In the rush to grow up, the city demolished much of its past in the name of progress. Today Toronto is reinventing itself with bold new initiatives. As the city attempts to build up, rather than sprawl out, Toronto is emerging as a modern megacity, with almost half its residents residing in condos, not houses.
That said, the city’s architectural history is still in evidence and 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.
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 emerged in England, reaching peak popularity in North America in the mid-19th century. Gothic Revival was inspired by medieval design, featuring pointed arches and windows, extensive ornamentation, and steeply pitched roofs; towers were often incorporated into the design. St. James Cathedral, built between 1850 and 1853, is a perfect example of the style with its 93m-tall (305-ft.) spire 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 Richardsonian Romanesque buildings were influenced by the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The style is immediately identifiable by its massive scale, rounded archways, decorative arcading, and large towers. The Broadview and Gladstone hotels are a Richardsonian Romanesque masterpiece, as is the 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 decorative elements of Gothic Revival (such as sharp vertical lines) to single-family homes. Lots in 19th-century Toronto were oddly long and narrow, and the bay-and-gable style, with its steep roofs, large bay windows (often filled with stained glass), and extensive decorative gabling managed to fit into these lots perfectly. Excellent examples of bay-and-gable are found 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:
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.
EARLY SKYSCRAPER—The Traders Bank Building, which at 15 stories high was the tallest building in the British Commonwealth when it was completed in 1905, is one of the few still-standing skyscrapers from this era. It's located at the intersection of Yonge and Colborne.
INTERNATIONAL STYLE—In the 1920s and 1930s, this was modern architecture. These stark, rectangular buildings were generally surfaced with glass and other lightweight industrial materials. The buildings were simple (at least, to the naked eye) in design. The Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower, at 66 Wellington St. W., was designed by Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, perhaps the most famous of the Modernist architects. Completed in 1969, 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 in 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 Daniel 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. 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 TIFF 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 2005, 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 has since created two subway stations in the suburbs—Pioneer Village and Finch West—both of which feature cantilevered roofs, polished concrete, and playful pops of color.)
Other buildings appear frozen in time on the outside, but have been completely modernized inside, like Maple Leaf Gardens. Toronto’s hockey shrine was at risk of being demolished after the Leafs decamped to the Scotiabank Arena, leaving the building vacant for over a decade. In 2012, Maple Leaf Gardens reopened after an unlikely duo—grocery chain Loblaws and Ryerson University—teamed up to preserve the Art Deco structure. The mixed-use facility is now Ryerson’s new sports complex (yes, it still has an ice rink), with a grocery store on the street level.
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 buildup. 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 and George Brown College.
Even City Hall, the Modernist marvel with a space-ship-style 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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