Carmen Corneil channels Alvar Aalto

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Hidden away at 50 Merton Street, the headquarters of the Girl Guides of Canada is probably the most faithful homage to Alvar Aalto to be found in Toronto. Designed by Carmen Corneil (with William McBain) and completed in 1962, the building successfully synthesizes the great Finnish architect’s postwar work, particularly the Sӓynӓtsalo Town Hall and the National Pensions Institute in Helsinki.

Corneil came by his influences directly. Graduating from the University of Toronto in 1957 with a Royal Architectural Institute of Canada medal and a Pilkington scholarship, he traveled to Europe and worked from 1958 to 1960 in Aalto’s Munkkiniemi studio, primarily on a cultural centre for Wolfsburg, Germany. Corneil returned to Toronto in 1960 to participate in the invitation-only competition for Massey College at the University of Toronto and to establish his own practice, partnering with architect William McBain for several modest public buildings.

The Girl Guides building houses the organization’s administrative, retail and mail-order functions. To give prominence and increase visibility from busy Yonge Street (the obtrusive parking garage next door was not yet built), Corneil raised the structure upon a podium and arranged its massing around a landscaped entrance courtyard to the west. The composition is dominated by the cubic form of the front block, clad in rough red brick and seeming to float above the steel frame and inset glass walls of the lower level. A smaller brick box on the roof houses a skylight system that allows a flood of glare-free natural light into the boardroom below. Sunlight was further moderated by vertical wood slats, now removed, across the boardroom’s south windows and by recessed windows on the east and west sides.

The irregular textures and intricate detailing of the front block are effectively contrasted by the planar simplicity of the rear block, with its smooth precast concrete spandrels and nearly flush panes of glass. A third storey was seamlessly added by Corneil in 1970. The accessibility ramp and the awkwardly oversized Guides logo on the front façade are later changes.

In addition to the Girl Guides building, Carmen Corneil’s projects include the Township of Toronto Public Library (with William McBain, 110 Dundas Street West, Mississauga, 1961; demolished), the Wayland Drew residence (Port Perry, 1964; Massey Medal for Architecture, 1967), a row of townhouses in Moore Park (412-418 St. Clair Avenue East, Toronto, 1968), the School of Architecture building at Carleton University (with Jeffrey Stinson, Ottawa, 1972), the Wintergreen mixed-use building (8199 Yonge Street, Markham, 1982), renovations to the 1407 Yonge Street office building (Toronto, 1991) and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union headquarters (100 Lesmill Road, Toronto, 1991; Governor-General’s Award for Architecture, 1992). Corneil also taught at the University of Toronto from 1967 to 1995 and was a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and wife Elin, a Norwegian architect he met in Scandinavia during the late 1950s, now teach and practice in Norway full-time after many years of working in both countries. In 2008 Dalhousie University organized architecture e+c: work of elin+carmen corneil 1958 to 2008, a traveling retrospective of their work.

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