Three synagogues by Irving Grossman

IMG_7492 Shaarei Tefillah

Following the close of the Second World War, much of Toronto’s Jewish community began a northerly migration along the Bathurst Street corridor, moving throughout the sprawling new suburbs of North York to the northern edge of Metro Toronto. This mix of Orthodox and more liberal congregations, many newly-formed, looked to Modernist architecture as an expression of their religious faith and their confidence in the future, both in a new postwar suburban world and, for those who had left war-ravaged Europe, in a fresh beginning in an entirely new country. Responding to this need, Irving Grossman, then a promising young Toronto architect, designed a series of synagogues that deftly integrated traditional Hebrew imagery and ritual with the rapidly-evolving language of Modernist architecture.

IMG_7457 Beth David

IMG_7471 Beth David

Grossman’s first major work for the Jewish community was the Beth David B’Nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue, completed in 1959 at 55 Yeomans Road. Conceived by Grossman as a richly decorated jewel box, the rectangular form of Beth David was completely wrapped in concrete bas-relief panels, each deeply sculpted with abstracted interpretations of traditional Hebrew iconography. This evocative fusion of art and architecture was developed in collaboration with Graham Coughtry, a rising star in the Toronto art world with whom Grossman shared a studio building. In a rich contrast of light and shadow, the panels express the menorah, the sacred wine goblet and the tree of life, while curves of glass represent the cupped hands of the high priest. And the design proved surprisingly cost-effective: the precast panels cost little more than a plain cladding and their modular construction eased future expansion.

Shaarei Tefillah 9 LR

IMG_7485 Shaarei Tefillah

Some distance south at 3600 Bathurst Street is the 1963 Shaarei Tefillah. Faced with a constricted site and heavy vehicle traffic, Grossman turned the complex inward, arranging around an inset courtyard an octagonal-shaped sanctuary on the prominent northeast corner and a rectangular assembly hall to the south. The sanctuary is placed close to the sidewalk on two sides, its flat planes of orange-brown brick separated by inset slit windows and ornamented with vertical piers capped by the Star of David. Above the walls is a ring of stained-glass clerestories, filtering natural light through cool tones of blue, green and violet. Seating in the sanctuary is also octagonal, as per Ashkenazic requirements, with an upper gallery tucked beneath the timber-beamed roof. Sunlight streams down through an octagonal skylight to illuminate the central bema.

IMG_4840 Temple Emanu-El

IMG_4844 Temple Emanu-El

Grossman’s Temple Emanu-El, completed in 1963 for a reform congregation, is by contrast set within a bucolic acreage at the end of Old Colony Road. Its long, low red-brick base nestles into the crest of a grassy slope, topped by the squared brick form of the sanctuary volume and an ethereally floating roof of glass and steel. The generous south-facing entrance, sheltered by a row of mansard roofs, evokes a sun-kissed California feel and leads to the main sanctuary space. Here, rows of parliamentary-style seating face each other in the Sephardic tradition, washed in natural light from above and through the massive Star of David-shaped aperture over the bema. Red brick walls and dark-stained cedar link the interior and exterior and complete a warm, comforting and uplifting environment for spiritual contemplation.

A reprieve for Davisville Public School?

Robert Moffatt-TDSB Davisville PS 1-2016-Robert Moffatt

Opened in 1962 at 43 Millwood Road, the Davisville Public School and Metro Toronto School for the Deaf is one of the many innovative school buildings designed by the Toronto Board of Education during the 1950s and early 1960s. Frederick Etherington, the board’s chief architect, and primary design architect Peter Pennington led in-house teams of architects and engineers in addition to overseeing schools commissioned from major Toronto architecture firms.

IMG_6459 TDSB Davisville

Davisville was designed to enrich the daily experiences of its young charges, introducing surprise and delight into a relatively straightforward building program. The school is divided into four modules of three storeys each, as opposed to the typically long, linear designs of the day, which helps to visually break up the building mass into more child-size pieces. The lower two-storey module at the west end encloses protected indoor-outdoor play areas; the easternmost module is a later addition. Roofs are exotic hyperbolic paraboloids, their animated forms held aloft at each corner by concrete columns that neatly taper inward toward the ground. Staircases separate each module, aiding vertical circulation, and provide treetop views of the outdoors through walls of transparent glass. Windows on the upper floors march across the facades in a jazzy syncopated rhythm of alternating verticals and horizontals.

Welcoming students is the entrance module with its deep, sheltering canopy and a dramatically upward-flaring paraboloid roof, an inversion of those atop the other modules. The limestone walls flanking the entrance pass through a glazed wall into the lobby, the smooth and transparent glass intriguingly contrasting the roughly textured stone. Inside, the lobby is outfitted with colourful terrazzo floors and sleek fittings of stainless steel and black walnut.

Throughout the building, thoughtful design, high-quality materials and fine workmanship demonstrate the importance assigned to public education during the postwar period and its key role in developing citizens of a democratic civil society.

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TDSB Davisville BW5 V2

Despite these virtues, the Davisville school is currently under threat of demolition in favour of a new school building and an adjoining community hub with a swimming pool, underground parking and other amenities. With a minimum of ingenuity, however, these elements can be readily arranged on the site without demolishing the existing school building. The school can be renovated and repurposed as the community centre, perhaps with space leased to arts groups, small independent schools or other community organizations; the building’s modular design lends itself to additions and internal subdivisions. And even if heritage value is discounted, the Davisville school building is a useful physical asset for the board and the community. Why not keep it and creatively leverage its potential?

Robert Moffatt-TDSB Davisville PS 4-2016-Robert Moffatt

Mimico Centennial Library

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With the Canadian Centennial approaching in 1967, the Government of Canada launched an ambitious program to build national identity and enrich public life through new facilities for the arts, culture, recreation and education. Led by the federal Centennial Commission, in collaboration with provincial and municipal governments, the resulting Centennial projects ranged from large-scale institutions such as the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto to literally hundreds of libraries, recreation centres and performing-arts venues in communities across the country.

Taking advantage of this funding largesse, the Town of Mimico (soon to be amalgamated into the Borough of Etobicoke) opted to commission a new central library to replace their aging 1915 Carnegie building. The Mimico Centennial Library, opened in late 1966 at 47 Station Road, earned architects Banz, Brook, Carruthers, Grierson, Shaw a coveted Massey Medal for Architecture in 1967.

IMG_3033 Mimico Library

Set into a compact, sloping site, the Mimico library takes on an irregular L shape, wrapped around a charmingly cobblestoned garden court by landscape architect Michael Hough and a butterfly fountain sculpture by Ron Baird. The sculptural plasticity of Brutalism is evident in the building’s angular, abstract shapes and free-form projections, but the style’s sometimes overbearing effect is tempered by its realization in a refined red-orange brick rather than raw concrete. A roof of greenish weathered copper attractively caps the composition. The lush, mature landscaping and the deft handling of scale, mass and siting further help to integrate the library into its otherwise unassuming residential neighbourhood.

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Inside, a central checkout desk divides the children’s wing from the main library. The children’s wing overlooks the entrance garden court through a floor-to-ceiling glass box, which extends from the building to form a daydreamy reading nook and observation post. The main library area is on two levels, with bookstacks tucked underneath an open mezzanine level above. Open and airy, the space is daylit from all sides by strategically-placed slit windows; natural cedar ceilings contrast the smooth white plaster walls and the elegant roof structure of black steel. The main floor extends into a second projecting volume, also overlooking the entrance garden, that houses a reading lounge convivially arranged around a large circular coffee table. On the lowest level is a 240-seat sloped-floor auditorium for public events and performances.

Toronto-based Banz, Brook, Carruthers, Grierson, Shaw (and its various iterations) was for many years a specialist in public libraries and other community facilities. The Mimico library can be considered a stylistic midway point in the firm’s evolution from the simple c.1960 brick-and-glass pavilions for the Richmond Hill and Port Credit libraries toward the larger, more complex and more uncompromisingly Brutalist 1970s Burlington Public Library and North York Fairview Branch Library. The firm continues today as CS&P Architects.

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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.

IMG_9357 Dickinson TO Teacher's College

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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IMG_9361 Dickinson TO Teacher's College

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.

Constellation postcard 2 LR

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.

Canadiana postcard LR

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.

IMG_8681 Queens Park Complex LR

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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IMG_8938 Queens Park Complex LR

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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