Sun Life’s transparent lightbox

IMG_8315 Sun Life Bldg LR

The former Sun Life building at 200 University Avenue was completed in 1961 as the Montreal-based insurance company’s Toronto headquarters. Designed by John B. Parkin Associates, Sun Life bears more than a passing resemblance to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s landmark 1958 Inland Steel building in Chicago: the Toronto building’s projecting exterior columns, near-identical curtain-wall grid and shiny metallic silver finish (anodized aluminum instead of Inland’s stainless steel) mirror the SOM design approach, as do the fine proportions, high-quality materials and precise detailing.

As one approaches the University Avenue entrance, a sense of ceremony is created by the triangular forecourt, a modest but effective urban space, and the broad open-tread steps ascending to the building’s low podium. The podium was once linked at the southeast corner to a separate banking pavilion, a vestigial appendage long since removed. Inside, the original interiors reflected the building’s prestigious tenants, which included the executive offices of machinery giant Massey-Ferguson and the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan). In the bright, airy main lobby, lined with white granite and cream travertine, Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona chairs in black leather established the tone of corporate wealth and power. Abstract art expressed forward-looking modernity: the elevator lobby was dominated by sculptor Louis Archambault’s Sunburst, a massive, spiky disc of cast bronze suspended from the ceiling and intended to symbolize the company’s size and vigor. The latest Knoll and Herman Miller designs furnished the general offices and reception areas.

In addition to its architectural merits, Sun Life is also notable for defying city bylaws requiring University Avenue buildings to be clad in masonry and flush to the sidewalk line. The resulting heavy stolidity of earlier buildings is typified by the 1957 Bank of Canada immediately to the north, an effective foil for Sun Life’s lightness and transparency.

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