Architecture, Travel

Second most famous building in town

[Ian Macready]
The view from the Podium

Well we said it was Toronto fever here at Viewport after our trip, so here we go with our first architecture report. Maybe if it were not for the CN Tower this one might be better known outside Canada. But it makes a pretty impressive centrepiece for the city. And is clearly reminiscent of a different age of optimism and faith in architecture to make things better. The building started out in an international competition in 1958 when over 500 international entries were submitted to a panel of judges in Toronto for a new City Hall to replace the 19th century Romanesque building that still sits on the opposite side of the square. Eero Saarinen, judge and fellow architect (him behind the TWA terminal at JFK, the St. Louis Gateway Arch and all that furniture for Knoll International) swanned in a day late and fished out the rejected entry by the Finnish team, lead by Viljo Revell (Eero Saarinen was born in Finland – I am saying nothing) and managed to convince his fellow judges that this was the one. Interestingly enough, the year before, Saarinen had done exactly the same thing with the Sydney Opera House competition – took the rejected Jorn Utzon design (he was Danish) and persuaded the other judges of the value of the design. Nice work Eero. But in a nasty twist of fate neither Saarinen nor Revell got to see the completed building in Toronto because they both died before the completion in 1965.

The building consists of four main elements: the two curved towers (for the civil servants’ offices) surrounding the domed council chamber that emanates from the two storey podium (the main entry to the complex) and fronted by a large public square. The two curved towers  – one of twenty seven stories and the other just twenty – are constructed from beautifully ribbed solid concrete exterior walls, facing the city, and with an inner steel and glass curtain wall. The space  ship debating chamber nestled between the two towers appears to float above the Podium level rising from one single column – there were originally intended to be three columns, but they went in the budget cuts.  There is a wonderfully futuristic ramp that swoops up from the square onto the podium roof, just in case some top quality visitors need to be dropped off by car right outside the debating chamber, although this does not look to be used very much nowadays. In the public square there are flagpoles, a Henry Moore, a large pool with water spouts and concrete arches just to complete that 1960s grand civic look. There is currently a major project underway to regenerate the square with new performance venues, which is a very good thing as the whole area, although relatively well maintained, is a bit worse for wear.

Inside at ground level, there are a couple of nice curved staircases with mahogany rails in the foyer with a few pieces of grand public art, and a floor made from marble offcuts. In the centre emerges the mushroom shaped column that supports the council chamber. If you’re lucky you can get up to the 27th floor viewing terrace with a pretty amazing view over the centre of Toronto. The great shame is that the Finnish architect, who according to reports was a charming and modest man, behind this great work died at the end of 1964 (three years after Saarinen) at only 54 years old, just months before the grand opening in 1965. He has left behind a few well known works in his home country including his first work from 1935, intended only as a temporary structure but still standing, the Glass Palace (Lasipalatsi in Finnish) right in the centre of town next to what was the old bus station. But his Toronto work remains his masterpiece and as Alvar Aalto, his former colleague, said “Seldom does a colleague feel so happy over another’s victory.”




The City Hall at dusk taken from the bar at Sheraton Hotel
The ribbed concrete texture of the towers with the Sheraton in the background
The fountains in the Nathan Phillips Square
The old Town Hall
A bit of Henry Moore out front
The view of the square with the flags
The council chamber
A bit of art work in the foyer
Some lovely teak door handles
The single support column from the podium for the council chamber
A nice curved staircase on the ground floor
The first building commission in Helsinki for Viljo Revell - the Glass Palace from 1935
An earlier water tower in Finland by Revell - a little precursor to the council chamber design
The more famous CN Tower - we'll come back to this one in a later post