September 17, 2014
by Canadian Architect
The 43-acre Fort York National Historic Site is where urban Toronto was founded in 1793. Fort York was the location of a major battle during which British, Canadian and First Nations combatants defended the Town of York (Toronto) against US forces during the War of 1812. Located on the original shoreline of Lake Ontario, Fort York was the city’s primary harbour defence between the 1790s and the 1880s and contains Canada’s largest collection of authentic War of 1812 buildings. In 1934, The City of Toronto opened Fort York as a historic site museum and today, Fort York is one of 10 historic museums owned and operated by the City of Toronto.
Designed by Patkau Architects Inc. of Vancouver and Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. of Toronto, the new Fort York Visitor Centre is a key component in the restoration, redevelopment and revitalization of the entire 43-acre site, intended to impress upon Torontonians and visitors Fort York’s enormous importance as a national historic site, while also enhancing Toronto’s authentic character with architecture that is reflective of the 21st century.
Until now, Fort York National Historic Site was invisible to passersby. Altered by two centuries of lakefill, it is now 500 metres from the shoreline of Lake Ontario, below the elevated concrete canopy of the Gardiner Expressway and geographically landlocked by rail corridors. The Visitor Centre establishes a prominent front door to the Fort where none previously existed. As the area is growing with new residential developments, an opportunity was identified to make Fort York a focal point, urban amenity and cultural anchor to the neighbourhood.
The Visitor Centre will act as a interpretative hub for the entire historic area, including not only the seven acres within the Fort’s walls but also the archaeological landscape, Garrison Common, Victoria Memorial Square, the Fort York Armoury and Garrison Creek parkland being developed to the east. The Visitor Centre will include visitor and information services, galleries for permanent and temporary exhibitions, spaces for meetings and educational programming, a café and administration offices. The Centre will extend beyond its primary purpose to become a new venue for events and community gatherings within the city. The Fort’s administrative offices will be relocated from historic structures inside the ramparts to the Visitor Centre, allowing the historic buildings, among the oldest in the city, to become fully opened to the public.
To ensure that the Fort’s original, low-slung buildings were not overshadowed by the new building, Patkau and Kearns Mancini embedded the Visitor Centre into the landscape while echoing the natural escarpment that contributed to the Fort’s defenses. Simultaneously bold and discreet, the building is distinctly Canadian in its forthrightness and simplicity. The façade asserts a strong physical presence from Fort York Boulevard, anticipating future use of the space below the Gardiner as a wonderful “city room.” Behind, the building emerges from Garrison Common as an illuminated wedge clad in backlit cast glass channels, allowing the low-slung buildings of the Fort to remain the architectural focus. Environmentally, the earth-sheltered architecture allows for more efficient humidity and climate control and allows control of natural light without compromising the artifacts.
The Visitor Centre’s striking weathering steel panel façade recalls the site’s defensive landscape—both its lost escarpment and its artillery. At the same time, its materiality speaks to the industrial surroundings. The architectural team looked beyond the Visitor Centre proper to reflect the historic harbour. Their full master plan for the project envisions the weathering steel bluff extended eastward toward the Fort’s wall so that it will appear as a complete geological formation. In front of the Centre, a field of softly moving grasses recalling the flowing waters of Lake Ontario will surround an ‘events dock’ that will accommodate large-scale outdoor events.
The building directly tells the story of the site; visitors enter across a bridge beneath the Expressway in the present-day city and are invited to undertake a pilgrimage through the site’s history, arriving at the Commons, a site largely unchanged in two centuries. Walking up the gentle switchback slope of the immersive multi-media “time-tunnel” portraying the dramatic events of the War of 1812, visitors journey through the founding of the city, ending on the roof with views of the entire Fort and the Toronto skyline beyond.
On September 20 and 21, 2014, the public is invited to experience a free weekend of performances and exhibitions heralding the opening of the new Fort York Visitor Centre.
For more information, please visit www.fortyorkfoundation.ca/the-visitor-centre/.
fort york visitor centre. patkau architects & kearns mancini architects.