Posts Tagged 'institutional buildings'

Meet me at the Shell Oil Tower

Shell Oil Tower brochure 1

Based upon a winning competition entry by Toronto architect George Robb, the Shell Oil Tower was an Exhibition Place landmark from its completion in 1955 to its demise in 1985. The welded-steel and glass structure, the first of its kind in Toronto, extended 120 feet above the midway and provided fairgoers with panoramic views over the city and Lake Ontario from its open-air observation deck. Hardy patrons could eschew the elevator and climb twin staircases that scissored back and forth behind the glass walls, the equivalent of ascending a nine-storey building. Capping the tower was a giant clockface 16 feet in diameter, visible from across the fairgrounds, with hour markers three feet high.

CNE Shell Oil Tower

During the 1960s and 70s the Shell Oil Tower was renamed the Bulova Tower and traded its analog clockface for a then-new digital readout, but retained its popularity as a viewing platform and fairground meeting place. Elevator breakdowns and other maintenance issues led to its closing in 1983, however, and in 1985, despite protests from architects, preservationists and urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, the tower was demolished to make way for the first Molson Indy racetrack. More about Exhibition Place’s Modernist buildings can be found here.

Shell Oil Tower brochure 2

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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

One of Grossman’s earliest works 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. 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. 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. And the design proved surprisingly cost-effective: the precast panels cost little more than a plain cladding and their modular construction eased future expansion.

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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 cubic 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.

IMG_6463 TDSB Davisville

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


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

Toronto City Hall brochure 1

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

IMG_9442 TO Teachers College V2

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.

IMG_9407 Dickinson TO Teachers College

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

Conserving a Hideo Sasaki landscape

IMG_8871 Queens Park Complex LR

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.

IMG_8840 Queens Park Complex LR

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.


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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Six scenes of Toronto City Hall

Opened to great fanfare on September 13, 1965, the New Toronto City Hall represents Toronto’s break from its parochial past and its emergence as a dynamic, forward-looking international metropolis. These postcard images depict the building immediately after completion; Henry Moore’s famed bronze sculpture The Archer was not unveiled on Nathan Phillips Square until October 1966.

City Hall was designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, winner of an international design competition that drew over 500 entries from 42 countries and was adjudicated by architectural luminaries such as Ernesto Rogers, Eero Saarinen and Sir William Holford. Revell’s flamboyantly sculptural and expressionistic masterpiece—two curving office towers cupping a saucer-shaped council chamber, atop a wide, low podium—has long transcended its initial controversy and established itself as a beloved Toronto landmark and a timeless icon of Modernism in Canada.

Elevated above the podium as the focal point of Revell’s composition, the council chamber symbolizes the primacy of the city’s democratically-elected representatives. Measuring 155 feet in diameter and some 40 feet to the peak of its domed ceiling, the clear-span concrete shell hovers over the circular central assembly space and public gallery. A continuous band of glass between the upper and lower shells provides indirect daylight.

The central lobby is dominated by the Hall of Memory war memorial. A massive mushroom-shaped column bursts upward from a sunken amphitheatre, supporting the council chamber above and flooded with light from below. Regimental insignias line the amphitheatre wall; in the foreground are the Book of Remembrance and a cylindrical time capsule.

Inside the lobby itself, the curving shapes of structural columns, freestanding staircases and the Hall of Memory are contrasted by the straight lines of the aluminum ceiling panels and strips of white Botticcino marble set into the floors. Main doors, stair railings and other interior fittings are of heavy laminated teak, the rich wood tones adding warmth to the predominantly grey and white environment. Original interiors by Knoll International included furniture by Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe and Warren Platner as well as custom Knoll-designed desks and benches of precast concrete.

Key to the success of City Hall is Nathan Phillips Square, an expansive civic plaza that visually frames the building and provides much-needed open space in Toronto’s downtown core. Its rectangular reflecting pool, spanned by three concrete arches, is a popular summertime oasis and in winter becomes an ice rink for throngs of enthusiastic skaters. The square is presently undergoing a revitalization that will restore much of its original spatial qualities while introducing new amenities and sustainable green spaces.

Toronto Islands Modern

Located just across Toronto’s inner harbour from the downtown core, the Toronto Islands have long been a popular summertime retreat from the heat and noise of the city. While the 17 or so islands are dotted with structures dating to the early 1800s, the creation of Centre Island Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s produced some interesting Modernist versions of traditional park facilities.

In 1956 Project Planning Associates began work on the master plan for Centre Island Park, intended as the first stage of a larger plan to redevelop the entire Toronto Islands as a vast public park. Led by Macklin Hancock, planner of the internationally-acclaimed Don Mills, Project Planning Associates was one of Canada’s first broadly multidisciplinary design firms, providing in-house teams of planners, architects, landscape architects, civil engineers and other specialized consultants for large-scale projects.

Toronto Island postcard c.1960

As originally conceived, Centre Island Park included Middle Island, Olympic Island and the core of Centre Island itself. Visitors disembark at the Centre Island ferry dock and proceed southward along the Avenue of the Islands, winding through a landscape of sprawling green lawns, grassy berms and clusters of trees. Across Long Pond and Manitou Bridge are the park’s centrepieces, the octagonal Island Fountain and a grand pedestrian mall that extends south to the shore of Lake Ontario. Perhaps oddly formal for the resolutely casual Islands, the allée is lined with manicured hedges and trees, colourful flowerbeds and cool blue reflecting pools. Far Enough Farm, a small-scale children’s farm, was also established at the time.

In addition to executing the park’s overall planning and landscape design, Project Planning also designed a number of buildings as Hancock, Little, Calvert Associates. Particularly expressive is the hexagon-shaped Iroquois Restaurant, perched upon the bank of a lagoon and sheltered under a folded copper roof supported by massive timber beams. In a more rectilinear style is the nearby boathouse, as are the pavilions to the west of the Island Fountain and at the entrance to the Island Pier. Three smaller pavilions with festive folded-plate concrete roofs are by Venchiarutti & Venchiarutti (a fourth was demolished), while Olympic Island’s umbrella-roofed pavilion and open-air theatre were added a few years later by Irving Grossman.

Toronto Island postcard c.1960

The grand scheme to redevelop the entire Toronto Islands as parkland was never fully completed. Demolition stopped in 1970, leaving 250 homes remaining on Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island, and after years of controversy and legal action the community’s future was finally secured in 1993. Today, Centre Island Park is indistinguishable from the larger Toronto Island Park, and its hordes of visitors seem to more or less happily coexist with the Islands’ residential community.

Toronto Island postcard c.1960

A second life for the Mackenzie Building

As the Government of Canada expanded during the postwar decades, so did its need for office space in cities across the country. In Toronto, several federal departments and agencies were consolidated in the new Mackenzie Building, completed in 1960 at 30 Adelaide Street East. The structure was named for William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto and a leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.

Architects Shore & Moffat broke up the building’s mass into three interlocking blocks, placing two slab towers of 12 and 15 storeys and a four-storey pavilion around a landscaped entrance courtyard. Original aluminum curtainwalls were anodized a charcoal-gray colour, with inset spandrel panels of aquamarine blue; at the time, it was the largest curtainwall installation in Canada. The recessed ground floor of black granite and glass visually recedes, the floating effect lessening the visual weight of the walls above. Period stainless steel hardware is of notably high quality. A pair of majestic gingko trees dominate the courtyard, which originally featured a bronze fountain assemblage by Gerald Gladstone. A mosaic mural of colourful stone animates the elevator lobby.

Sold by the federal government in the late 1990s, the Mackenzie Building was completely renovated by Quadrangle Architects and reopened in 2001 as the State Street Financial Centre. New exterior cladding replicated the original design, but in a lighter palette of silver-gray aluminum with dark blue spandrel panels and blue-tinted windows. Sill heights were also slightly lowered, increasing the glass area and arguably improving the walls’ proportions. Three second-floor bays that spanned the courtyard entrance were removed to create a more open and welcoming street presence, and existing trees were integrated into attractive outdoor green spaces by landscape architect Janet Rosenberg Associates. Formerly open loggias on either side of the elevator lobby have been enclosed with glass for weather protection. While not an exacting heritage restoration, the high-quality and largely sympathetic renovation is certainly preferable to demolition, the fate of many aging Modernist office buildings.

Regardless of its current state, the very existence of the Mackenzie Building is still a source of contention within the Toronto heritage community. Its construction required the demolition of Toronto’s former main post office, a magnificent 1873 Second Empire confection by Henry Langley that grandly terminated the vista up Toronto Street. An artifact of the earlier building still exists on the site, however: the sculptural Canadian coat of arms that once adorned its doorway can be found hiding in the shrubbery on Lombard Street.

Shore & Moffat was established in 1945 by architects Leonard Shore (1902-1989) and Bob Moffat (1906-1960). Among the firm’s many Toronto-area projects are the East York Municipal Building (850 Coxwell Avenue, 1950; demolished); the York Township Municipal Offices (2700 Eglinton Avenue West, 1952; Massey Silver Medal, 1952); the Etobicoke Municipal Centre (399 The West Mall, 1958); the Union Carbide Building (123 Eglinton Avenue East, 1960; demolished); the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre (440 Jarvis Street, 1967) and the McLennan Physical Laboratories at the University of Toronto (255 Huron Street, 1967). Shore & Moffat was also a member of the architectural consortiums responsible for the planning and design of York University and the Government of Ontario complex at Queen’s Park. Outside of Toronto, the firm’s major works include the Sir Alexander Campbell Building in Ottawa (1961; demolished), the Imperial Oil Research Building in Sarnia (1961; Massey Silver Medal, 1961), the Shell Canada Research Centre in Oakville (1970; Massey Medal, 1970; demolished) and several buildings at the University of Waterloo. The firm continues today as the Toronto office of Perkins + Will Canada.

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