In a rush to grow up, the city shamefully demolished much of its past in the name of so-called progress. Visitors and locals alike, however, get to witness a Toronto reinventing itself today with bold new initiatives to reclaim the waterfront from industrial decay, to remake failed social housing experiments from the post-war era, to dazzle with whimsy, and to accommodate cultural growth and house all who want to make Toronto their home.
That said, the city's architectural history is still in evidence and is made up of a wealth of architectural styles, from Gothic Revival churches to Romanesque civic buildings to the modernist bank towers in the Financial District. While it lacks any unique and defining Toronto style, the city's push for sustainable architecture that is environmentally aware will characterize the future of its buildings.
The Settling of York (1793-1837)
Early architecture in what was York and, after 1834, Toronto took its stylistic cues from England. The most notable style of the era was:
Georgian -- These buildings are characterized by their formal, symmetrical design and by their classically inspired details, such as columns and pediments. There are few examples in Toronto, but an outstanding one is Campbell House at 160 Queen St. W.. Built for Sir William Campbell in 1822 (he was a Loyalist and a chief justice of Upper Canada), it is currently a museum.
Early Victorian (1837-60)
The Victorian era in Toronto was a creative time in which a many architectural styles were employed. There was a strong tendency to look at the styles of the past and reinterpret them for the present. The chief ones were:
Gothic Revival -- This fanciful style was part of a literary and aesthetic movement in England in the 1830s and '40s, and became very popular in Toronto. Gothic Revival design was asymmetrical, with pointed arches and windows, extensive ornamentation, and steeply pitched roofs; towers were often incorporated into the design. St. James' Cathedral, built between 1850 and 1874, is a perfect example of the style with its 30m-tall (100-ft.) bell tower and its Romantic-inspired stained glass windows. St. Michael's Cathedral; the Toronto Necropolis, a cemetery that was established in 1850; and Hart House, at the University of Toronto, are further examples.
Renaissance Revival -- Buildings designed in this style tended to be large, impressive, and formal, with symmetrical arrangements of the facade, quoins (cornerstones that give an impression of strength and solidity), columns separating windows, and large blocks of masonry on the lowest floor. Toronto's St. Lawrence Hall (next to the St. Lawrence Market), built in 1850, is a textbook example of Renaissance Revival. Improving the sightlines of this building is a key element in the new design for the north building at St. Lawrence Market, which will open in 2013.
Late Victorian (1860-1901)
Later in the Victorian period, Toronto was still being influenced by Britain, but the city was also becoming more original in its design:
Richardsonian Romanesque -- Arguably old Toronto's most beloved architectural style. Toronto's Richardson Romanesque buildings were influenced by the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The style is immediately identifiable by its massive scale, rounded archways, belt courses (continuous rows of bricks in a wall), decorative arcading, and large towers. The Ontario Legislature at Queen's Park, built in 1893, is a Richardsonian Romanesque masterpiece, as is Old Toronto City Hall.
Bay-and-Gable -- Closely related to Gothic Revival architecture, this is a style that is considered unique to Toronto. It applies some of the more decorative elements of Gothic Revival to single-family homes. Lots in 19th-century Toronto were oddly long and narrow (6.1X4m/20*13 ft.), and the Bay-and-Gable style, with its sharply peaked roofs, large bay windows (often filled with stained glass), and extensive decorative gabling managed to fit into these lots perfectly (most stand three stories tall). There are excellent examples of Bay-and-Gable in Cabbagetown, as well as in the Annex and in Little Italy.
Early & Mid-20th Century (1901-70)
Toronto erected its first skyscraper in 1894 -- the Beard Building -- but it has been demolished. In the first decades of the 20th century, the city became less interested in looking back at the past and more intrigued by the future. When the decision was made to create a new city hall in the 1950s, Torontonians voted down a classically designed city hall, eventually favoring a modern building based on International Style :
Early Skyscraper -- The Royal Bank Building at the corner of King and Yonge streets was the tallest building in the British Commonwealth when it was completed in 1914.
Beaux Arts -- Taking its name from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, this style was an idealization of classical Greek and Roman architecture. Toronto's most beloved example of Beaux Arts style is Union Station, which was built between 1914 and 1921.
International Style -- In the 1930s, this was modern architecture. These stark, rectangular buildings, which were generally surfaced with glass, were influenced by the Germany Bauhaus School. They were simple (at least, to the naked eye) in design. The Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower, at 66 Wellington St. W., was designed by Mies van der Rohe, perhaps the most famous of the Modernist architects. Built in 1967, it is distinctive for its black steel structure and black-glazed glass.
Late 20th Century & Beyond (1970-Present)
Toronto architecture in the past 4 decades has veered from the postmodern to the eclectic. It's hard to group works together in a cohesive style, though they do share elements of whimsy and improbability. In the 1970s, a postmodern approach, in which classical or historical references were incorporated into the design of a building, became popular. There was a great deal of leeway in terms of the overall shape of a building, rather than using a simple rectangle. The Toronto Reference Library and the Bata Shoe Museum, both designed by Toronto architect Raymond Moriyama, are two visually stunning counterpoints within walking distance of each other.
Toronto is basking in the afterglow of a cultural Renaissance that saw major additions by leading architects to its key arts institutions over the past few years. The transformation elevated discussion of the public realm by adding controversy to the mix with some less-than-universally-accepted remakes of the city's beloved attractions.
Prime among them is David Libeskind's crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum on Bloor Street. Love it or loathe it, it got people talking. Local boy Frank Gehry finally added his imprimatur to the cityscape with a favorable remake of the Art Gallery of Ontario. There is no Bilbao-effect here: just a tasteful rendering of the space to accommodate the AGO's wonderful art collection. Another local, Jack Diamond, designed Canada's first purpose-built opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, whose exterior lights up University Avenue with its glass facade and whose interior provides wonderful sightlines and acoustics. And the newest addition, the Bell Lightbox, provides even more wattage to the Toronto International Film Festival with a gallery and year-round screening rooms on King Street West.
The Sharp Centre for Design, which opened in 2004, still shocks many visitors. Best described as a checkerboard on colorful stilts, it was designed by English architect Will Alsop for the Ontario College of Art and Design and captures a sense of possibility and playfulness in contemporary architecture. (Alsop is also creating a subway station in the suburbs for an extension of the University Ave. line.)
Currently, one of the most cherished buildings in the city is getting a makeover, rather than the wrecking ball: Maple Leaf Gardens. This hockey shrine on Carlton Street has sat empty for a decade since the Leafs decamped to the Air Canada Centre. Its future was in doubt but was secured when a grocery chain and Ryerson University teamed up to preserve it. Scheduled to reopen in 2012, the mixed-use facility will become Ryerson's hockey rink and will also offer groceries at street level. The designers say they will retain as much character as possible of the legendary.
The biggest trend in architecture in the city right now is one not always visible to the naked eye: Sustainable design. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings incorporate energy-saving systems such as green roofs, lake water to cool buildings instead of conventional air conditioning, and new window glazing and shading techniques to prevent heat build-up. Some buildings on the vanguard of these principals include the Evergreen Brick Works, One Cole condominium in the renewed Regent Park, and new campus buildings at the University of Toronto.
Even City Hall, the modernist marvel with a space ship-looking pod embraced by two curving towers, is being refashioned for these "green-minded" times with a wonderful garden on the elevated podium above the entrance.
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