­lion. Every world-class city has tunnels and makes subways a priority. We have to think like the big boys. Paris. New York. London. They dig, and we should be digging.

Has your experience as an immigrant influenced your policy ideas? I want to identify business development areas for ethnic groups. When you come to Toronto, you know where to find long-standing groups like the Portuguese, the Italians, the Chinese. But what about the relatively new groups, like Afghanis, the Iranians? Supporting a distinct turf for each new community is great for tourism, and it makes immigrants feel at home.

But aren’t those ethnic ghettos? Not at all. Enclaves automatically form when immigrants arrive, and the city should take advantage of it. We need to help groups establish their identity by funding neighbourhood improvement projects. Then they’ll start to draw visitors, and that’s good for everyone.

You’ve promised to bring the Stanley Cup to Toronto. How are you going to end the league’s most ignominious drought? We’re complacent about our mediocrity. It’s our city’s biggest problem. I’ve said that about the Gardiner, about our public spaces, about our bike routes and about our hockey team. We’re a rich town, but we always make excuses for  not doing better. Enough is enough. We need two GTA teams. If the Leafs can’t win, we’ll get a team that can.

Richard Poplak is the author of The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World.