Canadian Architect

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Toronto’s New City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square: Design Process, Product and Legacy

Aliki Economides examines two books commemorating the 50th anniversary of Toronto City Hall.

November 1, 2015
by Aliki Economides

Competing Modernisms: Toronto’s New City Hall and Square

By George T. Kapelos. Halifax: Dalhousie Architectural Press, 2015.

Civic Symbol: Creating Toronto’s New City Hall, 1952-1966

By Christopher Armstrong. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Viljo Revell’s competition-winning design for Toronto City Hall and Square marked a key moment for Canadian architecture, with impacts that resonated globally. (Panda Photography)

Viljo Revell’s competition-winning design for Toronto City Hall and Square marked a key moment for Canadian architecture, with impacts that resonated globally. (Panda Photography)

Officially inaugurated on September 13, 1965, Toronto’s City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square are a stunning pair: an iconic landmark in the city and a highly successful public plaza. The story of how this civic complex was realized offers a revealing glimpse into the socio-cultural and urban character of Toronto during the postwar years of its metropolitanization. More broadly, the competition that drew over 500 entries from 42 different countries and the winning scheme by Finnish architect Viljo Revell signals a key moment in the development of Modern architecture in Canada—and illuminates the state of international architectural culture in the late 1950s. Marking the 50th anniversary of Toronto City Hall’s opening, two monographs focus on the complex and on the competition leading to it, from complementary perspectives.

In Civic Symbol: Creating Toronto’s New City Hall, 1952-1966, historian and emeritus professor Christopher Armstrong describes Toronto in the 1940s and 50s from firsthand experience as well as based on archival research. He provides a behind-the-scenes account of the politics that drove—and threatened—the civic centre’s coming into being. Tensions ran high between the ambitions of local politicians, planners and architects who promoted the idea of an international competition and others who resisted what was perceived as radical change. Armstrong adopts a critical stance towards what he terms the “underlying currents of backwardness and timidity” and the “local protectionism” exhibited by various groups, including the Ontario Association of Architects.

he cover of The Canadian Architect from April 1959. The issue discussed the winning design along with many other entries in the competition. (Panda Photography, design by F. F. P. Moore)

he cover of The Canadian Architect from April 1959. The issue discussed the winning design along with many other entries in the competition. (Panda Photography, design by F. F. P. Moore)

Ultimately, the initiative was approved, and Civic Symbol discusses the pivotal role played by University of Toronto architecture professor Eric Arthur in designing the two-stage competition and selecting the cosmopolitan jury. Peppered with amusing anecdotes, the chronological account goes on to delve into the deliberations leading to the selection of the winning scheme. A biographical portrait of Revell follows, including a reflection on the toll the project ultimately took on his physical and financial well-being.

Armstrong does not shy away from discussing the more than usual number of problems associated with the construction phase, and also devotes a chapter to the contentious issue of the furnishings for the city hall. Civic Symbol concludes with an overview of the impressive opening ceremony and the public’s response, as well as recounting some problems encountered after the building opened.

A view of City Hall and Civic Square shortly after opening day. (Arthur James)

A view of City Hall and Civic Square shortly after opening day. (Arthur James)

As the book’s title announces, Armstrong’s narrative ultimately trumpets the somewhat surprising triumph of mayor Nathan Phillips’ vision to build a city hall that would be “a symbol of Toronto [and a] source
of pride and pleasure to its citizens.”

While Armstrong offers a detailed discussion of the project’s local impact, architect and architectural historian George T. Kapelos situates the open competition for Toronto’s New City Hall and Square within the broader contexts of national and international architecture culture. Competing Modernisms: Toronto’s New City Hall and Square focuses on the unprecedented global interest that the competition generated. 

Australian architect John Andrews’ shortlisted entry included an intricate roof and both summer and winter squares. (Panda Photography)

Australian architect John Andrews’ shortlisted entry included an intricate roof and both summer and winter squares. (Panda Photography)

More than half of the book is devoted to the competition results, and includes useful tables providing statistics about the entries received. The book also offers descriptive analyses of the eight finalists, as well as concise commentaries on a selection of 23 Canadian entries and an overview of 27 submissions from international architects. Together, this material demonstrates the experimental approaches—or “competing Modernisms”—taken to the design of public space in the postwar period.

In his introductory essay, Kapelos discusses architectural competitions in Canada and Toronto’s daring in procuring the design of a civic centre through this means. He relates Eric Arthur’s competition brief to postwar, C.I.A.M.-influenced debates concerning the direction of Modern architecture. Many international competitions at the time stressed the importance of public spaces designed to serve and express the public life of the city. 

Kapelos offers a synthetic analysis of the entries’ variations in form, approach to public space, and evident influences. The typology of municipal buildings, asserts Kapelos, is an indicator of a city’s functional needs and symbolic aspirations. He compares Toronto’s civic project to other Canadian city halls in order to better contextualize the radicalness of Toronto’s competition process and the winning scheme.

In Revell’s elegant design, a reinforced concrete dome houses the Council Chamber and is framed by two curved office towers. (Arthur James)

In Revell’s elegant design, a reinforced concrete dome houses the Council Chamber and is framed by two curved office towers. (Arthur James)

Competing Modernisms convincingly demonstrates that within Canada, Toronto’s 1958 competition had a “seismic and enduring impact” on future developments. Not only did it spark important debates on the meaning of public buildings and on the place of competitions in commissioning them, but it also cultivated the acceptance of Modernist architecture as an appropriate style for major civic projects. Moreover, it raised expectations for the quality of urban public space. Drawing an arc of influence that extends far beyond the city proper, this book makes a larger claim for Toronto City Hall’s participation in the cultivation of a national identity.

Demonstrating a meticulous study of archival materials, both monographs attend to the civic mindedness and democratic ideals that characterized the design process—and the designed product—of Toronto’s civic centre. They demonstrate that Toronto’s competition not only transformed the image of the city, marking its entry onto the world stage, but was also a significant event within the global architectural community.

These publications do much to synthesize and make available the existing archival record. Let’s hope they stimulate further research and reflection on the civic phenomenon that is Toronto’s New City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square, on architectural competitions in the 20th and 21st centuries, and on architecture’s communicative role in the construction of collective identity.

Book authors George Kapelos and Christopher Armstrong co-curated the exhibition Shaping Canadian Modernity: The 1958 Toronto City Hall and Square Competition and its Legacy, displayed at Ryerson University’s Paul H. Cocker Gallery from September 1 to October 9, 2015.

Aliki Economides received her Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2015, and is currently teaching at the Université de Montréal’s École d’architecture.