Posts Tagged 'public art'

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.

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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.

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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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Five sculptures at the University of Toronto

Recognizing the potential for public art to enrich the campus environment, during the 1960s and 70s the University of Toronto commissioned or accepted as gifts a number of notable outdoor sculptures for the main St. George campus. Most are by well-known Toronto-area artists and are representative of the fertile artistic currents at the time.

Solar Net (1963, at top) reflects artist Gerald Gladstone’s interest in celestial bodies and space exploration. Mounted upon the Larkin Academic Building at 15 Devonshire Place, the sculpture’s patinated bronze discs and rods effectively contrast the rough limestone of the wall behind.

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Robert Murray created Becca’s H (1973), a vibrant ruby-red counterpoint to the subdued Galbraith Building at 35 St. George Street. The slanting plane beneath the crossbeam introduces a dynamic quality to an otherwise static minimalist construction.

Suitably sited in front of the Medical Sciences Building, Ted Bieler’s Helix of Life (1971) represents the double helix of DNA through its spiraling ribbons of precast concrete. The undulating concrete forms of Waves (1967), also by Bieler, emerge from the surface of the building’s courtyard. Sculpted precast concrete wall panels are by Bieler and Robert Downing.

Outside the Anthropology Building at 19 Russell Street is Cedars (1962), a cast-bronze piece by Walter Yarwood. Yarwood originally intended the shapes to be much larger, producing a peering-through-the-trees effect from inside the building, but this smaller-scale version was ultimately commissioned. Horizon (1964), another Yarwood bronze, is mounted on the St. George Street façade of nearby Sidney Smith Hall.

Like an inscrutable sentinel, Ron Baird’s Untitled (1964) vigilantly guards the College Street entrance to the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. The sculpture’s shield-like triangular plates and long vertical spars are of steel and bronze.

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.

Art and architecture on the Spadina subway

A defining characteristic of many great cities is their subway system (or metro/underground), and the primary points of contact for those using the system are its stations. From the earliest stations in the London Underground, the Paris Metro and the New York Subway to the recent creations of Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, a city’s subway stations are important elements of civic identity and pride for both residents and visitors.

Toronto’s relationship with its subway stations has been decidedly mixed since the system’s opening in 1954. The early stations on the Yonge, University and Bloor-Danforth lines, based on standardized designs by John B. Parkin Associates, were intended to be functional: clean-lined, durable and efficient. But by the late 1960s, despite increasingly lurid combinations of coloured wall tiles, Toronto’s stations began to seem overly utilitarian and sterile, particularly compared to the avant-garde stations of Montreal’s new Metro.

To address this aesthetic deficit, in 1974 the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) decided to engage architects and artists in the design of the eight stations comprising its new Spadina Line. Three architectural firms were selected and assigned two stations each: Arthur Erickson Architects (Eglinton West and Yorkdale), Adamson Associates (Spadina and Glencairn) and Dunlop Farrow Aitken (Dupont and Lawrence West). The TTC retained architectural control over the St. Clair West and Wilson stations due to their technical complexities. Nine Ontario artists were selected from over 400 entrants in an open competition: Ted Bieler, Claude Breeze, Louis de Niverville, Michael Hayden, Rita Letendre, Gordon Rayner, James Sutherland, Joy Wieland and Gerald Zeldin.

The Spadina Line opened with great fanfare in January 1978. Dupont, Eglinton West and Yorkdale are generally considered the most successful stations, combining architectural verve with vibrant and well-integrated artwork. Dupont is the most fantastical of the three, a wondrous subterranean world of organically curving walls lined in shimmering melon-coloured tiles, which culminate at platform level with James Sutherland’s enormous glass-mosaic murals of psychedelicized plant life. Station entrances are Plexiglas bubbles framed in bright orange metal, startling insertions in their drab, workaday surroundings; hulking black steel gates by Ron Baird guard the electrical substation adjoining the northwest entrance.

TTC Eglinton West

Viewed from Eglinton Avenue, Arthur Erickson’s Eglinton West station appears as an octagonal glass-walled pavilion, topped with a concrete waffle-slab roof and pyramidal skylights. Once inside, though, a series of terraced staircases descend through the station to platform level, which features Gerald Zeldin’s well-loved Summertime Streetcar murals of abstracted TTC streetcars. The station’s refined details and limited materials palette of concrete, glass, stainless steel and variegated orange brick contribute to a visual serenity that counters the clamour of trains, busses and people.

Yorkdale station, also by Erickson, is a striking visual metaphor for speed and motion, a long, slim, stainless-steel-clad extrusion punched with oval windows like a subway car and capped by a vaulted glass roof running the entire length of the station. The slender steel roof arches once supported Michael Hayden’s stunning Arc en Ciel, a 570-foot-long light sculpture of neon tubes that pulsated with the colours of the spectrum in sequence with the arrivals and departures of the trains below. A particularly effective integration of art and architecture, the sculpture was unfortunately removed in the early 1990s for lack of maintenance funds. The same fate befell Rita Letendre’s Joy, a painted-glass skylight over the Glencairn station platform, which faded from sun exposure and was replaced by clear glass.

Spadina: Adamson Associates; Morning Glory by Louis de Niverville (porcelain enamel mural) and Barren Ground Caribou by Joyce Wieland (fabric quilt)
Dupont: Dunlop Farrow Aitken; Spadina Summer Under All Seasons by James Sutherland (glass mosaic tile murals)
St. Clair West: TTC architects; Tempo by Gordon Rayner (porcelain enamel mural)
Eglinton West: Arthur Erickson Architects; Summertime Streetcar by Gerald Zeldin (porcelain enamel murals)
Glencairn: Adamson Associates; Joy by Rita Letendre (painted glass skylight, removed)
Lawrence West: Dunlop Farrow Aitken; Spacing…Aerial Highways by Claude Breeze (ceramic tile mural)
Yorkdale: Arthur Erickson Architects; Arc en Ciel by Michael Hayden (neon lightwork, removed)
Wilson: TTC architects; Canyons by Ted Bieler (aluminum wall relief).

Coca-Cola headquarters still The Real Thing

IMG_6414 Coca-Cola HQ 2015 LR

During the 1950s and 60s much of Toronto’s industry relocated to the burgeoning suburbs, drawn by lower taxes, new highway systems, improved truck transport and the comparatively bucolic surroundings. Coca-Cola Canada joined the exodus in 1963, decamping to their new Mathers & Haldenby-designed offices and bottling plant at 42 Overlea Boulevard in Thorncliffe Park. Nearly fifty years later, the complex is as immaculate as when the first fifteen-cent Cokes rolled off the production line.

Positioned for maximum visibility by automobile traffic, the Coca-Cola administrative building is wrapped in curtain walls of clear glass and pristine white spandrel panels. Perimeter columns placed outside the building envelope allow the window glass to flow across the building without interruption. The columns themselves are clad in polished copper, an unusual material choice; the gleaming metal is a colourful foil to the white spandrels and perhaps refers to the copper tanks and piping within the bottling plant. Visually anchoring the building to the site is a monolithic courtyard wall of smooth black granite, sculpted in an abstract pattern of circles and squares and featuring the famous Coca-Cola script. Vertical aluminum louvers filter sunlight on the east and west elevations. The original interiors by Toronto design firm J&J Brook captured the new 1960s corporate palette with rich tones of orange, purple, olive, gold and brown.

The long, low bottling plant to the east is much less interesting. Seemingly endless streams of Cokes were once visible through the strip windows; unfortunately, that spectacle of mass production is now performed elsewhere. Nestled in the courtyard between the two buildings is a literal example of Pop Art—Walter Yarwood’s bronze tower of interlocking Coke bottles. It’s an important if little-known piece that warrants comparison with the contemporary works of Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns.

Home to the Thorncliffe Park horse-racing track from 1917 to 1952, Thorncliffe Park was developed during the late 1950s and 60s for a mix of residential, retail and light-industrial uses. Other period buildings along Overlea Boulevard are the former Barber-Ellis offices and warehouse by John B. Parkin Associates (20 Overlea Boulevard, 1964) and an office building by Crang & Boake for their own architectural practice (86 Overlea Boulevard, 1964).

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