Thursday, October 13, 2011

Toronto Modern

I was in Toronto last week for the 10th annual Greenbuild conference and expo.  Though my short time in the city was spent primarily in the convention center attending seminars and visiting product booths, I took a few hours one glorious afternoon to take a brisk walk around downtown.

First stop, the Toronto-Dominion Centre by Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s.

A view up to the Mies monoliths from the grassy lawn.  The buildings appear to be undergoing a re-cladding or re-painting of the curtain wall.  I wonder how the architects of the renovation have taken into account Mies' vision within the context of modern technologies and advancements in building envelope design?

Apparently, I missed a major feature of the TD Centre when I did not pass through to the banking pavilion on the northeast corner of the block (a cousin to the post office at the Chicago Federal Center).  Oops!  However, I thought the lawn near the southwest corner of the complex was a nice respite from the usual paved plaza of Mies' other urban work.  I walked through the area near the end of lunch time, and the lawn and surrounding granite benches were still being heavily used, which is always a good sign in a public place.

I love the simple glass box lobby with travertine walls--classic hallmarks of Mies.  One thing I noticed for the first time, however, was the tiled soffit.  I do not know if this is typical of other Mies high-rises, but it gave a nice gloss to the ceiling inside and out and added to the lightness at the base of the large buildings.

A couple blocks north, I stopped by Toronto's city hall by Finnish architect Viljo Revell in the early 1960s.  Revell is a sort of one-hit-wonder architect and is most famous for Toronto's city hall but relatively unknown otherwise.  Currently, they appear to be doing some renovation work on the glass facades of the towers.

Toronto's city hall exhibits just the kind of free-form "fun" Modernism that I tend to be drawn to.  Though the plaza in front seems well-used (there was a farmer's market on the day I visited) the urban environment suffers a bit from the sterile bleakness of many aging Modern public spaces.  (I am reminded of my visit to photograph Albany's Empire State Plaza on a weekend, where during my entire visit, I saw fewer than half-a-dozen people in the vast public space.)

Although I think the form of the two towers gently enclosing the, council formally elegant, I cannot help but think that their windowless outer face turns the towers' proverbial back on the city, focusing inward on the bureaucracy of city government.  It makes sense that something like this would have been built within the context of mid-century urban renewal, where in cities across the continent whole neighborhoods were bulldozed for monumental, internally-focused (often governmental) projects, but it seems out of touch with a vibrant urban community that I get the sense of when I am in Toronto.

One of the recent attempts to both "green" and humanize city hall is the addition of a green roof, gardens, and public space on the roof of the building's podium.  The design is by PLANT Architect of Toronto, and I must say that it is a welcome and beautiful addition to the building.  It was delightful to walk up the long ramp to the roof and enter a world of bugs, cricket sounds, and playful birds.  Though the sounds of "nature" were not quite enough to drown out all the sirens, car horns, and buses of the surrounding city, the elevation above the street and the connection with a natural landscape (contrived, but beautiful of course), was a great respite.

Gravel and paved paths wind their way around the city hall towers, with benches and seats providing spots to rest, read, or relax.  As I think about it now, I wish there had been a bit of a water feature to provide some white noise over the city, but during my visit, I did not really find the experience lacking.

What looks like bush-hammered concrete on the outer face of the city hall towers a la Paul Rudolph and the Yale Art & Architecture Building is really something quite extraordinary.  Instead of rough concrete, the surface is actually inlaid with split- or cleft-faced white stone (marble?) strips.  I have never seen anything quite like it.  In areas where the facade has been cleaned, in the sunlight it was really quite brilliant, and with the addition of the public park on the roof of the podium it is easy to access the building for a closer look.

Let's take a look inside city hall!  I loved the big, wooden doors.  The wood hardware bends slightly out away from the door to signify "pull" and slightly in toward the door to signify "push."  Nice design!

Just inside the doorway is a really cool sculpture on the wall...

...made of nails!

Revell died before the building was completed.  He is commemorated on a column just inside the doors of city hall.  Notice the floor, which has white stone strips laid into the terrazzo, similar to the exterior of the towers.

The council chamber sits atop a pedestal that skewers the podium and goes clean down into the floor surrounded by lights and a little amphitheater with flags and commemorative plaques.  The clerestory surrounding the council chamber lets natural light into the podium and allows the chamber and its pedestal to "float" within the composition of the podium.

I love when architecture is so iconic that it becomes a logo!  (Like Oscar Niemeyer's Chapel of St. Francis which we saw on logos all across Belo Horizonte during our trip to Brazil this past summer.)  This photo was of the sign to the roof garden of city hall, but the logo is really everywhere, including trash cans all across the city.

Continuing my jaunt north, I walked up to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) which features an addition and facade renovation by native Torontonian, Frank Gehry.  The expansion opened in 2008 and is Gehry's first project in Canada.

The new facade of the AGO is a sleek, curved glass facade supported on curved wood beams.  It reminds me of Gehry's early explorations of fish in both sculpture and architecture.  It is quite restrained for a Gehry, which is entirely appropriate for the context.  I really appreciate its subdued and elegant forms.

Each end of the block-long facade flips up in tail?  Or is it a billboard?  (What would Venturi do with this Duck-cum-Decorated Shed!?)

Looking up at the backside of the extended facade, including the wood beams.

Behind the AGO is another component of the Gehry addition:  a bright blue titanium box with a squiggly stair.  Blue titanium and squiggly design elements.  Now we're talkin' Gehry!

A closer view of the spiral staircase.

Next stop, Will Alsop's Sharp Center for Design, adjacent to the AGO from 2004.  Though I think the idea of the floating box up on stilts is interesting, I find the black and white metal skin and multi-colored pencil-columns a bit inelegant and childish.  Less would have been more here.

I had to catch one more new piece of architecture on my little tour, so at the far north end of downtown, I went to see Daniel Libeskind's 2007 addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

Libeskind's work has never really been my thing, but I had to see it since I was so close.  The form is a bit jumbled for my taste, and I had to work really hard to figure out how to open the doors (unlike Revell's city hall).

I believe they call this addition "the crystal"...

...but it appears somewhat parasitic.

Meanwhile, back at the expo, one booth had a chair made out of full-size and half-size rolled drawing sets and three strap clamps.  Simple.  Elegant.  Cool.

And since we're talking Toronto here, there is always the requisite (parting) shot of the CN Tower, former tallest freestanding structure in the world.