Circling the Square: Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization, Toronto, Ontario
PROJECT Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization
COMPETITION DESIGN TEAM PLANT Architect Inc., Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners/Perkins+Will, Inc., Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architecture, Adrian Blackwell Urban Projects
ARCHITECTS PLANT Architect Inc. | Perkins+Will, Architects in Joint Venture
TEXT John Bentley Mays
PHOTOS Steven Evans
One recent Sunday afternoon, I joined tens of thousands of revellers who had gathered in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, which opens grandly in front of Viljo Revell’s Modernist City Hall, to celebrate the birthday of their Sikh faith. Young families with children, gaggles of smartly dressed teenagers, middle-aged and elderly folk strolled across the pavers, milled along the elevated walkway that defines the square on three sides, and listened to music and speeches from perches atop City Hall’s podium.
Though many citizens were present, there was no crowding. One rarely feels crowded at urban-scale events on the plaza. As it had done countless times since opening in 1965, Nathan Phillips Square once again proved its capacity to accommodate Toronto’s multitudes comfortably, and to serve as a huge platform on which the passions, convictions, traditions and values of the city’s famously diverse population find visible expression.
The square’s success on the day of the Sikh festival could make us almost forget, at least for a moment, the criticisms and controversies that have dogged its renovation throughout the five years since shovels went into the ground.
But the critics have been prominent and impossible to ignore. Rob Ford, mayor from 2010 to 2014, publicly assailed the overhaul instigated by his predecessor, David Miller, as a wasteful and unnecessary extravagance. The current mayor, John Tory, has again and again lambasted the scheme for its tardiness and especially its cost, which has risen from an original (and certainly too low) estimate of around $40 million to its present level of $60 million.
The corrosive political atmosphere around the project has skewed media coverage, which has usually—and, alas, perhaps inevitably—emphasized budget problems and other disappointments. “It really comes down to what the big news story is,” said Jack Landau, who writes about the project for the popular architectural website UrbanToronto.ca. “As much as I’d like to believe that everyone on the planet cares about architecture, the fact is that it’s not as publicized as delays and cuts. Those are generally the things that make the headlines.”
But is the project’s largely negative public image an accurate portrayal of reality? To answer this question, one has to begin at the beginning: in 2007, when the Miller administration accepted the verdict of a well-run international competition and handed the design contract for the job to a young Toronto-based team. This group was led by Chris Pommer, Lisa Rapoport and Mary Tremain of PLANT Architect, Andrew Frontini of Shore Tilbe Irwin + Partners, and Toronto designer Adrian Blackwell. It also included Chicago landscape architect Peter Schaudt. Shore Tilbe Irwin was subsequently acquired by Perkins+Will, which is now responsible for fulfilling the contract.
In an interview, Larry Wayne Richards, former dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto and a member of the public advisory committee struck by Mayor Miller to assist with the revitalization effort, called the team’s winning proposal “very competent, good, thoughtful, doable.” Anyone reading the proposal today will find it was surely all those things.
“Nathan Phillips Square has always acted as an agora, the ancient Athenian place of public and political exchange,” the designers noted in their submission to the jury, “but [it] also claims the dual functions of theatre, the place of focused gathering, and square.” Spinning their scheme out of this insight, the architects served up a convincing mixture of repair, revision and new construction that emphasized the historical mission and sense they had identified in the square. The competition documents attractively blended respect for City Hall’s svelte Mid-Century Modern fabric with sound plans for the refreshment of Revell’s Canadian version of (in Richards’ words) “the hard-paved, big European piazza.”
In a bid to underscore the character of its central area “as a space of pure potential for varied interactions and events,” for example, the team proposed the removal of the Toronto Peace Garden, dedicated by the Queen in 1984, from the middle of the plaza. The square’s perimeter, marked out for special attention in the proposal, would be strengthened by the addition of many new forest trees and by structures to be linked by Revell’s elevated walkway, which would be resurfaced, furnished and landscaped. The list of these peripheral buildings included a restaurant, an information kiosk, a permanent stage and a new skating and snack pavilion. The roof of the podium at the foot of Revell’s curved office towers, until then a desolate expanse of asphalt and precast concrete pavers, was slated to become a public park above the streets.
On the sunny afternoon of the Sikh festivity—just shy of a decade after the competition for the Nathan Phillips Square renewal was announced—I looked for signs that the recommendations of the winning entry had been carried out, and I found that several had been abandoned along the way, or postponed indefinitely.
The shortcomings are perhaps most obvious at the plaza’s edges. In the opinion of Toronto planner, urbanist and author Ken Greenberg, the renovation was an opportunity—missed, as things have turned out—to set right what had always been a problem.
“Think how Toronto was back in the mid-fifties,” he said. With the adoption of Viljo Revell’s scheme, “a city struggling to define itself takes this incredibly bold step of declaring its modernity. It created a distinctive monumental solution, but one of rejecting the city floor—public space, the streets and so on. What it has created is a place that still, to this day, has an uneasy relationship with its surroundings. If you look at Bay Street or Queen Street, you have these vast stretches of hostile street territory.”
Indeed, the Sikh celebrants who flooded the square the day I was there avoided the Bay Street sidewalk. They might have used it, had its landscaping and freshened address to the street not been axed from the program. Also cancelled, forever or for the time being: the continuous intensification of the urban forest on the site, the paving and landscaping of the ribbon of trampled lawn on the Queen Street boundary, the transformation of the elevated walkway and the ceremonial ramp that sweeps up from the plaza into a linear garden, along with the replacement of the homely garage entrance at Queen and Bay by a glassy, welcoming information and bike rental kiosk.
Earlier this year, the City’s government committee voted to allow a restaurant to be raised on the blank spot at the site’s southwest corner—but financed by somebody else. At the end of 2015, when the contract and legal commitment of the winning team wind down, Adrian Blackwell’s innovative seating will have been installed along the perimeter walkway. But by and large—especially to the south and east—the edge of the site will remain as sad and poorly joined to the adjacent city as it was before the rejuvenation began.
As I moved among the Sikhs and curious tourists, however, it was easy to spot fulfillments of the original vision—noteworthy ones that have surely not received the public attention they deserve.
The Peace Garden, always an obstruction to the full use of the plaza, was gone. It is being reconstructed in a new enlarged format, west of the walkway, beside Osgoode Hall courthouse. Andrew Frontini says the garden is on track for completion in the summer of 2015. At the insistence of the garden’s ardent friends and fans, but over the objections of the architects, the faux-dilapidated gazebo that stood at the monument’s former location has been moved to the new one.
The team scored a triumph for their side, however, with the landscaping of City Hall’s 35,000-square-foot podium, opened to the public in 2010. On the day of the Sikh fête, it was still too early in the season for the sedum, alliums and grasses to be doing much. But the place was wonderful—a vast patch of sun-washed lonesome prairie or badlands, a quiet refuge from the downtown din of Canada’s busiest city.
The efficient, well-considered and well-equipped stage, which steps up like a ziggurat from grade to the level of the walkway on the western border of the square, was in vivid use by musicians, municipal and provincial politicians, and Sikh clerics and community leaders. The new two-storey snack building nearby, with its open-air upper deck connected to the walkway, was busy, as usual.
Invisible from the square, of course, was the thick membrane below the pavers and above the enormous underground parking garage—where, the designers said, unpleasant surprises and the necessary updating of utilities and elderly structural elements more than once sent engineering costs soaring, and caused some of the delays that have irritated politicians.
Reflecting on the mixed record of the renewal, Frontini admitted that “it sounds like a hard-luck story or a series of missed opportunities. But the things that have been accomplished were hard-won, and they have made a substantial impact. We did one thing, which was to open the square back up and remove the clutter and encumbrances, so that you can have the art fair, the Sikh festival, the Winter Festival of Lights—really large-scale urban events—and support them.”
This is good. If testimony to the value of the cleared plaza is needed, I offer the free, relaxed movement of the Sikhs in their many thousands as evidence.
But is that good enough? Should Torontonians be content with a newly outfitted central area, but one lacking the revived and revised margins promised in the original scheme?
Some observers have argued that citizens should never have expected anything better than half-done execution. The fickleness of public opinion in Toronto during the last several years, the City of Toronto’s chronic financial problems, the skyrocketing cost of construction, the hostility of David Miller’s successors toward the whole idea—these and other forces doomed the project from the outset to achieve only a few of its objectives.
While this line of reasoning has substance, it nevertheless does not go very far toward explaining what has gone wrong with the Nathan Phillips Square revival. The issue has never been the imaginative quality of the initial program, which was solid and, in its basic form, feasible. Frontini attributes the cost overruns to mid-course changes in the construction contracting of the project and the addition of program elements by the City, among other factors. I requested contact information for a City spokesperson to address these claims, but no one in the communications department got back to me.
“What is Toronto capable of? Can we get something that’s not just right, but outstanding?” Larry Richards asks. “Go to New York and you see people polishing brass plates, washing windows, cleaning their sidewalks with a sense of pride. There is a certain set of values about the public realm that is very weak, or missing, in Toronto. It’s a lack of caring.”
Richards’ comment takes the observer to the heart of the problem, which lies in Toronto’s urban culture. The city’s history is marked by remarkable public-sector surges in consciousness—the political struggles over the design of City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square occasioned a very important discussion in the late 1950s—followed by spells of inattention (and even what often seems like animosity) by urban leaders and the populace toward the public realm. We appear to be in such a spell. While Toronto finds itself in the midst of a private development boom that is redefining the skyline, politicians and officials and ordinary citizens have proven notably reluctant to invest enough time, intelligence, financial wherewithal—and heart—in the city’s public spaces to make them great.
But well-meaning Torontonians, dismayed by the neglect of the commonweal or the non-completion of good works like the revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square, could exaggerate this reluctance, or at least overestimate its stubborn persistence in the city’s culture. Not much effort would be required, I suspect, to convince the Sikhs whose company I enjoyed that the city’s central square is a treasure worth fixing and maintaining. And the huge numbers of voters who live in mid-rises and towers and 1,000-square-foot houses across the metropolitan area? Would it really be so difficult to persuade them that the avenues, parks, sidewalks and streetscapes they share should be wonderful?
John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.
Client City of Toronto | Design Team PLANT—Chris Pommer, Lisa Rapoport, Mary Tremain, Vanessa Eickhoff, Lisa Dietrich, Eric Klaver, Elise Shelley, Lisa Moffitt, Jane Hutton, Heather Asquith, Suzanne Ernst, Jessica Craig, Jeremy McGregor, Matt Hartney, Cleo Buster, Renée Kuehnle, Olivia Mapué. Shore Tilbe Irwin/Perkins+Will—D’Arcy Arthurs, Andrew Frontini, Vis Sankrithi, Joe Dhanjal, Linda Neumayer, Adrian Worton, Steven van der Meer, Gavin Guthrie, Lia Matson, Elizabeth Tseronakis, Perry Edwards, Aaron Cheung, Aimee Drmic, Emily Maclennan, Talal Rameh. | Landscape Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architecture Inc., Urban Trees + Soil | Urbanism Adrian Blackwell Urban Projects | Structural Blackwell Structural Engineers | Mechanical/Electrical Crossey Engineering | Interiors Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners/Perkins+Will, Inc. | Heritage Muse Blanche Lemco van Ginkel | Contractor Flynn Canada/Gardens In The Sky (Phase 1A); PCL Constructors Canada (Phase 1 & 2); Four Seasons Site Development (Phase 3) | Cost Estimator Vermeulens Inc. (Phase 1) | Green Building Systems Enermodal Engineering Ltd. | Area 13 acres (land); 2,953 m2 (theatre) | Budget $60 M | Completion Autumn 2015