Court is Open: Ontario Court of Justice – Toronto, Ontario

The design for a 63-courtroom complex in downtown Toronto balances the weight of justice with a spirit of lightness.

A lightly suspended stair sits in front of historical photos and images representing the people that historically inhabited the court’s site.


PROJECT Ontario Court of Justice – Toronto, Toronto, Ontario

ARCHITECTS Renzo Piano Building Workshop and NORR Architects
and Engineers

TEXT Joe Lobko

PHOTOS Scott Norsworthy

Designing spaces for justice requires balancing potentially divergent objectives. Creating a space of dignity and authority must be considered equally with the values of openness, transparency and accessibility. A court’s architecture must have a certain gravitas that encourages respect and confidence in process and outcomes, while embodying a spirit of lightness aligned with the “open court principle” which underpins a just and democratic society. 

The recently opened Ontario Court of Justice for Toronto sets a new high bar in achieving that balance. A subtle and finely crafted building, it seamlessly fits within the historic civic context of its site. At the same time, it’s a big and complex building, which brings together all Ontario Court of Justice criminal court operations for Canada’s largest city. As a whole, it provides the range of welcoming, beautiful and practical spaces necessary to support the effective, secure operation of an open and transparent justice system.  

The new court building’s façade system includes partially reflective glass panels backed with corrugated metal pans, allowing the building 
to maintain a uniform appearance as well as a 40:60 glazing ratio.

Traditionally, courthouses in North America and Europe have been monumental structures, with neoclassical references used to embody the authority of the place and of the institution it represents. That approach is seen in the existing judicial precinct of Toronto, which comprises the mid-19th-century Osgoode Hall (John Ewart and W.W. Baldwin Architects) and the mid-20th-century Ontario Superior Court of Justice building campus (Ronald A. Dick Architect). 

The site for the new court building is to the north of these buildings, bordering Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. Given the overall scale of the ambition and public expense involved—the project budget was just under $1 billion—a public/private partnership, or P3 development process, was initiated by Infrastructure Ontario (IO) to deliver this much-needed new facility.

The elevator core is clad 
in deep yellow quartz panels, creating a central point of orientation throughout the main public levels of the building.

IO had collaborated with City of Toronto Urban Design staff to develop a demonstration plan, intended to inform competition proponents of the limits of the built form envelope that would be acceptable, given the regulated view sheds to Toronto City Hall. Provincial staff, together with significant input from Ontario judges and justices of the peace, developed a detailed program of requirements, describing the need for the 72,000-square-metre building to provide 63 new courtrooms and 10 additional conference settlement rooms. The spaces would need to address the needs of Indigenous persons—who are egregiously over-represented in the criminal justice system—and those impacted by addictions and mental illness. The design also necessitated distinct vertical circulation systems for three separate user groups: the general public, the accused and the judiciary.

Sensing an opportunity, NORR Architects Principal Silvio Baldassara together with EllisDon Senior VP David Klassen—both with extensive previous experience at delivering court facilities and P3 projects in Ontario—reached out to the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), based in Genoa and Paris, to suggest a collaboration. The RPBW studio had recently completed the much-admired Paris Courthouse, their firm’s first experience with this building type, and were intrigued by the possibility of building upon that work to develop their first project in Canada. As with all P3 submissions, the collaboration involved substantial risk—but, in this case, the partnership would turn out to be very effective. 

The building’s mast aligns with the front portico of Osgoode Hall, subtly integrating the new Ontario Court of Justice into the city’s judicial precinct.

RPBW’s reputation is founded on a sublime understanding of economy of means, a rich legacy of experience of how to build well, and a desire to exact every ounce of possible value from each element of the design on behalf of their clients. This was combined with NORR’s long history of experience in understanding and delivering upon the needs of space for justice in Canada. The team also included the Indigenous perspective of Two Row Architect, who brought an enhanced respect for the fundamental aspects of nature and personal experience to this very urban project. Rounding out the team was EllisDon, extensively experienced as creative builders known for successfully realizing design visions. 

While large Canadian firms are by now well used to the onerous process of putting together a P3 submission, RPBW brought a fresh energy to the process. They approached the project as they would a European design competition, beginning from a perspective of first principles. They invested heavily in the process itself: their submission to the P3 competition included a 1:10-scale floorplan that covered the stage, on which were placed fully modelled 1:10 corner details. 

The corrugated metal pans integral to the façade are revealed in a corner detail.

As part of the research prior to securing the commission, RPBW also developed full-scale test samples of a wall system of silver-grey corrugated metal pans behind partially reflective glass, which became a key component in the realized proposal. This bespoke, but economical, approach to exterior cladding provides the perception at first glance of a fully glazed structure, while in fact delivering a high-performance envelope with a ratio of 40% transparent glazing. “It’s a very, very big building, and one of the problems we had was that scale,” explains RPBW principal Amaury Greig. “We realized that if the building appeared opaque, it would be overwhelming. Because of the exterior skin, it appears a lot lighter than it actually is.” The resulting system provides an apparently endless range of light effects and dynamism to the façade, changing the character of the building over the course of a day and the seasons of the year. 

Minimalist fittings enhance the lightness and transparency of the main lobby.

The approach to exterior glazing exemplifies this team’s shared attitude towards building and design. As Two Row Architect Principal Brian Porter recalls, “Early on as a team, we spoke a lot about craftsmanship and a tactile architecture. We talked about beadwork—taking materials that are cheap and abundant, but that can gain value by the way in which they are arranged and put together.”

A wood ceiling and furnishings soften the appearance and experience of the security screening area.

The team’s overall design didn’t strictly replicate the demonstration plan provided by IO. Instead, it is smaller at the base, eliminating a separate one-storey security screening volume that was part of the test fit by bringing it into the main volume. Conversely, it also includes a larger typical footprint of 4,000 square metres. This resulted in a lower overall building height, intended to provide a respectful backdrop to the historic adjacent Toronto City Hall, while also delivering a more economical project overall. 

The plan is organized around two shifted rectangles, reducing the visual impact of the building’s overall scale to the south and east. The interior corner of the resultant L-shaped form is defined by a vertical mast, aligned with the portico of Osgoode Hall and the northern terminus of York Street. Seen from the south, the slender mast quietly marks this building’s place within the historic urban fabric and civic precinct. The ground plane is organized to maximize the provision of new public space: a generous forecourt provides a transition from the northwest entrance to Nathan Phillips Square and is visually continuous with the court’s glass-enclosed lobby. 

A 20-metre-high lobby is visually contiguous with an extensive outdoor plaza, and offers views towards Nathan Phillips Square and Toronto’s historic judicial precinct buildings.

The lobby is, in itself, a remarkable feat for a justice building. Openness and transparency are worthy aspirations for our court facilities, but difficult to deliver upon, given the increased focus upon security with this building type. “Some of our experience gained in Paris was useful in order to develop the technical solution that allows us to have that much transparency, while maintaining all the security and safety objectives that a site of this importance should have,” says Greig. The 20-metre-tall, 20-metre-wide public atrium is defined by a cable tension glass wall system that appears to effortlessly float in space, a testament to the impressive design and technical skill of this team. Aluminum extrusions were designed to be as slim as possible, adding to the effect. The result is an airy, bright, and beautiful new city room that provides orientation and welcome to visitors. Within the lobby, elegantly suspended stairs offer access to the lower podium levels of the building, where the larger courtrooms are concentrated. 

Creating spacious areas with a calm atmosphere was crucial for the design team. “We understood that this was a facility that shouldn’t be intimidating, that wasn’t a place that people were afraid to go—people are already anxious enough when they go to a courthouse,” says Greig. “We needed to maintain a very clear and strong idea of dignity, both for the theatrics of the administration of justice, and also dignity for the people who have to go and face these very difficult life situations.”

Precise planning is evident in the hallways, where one-metre-wide white quartz wall panels are set within beechwood frames. 
The panels were designed as a modern, modular response to the client’s requirement for stone cladding throughout the building’s public spaces.

Fostering this sense of dignity was, for Greig, “a driving force for every decision in this project.” This extended from increasing the size of the front plaza, to providing intuitive, straightforward orientation on courtroom floors. On each upper floor, an elevator core and L-shaped hallway are strategically positioned to provide visitors with views to the exterior to aid in orientation, while infusing these spaces with natural light. One-metre-wide white quartz wall panels are carefully detailed within steamed beech frames—an exercise of exceptional rigour in both design and construction—imparting a welcoming feeling throughout. 

A typical courtroom is furnished with bespoke beechwood benches and light-coloured walls, intended to convey dignity and calm.
The translucent back wall of courtrooms borrows daylight from the judges’ recess spaces lining the building’s perimeter.

An enhanced level of accessibility was also achieved, through strategies including the provision of an innovative tactile floor treatment at every courtroom entry point. (Serendipitously, lights above the tactile floor sections give them a sparkling, shimmering presence.) The pale-toned colour palette is effective in reinforcing a sense of neutrality for this place of adjudication—an important consideration for our increasingly diverse society. Inside the courtrooms, the same palette is present, with an increased presence of wood surfaces. This imparts a warmer sense of enclosure to these internally focused spaces.

One of the building’s most special features is out of sight to visitors. The design brief asked for each judge’s office to be provided with a window. In response, the architects suggested the incorporation of a two-level landscaped internal courtyard at the top of the building, not anticipated in the client’s program or budget. This relatively simple value-added landscaped space provides judges with what is essentially a secure place for reflection. It’s a form of cloister invaluable to those working here each day and charged with making difficult decisions about other people’s lives. “In terms of architecture, there are a lot of things we can’t resolve, but there are things we can take a pretty good crack at improving—and one of those is the working conditions for the people who work in this building,” says Greig. “The idea is that we can improve the working conditions, and that this can have a knock-on effect to improving the administration of justice itself, and therefore the experience of people with the justice system.”

Toronto has received the gift of a dignified new civic building of great lightness and depth of character, carefully shaped to respectfully fit within this historic civic precinct and thoughtfully organized to support the increasingly complex and evolving demands of a contemporary justice system for many years to come. It’s a testament to what was clearly an extraordinary collective team effort, combining inspiring design/build leadership with the thoughtful support and decision-making of the provincial client group and city approval authorities.

Court is now open and accessible to all.

Architect Joe Lobko is based in Toronto.

CLIENT Infrastructure Ontario and Ministry of Attorney General | ARCHITECT TEAM RPBW—Design Team, 2016-17—A. Belvedere (partner-in-charge), A. Greig, A. Karcher, A. Landeiro, B. Plattner (partner), N. Aureau, D. Franceschin, S. George, J. Irace, A. Nizza and L.Antonio, G. De Juan, A. Bagatella, D. Tsagkaropoulos (CGI), O. Aubert, C. Colson, Y. Kyrkos (models). Design Development, 2017-23—Design team: A. Belvedere, A. Chaaya, A. Greig (partners and associate in charge), F. Hebel, A. Landeiro, W. Scheske with T. Ohira, M. Pimmel, D. Rat, I. Soto, J. Vella and T. Borges, A. Bagatella, D. Tsagkaropoulos (CGI), O. Aubert, C. Colson, Y. Kyrkos (models). NORR—Design team, 2016-17—S. Baldassara FRAIC (Executive in charge), D. Clusiau FRAIC (Design Prinicipal), D. Gutierrez, J. Kummer, A. Labriola, J. Moro MRAIC, M. Samsan, J. Sumague, R. Young. Design Development, 2017-23—S. Baldassara FRAIC (Executive in charge), D. Clusiau FRAIC (Design Prinicipal), D. Squires (Project Manager), T. Day, D. De Benedetti, J. Kummer,  L. Boulatova, A. Ghosh, H. Hashemi-Kashani, D. Hileman, B. Kushnir MRAIC,  A. Labriola, C. Stumpf, S. Ubaldino,  M. Abou Chacra, F. Abufarha, A. Bolourian Kashy, D. Carey, J. Frackowiak, M. Gualtieri, G. Haist, K. MacDonald, N. McGoey, B. Mee, G. Momenzadeh, D. Poida, G. Webster, A. Wu. | STRUCTURAL Stephenson Engineering Ltd. |  MECHANICAL The Hidi Group | ELECTRICAL MBII | LANDSCAPE Vertechs Design Inc. | INTERIORS RPBW and NORR | CONTRACTOR EllisDon Design Build Inc. | FAÇADE Knippers Helbig | ELEVATORS HH | CIVIL/SITE WalterFedy | ENERGY/SUSTAINABILITY Morrison Hershfield  MICROCLIMATE Theakston Environmental | ACOUSTICS Valcoustics | TRAFFIC Tranplan Associates | BLAST AND THREAT RISK Thornton Tomasetti | GEOTECH Amec Foster Wheeler | HERITAGE +VG Architects | INDIGENOUS CONSULTANT Two Row Architect  CODE Muniak Enterprises | SIGNAGE/WAYFINDING Frontier | A/V Sight n Sound Design Inc. | ENVELOPE BVDA Group Ltd. | PDC KMA and MSA | AREA 72,000 m2 | BUDGET $956.4 M (Construction value: $505 M) | COMPLETION January 2023