Toronto City Hall: A Dramatic Symbol of a Progressive City

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Opened in September 1965, Viljo Revell’s new Toronto City Hall signified a coming of age for Toronto; over the subsequent decades, it has confirmed its status as a beloved civic symbol and an international icon of Modernist architecture. This fall, a 50th anniversary retrospective documented City Hall’s creation process and its ongoing legacy through no less than two new books, an online exhibit and an exhibition at Ryerson University.

City Hall was intended to be a landmark right from the much-publicized launch of its international design competition in 1957. Among the postcards and other promotional fanfare heralding its grand opening is the visitors’ guide A Dramatic Symbol of a Progressive City. The guide describes how City Hall came into being and directs the visitor through its architectural marvels: the twin curving towers, the main public hall and Hall of Memory, the saucer-shaped council chamber and the expansive Nathan Phillips Square. Today, in perhaps the most significant tribute to the vision of Revell and his Canadian collaborators, almost all of it has been preserved and renewed for another fifty years and more.

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Lessons learned from Peter Dickinson’s Toronto Teachers’ College

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In a city where important Modernist buildings are often relegated to landfill or altered beyond recognition, Centennial College deserves kudos for its stewardship of the former Toronto Teachers’ College building. Currently the Story Arts Centre, home to the college’s School of Communications, Media and Design, this Peter Dickinson-designed 1954 gem at 951 Carlaw Avenue received a Massey Medal for Architecture and is one of the architect’s most lyrical and engaging works.

Centennial’s involvement with the Teachers’ College building began with its purchase in 1978. Following another decade of use as general-purpose classroom facilities, the building underwent an extensive renovation led by architect Alar Kongats and reopened in 1994 as the Bell Centre for Creative Communications.

Kongats had an inspired canvas to work with. Unlike the maze of windowless hallways typical of education buildings, Dickinson planned the Teachers’ College around a private landscaped courtyard, an expanse of lawns, trees and limestone terraces enclosed by glass curtainwalls in a colourful checkerboard pattern of turquoise blue and lime green. The building’s main corridors overlook the courtyard on all sides, assisting visual orientation and providing continuous views of the greenery within. A rectangular reflecting pool is the courtyard focal point, floodlit at night and featuring Dickinson’s own whimsical hoops-and-balls sculpture.

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On the public facades, Dickinson deftly scaled the building’s long, low exteriors to its residential neighbourhood, punctuating the horizontal curtainwall bands with broad planes of coloured brick and a swoopy cantilevered canopy over the main entrance. Inside, past the low-ceilinged entrance vestibule, the space abruptly expands upward into an airy, double-height lobby that looks directly into the courtyard through a gently curving grid of transparent glass and opaque panels. A freestanding ramp zigzags up to the second level, animated by a steady flow of students and staff.

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Kongats’s renovation introduced a series of angular Deconstructivist insertions, most notably the aluminum and glass shard (housing the library) that projects outward from the west façade and continues into the courtyard. Original details were carefully preserved and building systems updated with minimal impact upon the historical fabric: the aging curtainwall was overlaid with a new high-performance system that matched the original colours and proportions, while the slender steel structural columns lining the lobby and corridors avoided encasement in fireproofing materials thanks to individual deluge sprinklers. New radio and television studios and multimedia production facilities, much of which required isolation from noise and vibration, were neatly integrated into the former gymnasium. Subsequent alterations by Kongats have faithfully maintained the building’s spirit and integrity, a credit to the skill and sensitivity of the architect and the ongoing stewardship of Centennial College.

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A medley of motor hotels

Constellation Hotel postcard, c. 1963

A creation of postwar mobility and affluence, the upscale motor hotel swept across North America during the 1950s and 60s. Motor hotels combined the auto-oriented convenience and informal ease of the suburban motel with the luxury amenities, attentive service and fine dining found in the better downtown hotels, all wrapped in a high-style architectural package that captured pure midcentury swank.

In Toronto, the model was epitomized by the sleek and glamourous Four Seasons Motor Hotel and the Inn on the Park, both designed by Peter Dickinson, and the Scandinavian-influenced Valhalla Inn by George Robb. Joining the trend in the early 1960s were three other notable architect-designed motor hotels: the Constellation Hotel, the Ascot 27 Hotel and the Canadiana Motor Hotel.

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With air travel rapidly expanding and the new Toronto International Airport under construction, formerly rural Dixon Road became a magnet for hotel development. The Constellation Hotel (above and top) was among the first to open in 1963 at Dixon and Carlingview Drive. Architects Bregman + Hamann designed the Constellation as a two-part composition, fronting the block of guest rooms with a low-pitched A-frame pavilion for the entrance lobby and dining lounges. Rugged fieldstone walls helped to visually tie the pavilion to the site and contrasted its transparent glassiness. The Constellation’s backers further upped the ante by commissioning murals from Jack Reppen and Harold Town as well as Galaxy, an enormous welded-aluminum sculpture by Gerald Gladstone that now resides in front of the Etobicoke Civic Centre.

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The Ascot 27 Hotel opened in 1960 near the intersection of Rexdale Boulevard and Highway 27, also convenient to the Toronto airport and the new Woodbine horse-racing track. Architect George Robb stretched the hotel 700 feet along a curving ravine escarpment, giving guests and restaurant diners a birds-eye view into the trees of the Humber River valley below. An upward-swooping Swiss chalet-style roof, inset with coloured glass, established an immediate visual identity and created dramatic interior spaces for the entrance lobby and dining lounge.

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Overlooking Highway 401 at Kennedy Road was the Canadiana Motor Hotel, designed by James Murray and Henry Fliess and opened in 1962. Here, the signature element was the circular dining pavilion, a space-age flying saucer that had alighted on the lawn next to the amoeba-shaped swimming pool. The crisply rectilinear main building provided an inset sundeck for each of the 95 rooms and extensive lounge and conference facilities.

Like most of their contemporaries, much has changed for these roadside icons in the intervening fifty years. The Constellation Hotel expanded almost nonstop for decades, enveloping the original building and enlarging from 150 rooms to 800 rooms (including numerous disco-era clubs, restaurants, health spas and palm-tree atriums) before going bankrupt in the early 2000s. The complex was finally demolished in 2012. The Ascot 27 Hotel is also long gone, replaced by high-rise residential towers, while a portion of the Canadiana’s guestroom block appears to exist within the current Delta Toronto East. The economics of the hospitality industry have shifted to blandly generic chain accommodations, but the preserved examples of classic motor hotels still bring a sense of style to the open roads.

Conserving a Hideo Sasaki landscape

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Even more so than heritage buildings, heritage landscapes are fragile entities. Composed of often ephemeral elements and frequently overlooked and undervalued, the art of the landscape architect is all too vulnerable to inadequate maintenance, insensitive alterations or outright destruction.

In Toronto, a significant Modernist heritage landscape that has avoided such a fate is the Queen’s Park Complex at 900 Bay Street, built between 1964 and 1971 as the Government of Ontario’s flagship offices. Surrounding the four-tower complex, beautifully integrated with the architecture and site, is a peaceful, serene oasis of greenery designed by Hideo Sasaki, the renowned Japanese-American landscape architect, with Richard Strong of the Sasaki firm’s Toronto office. Trained at Harvard University and later chair of the school’s department of landscape design, Sasaki was a leading Modernist landscape architect of the postwar era and received worldwide acclaim for classics such as Greenacre Park in New York City, Eero Saarinen’s Deere & Company World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois and Waterfront Park in Charleston, South Carolina.

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For the Queen’s Park Complex landscape, Sasaki eschewed the windswept plaza-and-a-sculpture clichés of the period and instead established a series of outdoor rooms on all four sides of the site, enclosed by plantings and linked by carefully considered pedestrian connections. The primary landscape faces Bay Street to the east and is the most formal and urbane, a limestone entrance court bordered by Japanese yew hedges and subtly divided by elevated planting areas, seating benches and rows of Japanese flowering crabapple and white birch trees. Greeting arrivals at the busy Bay/Wellesley corner is The Three Graces, a sculptural bronze fountain by Gerald Gladstone that emerges from a series of shallow reflecting pools. The north, west and southwest landscapes are more informal, with gently sloping berms and naturalistic clusters of trees and shrubs amid green lawns.

All the landscapes flow smoothly together, connected by a continuous ground plane of limestone pavers. Adding to the engaging and rewarding pedestrian experience is the sheltering effect of the deep entrance porticos at the base of the towers and the high quality of the building itself: the elegant, subtle detailing, fine materials and impeccable craftsmanship reward close study. The complex exudes a sense of pride and purpose, a belief in government as a force for positive change that seems poignant in today’s context.

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Sasaki’s landscape design also included an outdoor courtyard, set in the middle of the complex and visible through the glass walls of the main Bay Street entrance. Here, the rectilinear grid of the surrounding buildings is broken by an organically-curved reflecting pool; its edging of rough-textured black granite blocks loops across itself and continues onward into the landscape. Water patters soothingly from the pool’s fountain, an assemblage of bronze cubes by E.B. Cox. Sasaki’s interpretation of traditional Japanese gardens is reflected in the courtyard’s winding stone pathways and viewing platform, ornamental trees and shrubs and thick ivy groundcover.

Public art was another significant landscape component. As well as the Gladstone and Cox pieces, the province commissioned sculptures for the complex’s four primary entrances: Walter Yarwood’s The Pines on Wellesley Street; Jack Harman’s Mother and Child at the adjacent Whitney Block; Paulosie Kanayook’s Hunter with Seal on Bay Street and Louis Archambault’s towering Man and Woman on Grosvenor Street. The art program continued inside with more than twenty permanent installations by the likes of Jack Bush, Kazuo Nakamura, Jordi Bonet and Harold Town.

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After years of neglect, the Queen’s Park Complex landscape was restored in the early 2000s in accordance with a heritage landscape assessment and master plan by heritage architects ERA Architects, landscape historian Mark Laird and landscape architects Hough Woodland Naylor Dance Leinster. It has been designated by the Province of Ontario as a significant landscape of cultural and heritage value. To find out more about the Queen’s Park Complex and other significant designed landscapes in the U.S. and Canada, visit The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

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James Murray’s model for modern living

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Modernism had a very slow start in Toronto’s residential neighbourhoods. In contrast to the rapid acceptance of new design in many North American centres after World War II, by the early 1950s Toronto could claim only a handful of truly Modernist houses.

One brave pioneer was architect James A. Murray, designer of his own residence at 6 Heathbridge Park in the Bennington Heights neighbourhood. Built in 1947 and still in largely original condition, the Murray house paralleled the leading design currents of the time and foreshadowed what would emerge several years later in Toronto-area developments such as Don Mills and Thorncrest Village.

Particularly innovative was Murray’s use of a split-level plan, a new hybrid that combined the convenience and low-slung profile of a single-storey house with the space efficiencies and spatial separation of a two-storey design. The main entrance to the Murray house is at ground level, as are the open-plan living and dining areas; all open onto the surrounding garden. A short flight of stairs leads to the bedrooms on the upper level. On the lower level, a half-storey below grade, are the utility areas and the former garage. Also originally on the lower level was Murray’s studio, which visitors could access directly from the street through a small sunken court with a reflective pool, flagstone steps and a wood sunscreen trellis.

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New thinking continued throughout the home. The flat roofs could be flooded with up to an inch-and-a-half of water to reflect sunlight and cool the house in summer, aided by the roof overhang shielding the south-facing living room windows. At the rear terrace a planting bed extended under floor-to-ceiling glass into the dining area, bringing nature indoors and blurring the distinction between inside and outside. Built-in seating and storage units promoted orderliness and maximized space efficiency. Radiant heating pipes under the short, steep driveway, now filled in, prevented accumulations of ice and snow. These and other ideas were continued in the numerous other residences Murray designed in Bennington Heights, including the neighbouring Lang house at 21 Evergreen Gardens, now demolished, and the much-altered Markon house at 17 Evergreen Gardens.

James A. Murray (1919-2008) was a significant figure in Canada’s postwar architectural scene. He influenced architectural design, practice and education across Canada for decades as the founding editor of Canadian Architect magazine, a frequent juror of awards and competitions and a professor of architecture at the University of Toronto. In addition to his writing, teaching and public advocacy, Murray also maintained an accomplished architectural and planning practice. Notable projects include the Anglo Canadian Insurance Building at 76 St. Clair Avenue West (demolished), the Spaulding house at 111 Park Road, Rosedale (demolished), the Shoichet house at 21 Park Lane Circle and The Donway United Church at 230 The Donway West. Murray also collaborated with architect Henry Fliess on the innovative rowhouse developments South Hills Village and The Cloisters of the Don, both in Don Mills, and The Towne mixed-use complex at 77-79 St. Clair Avenue East.

Marketing Mies at the TD Centre

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Completed in 1967 to designs by the pioneering Modernist master Mies van der Rohe, the Toronto-Dominion Tower immediately redefined the Toronto skyline and financial district. The centrepiece of the new Toronto-Dominion Centre, the city’s first major multitower office complex, the TD Tower was the tallest building in Canada and one of the tallest in the world, an enormous rectangular monolith of black steel and bronze glass extruded 54 storeys above the corner of King and Bay.

With the Toronto-Dominion Bank planning to occupy only a portion of their 1.7 million square-foot tower, in 1964 the bank and development partners Cemp Investments Ltd. commissioned an elaborate full-colour brochure to help attract major corporate tenants as well as appropriately A-list finance, law and accounting firms. At a lofty $6 per square foot, leases were some 20% above the going rate for premium Toronto office space.

Prospective tenants were invited to partake in more than just a new office building. “Great cities deserve great buildings,” read the foreword, signed by TD president Allen Lambert and Cemp VP (and liquor magnate) Charles Bronfman. “The Toronto Dominion Bank Tower, as such a great building, will bring grandeur and serenity to the core of the city…It is our hope that the Centre will inspire other undertakings for the betterment of Toronto’s environment for work and human relationship. The completion of its first phase in the Centennial Year heralds Canada’s second century, and marks a significant architectural contribution to the future of a great Canadian city.”

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References to the Canadian centennial recur throughout the brochure, reinforcing the building’s positioning as an expression of an optimistic, forward-looking nation driving ahead into its second century as well as a transformative nexus for dynamic and innovative business leadership. Renewal of Toronto’s aging, cluttered core was not neglected, either: the TD Centre would be at the vanguard of a rejuvenated downtown, its graceful proportions and spacious plaza providing light, air, space and greenery for all. “Business welcomes such change,” the copy confides, “not for reasons of altruism, but because it makes the best of business sense.”

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With appeals to city- and nation-building complete, the brochure’s latter third is about power, luxury and lifestyle. The self-contained nature of the TD Centre and its many amenities—“a city within a city”—promise a reassuringly insular alternative if urban renewal doesn’t quite work out. Elaborately detailed renderings depict the era’s trappings of business success: the boardroom tables extending almost to infinity, the acres of attentive clerical staff and the expansive, sleekly appointed executive offices with skyline views and leather Eames lounge chairs. The restaurant and lounge on the 54th floor represent sophisticated, monied leisure, the swank alcoves of deep-toned turquoise blues, greens and browns populated by women in cocktail dresses and men in dark suits and narrow ties.

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It’s a compelling presentation, and no doubt contributed to the TD Centre’s great success. And Mies? His name is nowhere to be found in the brochure, except as a quote in the foreword. Although Mies was the primary architect and a widely-recognized figure, he was not officially licensed to practice architecture in Ontario; thus, the decision was made to list only the architects of record, John B. Parkin Associates and Bregman & Hamann, in promotional materials.

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Bregman + Hamann: Spaces for People

By the late 1970s Bregman + Hamann had become one of the largest and most prolific architectural firms in Canada. Founded in 1953 by University of Toronto graduates Sidney Bregman and George Hamann, the firm soon progressed from small office buildings and apartment houses to working with the international architectural stars of the day, executing projects of unprecedented size and scale with profound impacts upon Toronto’s built environment.

Spaces for People, a thick, glossy marketing brochure published in 1977, captures Bregman + Hamann at this giddy peak. Fold-out pages showcase three landmark Toronto developments to which B+H contributed: Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto Dominion Centre, its precisely detailed black steel towers the first and arguably the best of the Bay Street banking complexes; Edward Durell Stone’s First Canadian Place, wrapped in slabs of white Carrara marble and, at 72 storeys, the tallest building in Canada; and Eb Zeidler’s iconic Toronto Eaton Centre, whose spectacular glass-roofed galleria influenced shopping malls around the world.

Bregman + Hamann’s own designs also proliferated across Toronto: multi-tower complexes such as the Yonge-Eglinton Centre, Harbour Square and Olympia Square in Don Mills; Mount Sinai Hospital, Scarborough Centenary Hospital and other major healthcare facilities; and an array of public schools, regional shopping malls and light-industrial buildings. Commercial office buildings, B+H’s historical strength, were legion: in barely ten years the firm had populated the busy Bay/Bloor intersection with 1200 Bay Street and 77, 80, 102 and 130 Bloor Street West. Downtown, the Sunoco Building and Prudential Assurance Building modestly filled spaces around the megaprojects. Most buildings were clad with precast concrete, the predominant Toronto building material of the period, and in their sometimes leaden heaviness reflected wider North American architectural trends.

Never experimental or avant-garde, Bregman + Hamann built their reputation on technical expertise, reliable project management and unobtrusively handsome buildings delivered on time and on budget. These qualities made them a favourite of major Canadian developers like Cadillac Fairview, Campeau Corporation and Olympia & York, and well-positioned to capitalize upon Toronto’s explosive growth during the 1960s and 70s. Spaces for People addresses this mercantile reality while acknowledging, as the title suggests, humanism, urbanism, community and public space—values that by the late 1970s were embedded in the consciousness of a public increasingly sceptical toward large-scale development.

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