Posts Tagged 'Peter Dickinson'

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.

IMG_9379 Dickinson TO Teachers College V3B

IMG_9361 Dickinson TO Teacher's College

Season’s Greetings from the first Four Seasons

Designed by Peter Dickinson Associates, the first Four Seasons Hotel opened in 1961 at 415 Jarvis Street. One of budding hotelier Isadore Sharp’s many innovations, suggested by landscape architect Austin Floyd, was to celebrate the holiday season by placing Christmas trees on every balcony. The brightly-lit trees brought the hotel’s courtyard alive with cheer, particularly when casting their luminous glow upon a blanket of fresh snow. To maintain a festive spirit after New Year’s, the trees were artistically piled in the courtyard outside the dining room, sprayed with water and allowed to freeze until they formed a giant sparkling ice sculpture.

Best wishes to all in 2012!

The first Four Seasons

Opened in the spring of 1961, the Four Seasons Motor Hotel at 415 Jarvis Street launched the Four Seasons empire of luxury hotels. Builder and budding hotelier Isadore Sharp approached architects Peter Dickinson Associates with the concept of a high-style, premium-service motor hotel in downtown Toronto, and Dickinson responded with a sophisticated yet relaxed urban oasis that became an immediate critical and commercial success.

Sharp’s Jarvis Street site was small and in a downscale neighbourhood, so Dickinson turned the Four Seasons inward, focusing the restaurant, bar and most guest rooms upon an interior garden courtyard. Parking and corridors lined the building perimeter, and a fieldstone wall enclosed the entrance drive and buffered traffic. Balconies and screens of black metal and oiled California redwood smartly contrasted the building’s planes of white-painted brick and fieldstone. Guests reached the entrance lobby by crossing a bridge over a shallow reflecting pool with burbling fountains, a symbolic transition sheltered by Dickinson’s trademark flaring canopy. Floor-to-ceiling glass blurred distinctions between inside and outside and provided tantalizing views into the courtyard beyond.

Designed by Dickinson and landscape architect Austin Floyd, the courtyard was the glamourous heart of the Four Seasons, drawing the fashionable to see and be seen in warm weather. The swimming pool and dining terrace were the principal elements, intimately enclosed by low fieldstone walls, lush planting beds and thick lawns with flagstone pathways. Water soothingly splashed from spouts at the head of the swimming pool, and cocktails were served by waiters in white mess jackets. Completing the Miami Beach resort atmosphere were colourful sun umbrellas and Court Noxon’s poolside chairs and lounges.

The success of the Four Seasons prompted Sharp to begin planning a second resort motor hotel, this time on a prominent hilltop property at Leslie Street and Eglinton Avenue in North Toronto. Peter Dickinson sketched for Sharp a dynamic star-shaped building, and the resulting Inn on the Park opened in 1963. Webb Zerafa Menkes (later WZMH Architects), the successor firm to Peter Dickinson Associates, went on to design numerous Four Seasons hotels around the world. The original Four Seasons was leased to another hotel chain in the mid-1970s and demolished some 15 years later, but it remains a landmark in the evolution of the luxury hotel experience.

For more about the Four Seasons, the Inn on the Park and other Peter Dickinson buildings, see the recent monograph Peter Dickinson, available through Dominion Modern.

Exhibition Place goes Modernist

Inaugurated in 1879 as the site of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, Exhibition Place currently draws over five million people each year to the Canadian National Exhibition, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, sporting and cultural events and trade and consumer shows. Although Exhibition Place’s eclectic mix of buildings dates as far back as 1794, seven major structures built between 1948 and 1962 exemplified Modernist architecture in Toronto and captured the optimistic, forward-looking spirit of the time.

CNE Grandstand Stadium

Grandstand Stadium (Marani and Morris, 1948; demolished 1999) was Exhibition Place’s first postwar Modernist building and received a silver medal in the inaugural 1950 Massey Medals for Architecture competition. For many years the home of Argonauts football, Blue Jays baseball and innumerable concerts and special events, the stadium was defined by its massive steel-truss roof, cantilevered over the spectators for unobstructed sightlines. A carefully-detailed rear elevation of brick and limestone gave the building a substantial street-level presence.

The Food Building (Richard Fisher, 1954) was built to showcase the products of Canada’s food industry, from Laura Secord chocolates to Maple Leaf meats and Red Rose tea. An 80-foot pylon of stainless steel, now removed, marked the main entrance; reflecting pools at the secondary entrances feature bronze fish sculptures by Jean Horne. The enormous FOOD sign atop the roof remains, and after dark the rows of hourglass light fixtures wash the exterior walls with cones of light.

Once a dominant landmark at Exhibition Place, the steel-and-glass Shell Oil Tower (George Robb, 1955; demolished 1985) provided visitors with 360-degree views from its observation deck. The giant analogue clockface, visible from across the exhibition grounds, was replaced in the late 1960s by a then-novel digital readout.

The Queen Elizabeth Building (Page & Steele, 1956) was designed by Peter Dickinson, an English émigré architect who helped define Modernist architecture in Canada before his untimely death in 1961 at the age of 35. Folded-plate concrete roofs facilitated the long spans required for the 1300-seat theatre and exhibition hall, complemented by a swooping entrance canopy (now removed) and a glass-walled lobby with a freestanding spiral staircase. The blade-like structural towers jutting from the exhibition hall are particularly dramatic. In the foreground is the Princess Margaret Fountain, created by the Toronto exhibit-display firm Design Craft and installed in 1958.

Dufferin Gates (Philip Brook, 1959), a 65-foot-high parabolic arch of reinforced concrete, marks the northern entrance to Exhibition Place. Its shape was likely inspired by Eero Saarinen’s famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, designed in 1947 but not completed until 1965.

Canada’s national sport found its permanent home at the Hockey Hall of Fame (Allward and Gouinlock, 1962; demolished 2005). Neoclassical New Formalist influences showed in its columned entrance portico, polished white granite exterior walls and latticework screens of gold-anodized aluminum. A matching east wing, added in 1967 for the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, completed the symmetrical composition.

CNE Better Living Centre

The Better Living Centre (Marani, Morris & Allan, 1962) celebrated the latest consumer goods for the home, including furniture, appliances, electronics and housewares. A thin, flat roof appears to float above the curving walls of white glazed brick, separated by a narrow band of clerestory windows. Some five acres of floor space were relieved by a central courtyard marked by a Mondrianesque tower of black steel and coloured Plexiglas.

CNE aerial view

Canadian National Exhibition postcard 1

Meet you at the Westbury Hotel

Designed by Peter Dickinson during his time at Page and Steele and opened in 1957, the Westbury Hotel was one of the first luxury hotels built in Toronto since the late 1920s. Strategically located at 475 Yonge Street, just north of Eaton’s College Park, the Westbury was convenient to the downtown business district, major department stores, Maple Leaf Gardens and the upscale Bloor Street shopping area.

The Westbury’s exterior represented the lightness, airiness and transparency of Dickinson’s best work during the mid-1950s: horizontal bands of windows in slim metal frames, contrasting solid wall planes of buff-coloured brick and daringly cantilevered balconies with translucent glass panels. A space-age butterfly canopy of steel and concrete, flanked by lush greenery, identified the main entrance on Wood Street.

Westbury Hotel postcard 1

Interiors were designed and outfitted by the Robert Simpson Company. Public areas and guest rooms featured sleek, clean-lined modern furniture of walnut and brass; the hotel’s lobby was lined in marble and bookmatched walnut paneling. The Sky Lounge on the sixteenth floor, with its views over the city and Lake Ontario, and the Polo Room cocktail lounge were favourite nightspots on the lively Yonge Street strip.

In the early 1960s a nine-storey block by Webb Zerafa Menkes was added to the north, the exterior lettering was replaced and, to accommodate the widening of Wood Street, the entrance canopy and planting beds were removed. After changing hands a few times, in 1999 the Westbury was completely reclad and renovated as a generic Courtyard by Marriott.

The Westbury Hotel is profiled in the recent monograph Peter Dickinson, written by John Martins-Manteiga and available through Dominion Modern.

The Seven Lively Arts of Peter Dickinson’s O’Keefe Centre

The O’Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts opened to great fanfare on the evening of October 1, 1960, with Richard Burton starring in the debut performance of the musical Camelot. Designed by Peter Dickinson of Page and Steele with Earle C. Morgan, the 3200-seat multi-purpose theatre at 1 Front Street East introduced Toronto audiences to an an unprecedented level of elegance and luxury.

Benefactor and Canadian Breweries Limited owner E.P. Taylor spared little expense on the O’Keefe Centre’s state-of-the-art design and lavish materials. Exteriors are Alabama limestone and black granite, accented by custom bronze fittings and fixtures; the striking cantilevered entrance canopy, lined with rows of mirrored globe lights, provides a suitably glamorous entrance. Inside the expansive double-height entrance foyer, walls of white Carrara marble and deeply-veined Laredo Chiaro marble frame cantilevered staircases of granite and bronze. Cherrywood acoustic paneling lines the velvety red interior of the theatre itself.

Art was a significant element of the O’Keefe Centre interiors, and the focal point is The Seven Lively Arts, a monumental 100’x15’ mural by Toronto artist York Wilson. Dominating the entry foyer, the densely-layered, richly-toned mix of realism and abstraction celebrates artistic expression through painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, dance and drama.

Toronto-born York Wilson (1907-1984) was an internationally-acclaimed painter and muralist. As well as The Seven Lively Arts, Wilson’s other murals in Toronto include The History of Oil at the Imperial Oil Building (111 St. Clair Avenue West, 1957); Communication at the Bell Telephone Building (76 Adelaide Street West, 1965); and Ontario at the Macdonald Block in Queen’s Park (900 Bay Street, 1968). He lived for many years in a John B. Layng-designed Modernist studio residence at 41 Alcina Avenue, just outside the historic arts colony of Wychwood Park.

The O’Keefe Centre (renamed the Hummingbird Centre in 1996 and the Sony Centre in 2007) served as Toronto’s premier performing arts venue for over forty years. In 2006 the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company decamped to the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, calling the building’s future into question, but after two years of renovations the O’Keefe Centre reopened on October 1, 2010, exactly fifty years to the day of its original opening night. Designated a heritage building by the City of Toronto, the O’Keefe Centre will nevertheless soon be ornamented by starchitect Daniel Libeskind’s L Tower condominium, a 57-storey exclamation point of glass and steel scheduled for completion in 2012.

More about the O’Keefe Centre can be found in the recent books Peter Dickinson and Mean City, both written by John Martins-Manteiga and available through Dominion Modern.

The vanishing houses of Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson was an extremely prolific architect throughout his too-short career. Arriving in Toronto from England in 1950, he proceeded to design more than 100 projects before succumbing to cancer in October 1961 at the age of 35. His output was diverse, ranging from commercial office buildings and public schools to landmarks such as the O’Keefe Centre, the original Four Seasons Motor Hotel, the Inn on the Park, the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, the Workmen’s Compensation Board Rehabilitation Centre campus and innovative, upscale apartment buildings like 561 Avenue Road and One Benvenuto Place.

Despite this whirlwind of activity, Dickinson is officially credited with all of five residential commissions. And as of this spring, only one of his five houses remains: his 1960 house for Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons hotel chain, at 36 Green Valley Road in York Mills.


Like the Sharp residence, the four vanished Dickinson houses were for his clients or business associates: Bernard Staiman at 89 Bayview Ridge, 1953; Sidney Robins at 28 The Bridle Path, 1958; Burle Yolles at 89 The Bridle Path, 1958; and Walter Zwig at 42 The Bridle Path, 1958. All mixed brick, wood, stone and glass in inventive configurations, emphasizing natural light, flowing spaces and access to the outdoors. Of the four, the Zwig house was the last to go, in 2009; the site is currently under construction. The Yolles property has been vacant for several years, while the Staiman and Robins houses were replaced by stucco-and-stone faux chateaux. In the absence of heritage protection or sympathetic owners, the houses’ demise was almost inevitable given sharply rising land values and a market preference for traditional residences of gargantuan scale and ultra-luxurious appointments.

But if only one Dickinson house endures, the Sharp residence is arguably the best of the group. Discreetly set back from the street, the house maintains its privacy behind fieldstone walls and rich, dark-stained timber framing. Tall clerestory windows flood the interiors with indirect light. A double-sided stone fireplace divides the living and dining areas, and all principal rooms overlook the adjacent Rosedale Golf Club through floor-to-ceiling glass. The Sharp house is the sole surviving residence by one of Toronto’s most important architects, commissioned by a Canadian business icon who redefined the luxury hotel experience around the world. Let’s hope this cultural and historical legacy will be enough to ensure its survival.

For an overview of Peter Dickinson’s work, see John Martins-Manteiga’s recent monograph.

Curtains for Peter Dickinson’s Tweedsmuir Apartments

Vacant and decaying for several years, Peter Dickinson’s Tweedsmuir Apartments are now being demolished to make way for a condominium development. The two 12-storey towers at 310 and 320 Tweedsmuir Avenue, completed within months of the architect’s untimely death in 1961, were his last residential buildings in Toronto and the culmination of his approach to the design of luxury apartments.

Compared to the exposed concrete floor slabs and brick infill of earlier Dickinson buildings, the Tweedsmuir Apartments show his increased emphasis on clean lines, minimal detailing and visual lightness. Curtain walls with precast spandrels faced in white stone chips, a system Dickinson first used on commercial office buildings, produced thin, crisp wall planes that appear to float independently of the structure. Balconies are cantilevered outside the building envelope, their wire-glass panels (now clouded by dirt and corrosion) enhancing the transparent effect. At ground level, the trademark Dickinson design cues remained: the inventively planned courtyards, elegantly covered walkways and richly finished lobbies (still with their period fixtures and furnishings) epitomize the glamour of modern high-rise living in the early 1960s. Panels of bright red and orange mosaic tile discreetly highlight the main entrances.

Long before the wrecking crews arrived, the Tweedsmuir Apartments appeared to be in the process of demolition by neglect: two once-fine buildings poorly maintained, then emptied of tenants and allowed to deteriorate beyond hope of rehabilitation. Their destruction is the latest stage of a contentious redevelopment scheme launched more than a decade ago, as documented in a City of Toronto report from October 2009.

For a comprehensive overview of Peter Dickinson’s work, see John Martins-Manteiga’s new biography and monograph.

Recent Posts