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Toronto’s architectural renaissance fuses old with new

A historical look at Toronto’s most loved (and loathed) buildings

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). (Paul Hahn/laif/Redux)

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). (Paul Hahn/laif/Redux)


The Art Gallery of Ontario’s present-day incarnation tells the architectural journey of an entire city: from brown brick mansions to schizophrenic additions and finally more elegant redesigns that pay homage to the past without sacrificing modern convenience or aesthetics.

For the AGO, it all began with an 1817 Georgian manor that housed the original 1913 art collection. Four years later a Beaux Arts addition was opened, followed within 10 years by yet another expansion. In the 1970s, the gallery added a sculpture wing and gift shop and in 1993 affixed a two-storey concrete structure onto the existing series of makeshift buildings. It would take a 2008 renovation by Toronto-born, L.A.-based architect Frank Gehry to knit the seven separate structures together into what is now regarded as a post-modern masterpiece.

The AGO renovation coincided with the architectural transformation of other Toronto cultural institutions. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and the Royal Conservatory of Music all received spectacular and eye-catching renovations.

As a group, the work announced Toronto as a destination for architecture enthusiasts and shutterbugs alike. Sure, Toronto already had buildings from architectural masters including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, I.M. Pei and Santiago Calatrava Valls, but suddenly, as if overnight, Toronto’s dated and often dowdy streetscapes were reborn.

Matthew Blackett, publisher of Spacing, a magazine that explores urbanism, notes the ease with which signature buildings from different eras coexist. “Toronto’s two city halls are beside each other; built 60 years apart, they represent two different eras,” says Blackett. “New City Hall was about the city of the future and about moving forward. That building itself speaks so much of what this city once represented and still represents.”

Lisa Rochon, Toronto architectural critic and design strategist, notes this most recent period is defined by greater confidence and delight in architectural expression with more attention paid to human scale and the beautiful use of materials.

Right up until the 1990s, many heritage buildings were torn down in Toronto, but Rochon believes that the city has entered a new phase where City Hall, residents and developers generally agree on the importance of introducing new buildings while at the same time preserving quality heritage architecture to enhance public spaces where possible.

“So long as we keep thinking in aspirational terms,” says Rochon, “what used to be a very boring, safe place of city building and architecture, I think is going to increasingly bloom and blossom.”

Then & Now

Toronto's City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square. (Shutterstock)

Toronto’s City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square. (Shutterstock)

Toronto City Hall
Architect: Viljo Revell
Completed: 1966

For Toronto residents, their new modernist City Hall was a symbol of progress and pride for a young city boldly striding on the world stage. Architect Viljo Revell prevailed over more than 500 designs submitted in the international competition, but the Finn died 10 months before the building was completed. On the day of its opening the Toronto Star wrote, “Suddenly today every Torontonian is 10 feet high.”

“You can have memories, but you can’t live in the past. The old City Hall, and I knew it for 54 years, served its purpose. The new City Hall is a symbol of Toronto’s progress and outlook on life. The City Hall should lead in new architecture.”—City worker Jack Boustead, Toronto Star, September 1965

The moon rises behind the CN Tower, a Canadian landmark, and the skyline in Toronto, Canada November 24, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The moon rises behind the CN Tower, a Canadian landmark, and the skyline in Toronto, Canada November 24, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

CN Tower
Architect: John Hamilton Andrews, WZMH Architects
Completed: 1976

Toronto’s most iconic building was the world’s tallest free-standing structure for 34 years. Initial, unrealized plans for the tower and adjacent Metro Centre development included tearing down Union Station to build a convention centre, mall and beer hall.

“We’ll live to regret it if we let this monstrous dart go up.”—Toronto councillor Elizabeth Eayrs

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). (Paul Hahn/laif/Redux)

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). (Paul Hahn/laif/Redux)

Transformation AGO
Architect: Frank Gehry
Completed: 2008

Toronto-born Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, reinvented the gallery with a wood-and-glass exterior, new interiors and a titanium-and-glass-faced south wing overlooking Grange Park. On the first day the gallery re-opened, nearly 52,000 arrived to tour the space.

“This is not a stylistic flash in the pan by another architect in designer glasses. Thankfully, for Toronto and the rest of Canada, Gehry’s transformation of the AGO is inspired not by personal ego but by allowing for a journey that goes deep into art and the city.”—Lisa Rochon, architecture critic, The Globe and Mail

OCAD building photographed from a 23 floor on Front St., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/Globe and Mail/CP)

OCAD building photographed from a 23 floor on Front St., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/Globe and Mail/CP)

Sharp Centre for Design
Architect: Will Alsop
Completed: 2004

Ontario College of Art and Design’s $22-million addition features a “floating box” supported by 12 multi-coloured 29-metre columns. Weighing 20 tonnes each, project managers rented North America’s second-largest crane to do the heavy lifting.

“Some people call it a spaceship; some call it a flying rectangle; some call it a tabletop…but whatever you call it, there’s never been anything like it in North America.”—Peter Caldwell, executive vice-president, OCAD

Brookfield Place. (Shutterstock)

Brookfield Place. (Shutterstock)

Brookfield Place Allen Lambert Galleria
Architect: Santiago Calatrava
Completed: 1992

Inspired by Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Time magazine called the 6-storey pedestrian thoroughfare connecting Bay and Yonge Streets one of the best 10 designs of the year. Two 19th century buildings are contained within the galleria’s soaring glass and white steel arches, the former Midland Commercial Bank and the former Bank of Montreal building at the at the corner of Yonge and Front Streets that now hosts the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“[The atrium] together with the incorporated heritage buildings raise the significance of the development beyond building and architecture into the realm of art, urban design and the culture of cities.”—The Canadian Architect

The Royal Ontario Museum Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. (Tara Walton/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

The Royal Ontario Museum Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. (Tara Walton/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Michael Lee-Chin Crystal
Architect: Daniel Libeskind
Completed: 2007

Inspired by the Royal Ontario Museum’s gem and minerals collection, the Crystal’s dramatic appearance–25 per cent glass and 75 per cent brushed aluminum–provoked intense reaction. (Libeskind’s original concept called almost exclusively for glass, but the design was changed due to concerns about the impact on artefacts, interior temperature and other structural concerns.) The Washington Post named the final product the worst building of the decade, while others call it an architectural marvel and “one of six modern buildings to rival Australia’s Sydney Opera House.”

“It’s just a wonderfully extravagant moment for Toronto. [Daniel Libeskind] is one of these real artists who has pulled back the curtain on a new face of beauty.”—William Thorsell, chief executive, ROM

“Sure, there were a lot of Walmarts thrown up in the Aughts, but Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto surpasses the ugliness of bland functional buildings by being both ugly and useless.”— Philip Kennicott, architecture critic, The Washington Post

Ismaili Centre & Aga Khan Museum (2014-05-26) Aerial Photo #162

An aerial view of the Aga Khan Park campus, where the Brazilian granite museum sits below the blue diamond of the Ismaili Centre.

Aga Khan Museum
Architect: Fumihiko Maki
Completed: 2014

Designed by Japanese architect and Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki, the opening of the museum was heralded by The Toronto Star as “the single most significant style event of 2014.” Displaying the vast art collection of the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili community, the museum was originally planned for London, UK.

“A billionaire playboy and two of the world’s most celebrated architects have created a cosmic space for a spectacular hoard of Islamic art.”—Oliver Wainwright, architecture and design critic, The Guardian

Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. (Stephen Bay/Alamy)

Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. (Stephen Bay/Alamy)

John P. Robarts Research Library
Architects: Warner Burns Toan & Lunde and Mathers and Haldenby
Completed: 1972-73

Known by students as “Fort Book,” Robarts is one of North America’s most important examples of brutalist architecture and a frequent nominee as Toronto’s most unloved structure. The library is thought to be the model for the secret library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Toronto’s most famous architectural eyesore has, however, been reappraised as of late and is gaining if not universal praise, at least grudging respect. When viewed from the southeast, Robarts resembles a peacock.

“Approach [Robarts] with an open mind and examine the intricacies of the composition and articulation of the form. The most difficult things in life are often the most rewarding. Brutalism can be one of them. It’s hard to get your head around, but once you’re there it may never let you go.”—Toronto heritage architecture consultant Thomas Wicks

“There is something about the library that offends every sense. It resembles not so much a place of learning as a World War II gun emplacement.”—The Canadian Architect

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