I.M. Pei’s tower of stainless steel

Still practicing at age 93, Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming (I.M.) Pei is internationally renowned for iconic buildings such as the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, the renovation and expansion of the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. Given the many triumphs of his long career, it’s often forgotten that Pei helped to define Toronto’s financial district with his Commerce Court complex at King and Bay, completed in 1972 (with Page & Steele Architects) as the new headquarters of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

A key factor in planning Commerce Court was the CIBC’s decision to retain and renovate their 1931 Romanesque Revival head office at 25 King Street West. Capitalizing upon this apparent constraint, Pei unified old and new and defined a significant public space by grouping three new structures around a central outdoor courtyard. Two buildings of five and fourteen storeys each enclose the south and east sides respectively, clad in limestone to match the earlier tower and low enough for the winter sun to reach the courtyard. Paved in rough granite, the courtyard focuses upon a massive circular fountain surrounded by broad terraced steps, integrated seating areas and clusters of honey locust trees. The west side of the existing building’s base, now visible, was refinished in stone with arched entrances and simplified detailing.

Vertically dominating Commerce Court is the 57-storey CIBC tower. Pei set the new tower well back from King Street, creating an open entrance plaza and preserving views of the earlier headquarters. A vast banking hall, interrupted only by a circular light well leading to the level below, emphasized the expanse of the three-storey, glass-walled public lobby. Enhancing the lobby’s transparency is the tower’s extremely long-span structure—the 56-foot spacing of the perimeter columns required the largest panes of glass produced in Canada to that date. Exterior curtain walls are of silvery stainless steel and reflective gray glass; their smooth, lustrous surfaces visually dematerialize the building against overcast skies.

Today, Commerce Court remains a premier business addresses and its courtyard is a perennial gathering place in good weather. In the early 1990s Zeidler Roberts Partnership reconfigured the courtyard, banking hall and underground mall, improving pedestrian connections and mitigating ground-level wind conditions. New circulation and retail spaces are sheltered by angular steel-and-glass canopies and entrance vestibules.

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