Canadian Architect


Detailed Experiences

Three small and intriguing public projects set the agenda for a young Toronto firm.

April 1, 2005
by Ian Chodikoff

How can an emerging practice develop in a conservative and unforgiving market like Toronto? In what ways can small public interventions be useful in refining a firm’s design ideology for current and future work? Three recent projects by Tania Bortolotto Design Architect Inc. demonstrate how small-scale interventions can embody a considered approach to architectural thought in the public realm.

Bortolotto Design Architect Inc. is presently located in a storefront office amidst some of Toronto’s best restaurants and the country’s highest density of independent booksellers. The firm boasts a staff of six people who, in addition to the usual portfolio of private residences and interior design contracts, have engaged in projects that can be appreciated by the public while serving to refine and define the firm’s own design methodology with respect to materials, details and existing physical and historical site conditions.

Having worked for Stephen Teeple and John Shnier, Bortolotto spent several years with Diamond and Schmitt Architects before starting her own practice in 1999. Her firm is a rare example in a roster of emerging Toronto practices that has loosened the iron grip on the Toronto market that large, established corporate firms have enjoyed for a long period of time. It is interesting to note that this situation is far less common in almost every other part of Canada.

The three Toronto projects include: a new entrance to Fort York, the Crash Pad at the Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre, and a series of new security gates for Toronto City Hall. These interventions are modest in scope and indicative of a clear approach to detailing. Each of these projects has a budget well under $200,000.

Bortolotto’s Crash Pad is what first garnered her media attention in 2004. It is a simple, inexpensive design for a storage locker under the bleacher mezzanine of a Toronto gymnasium. A new wall was required to store and secure gym equipment such as basketballs and yoga mats. The client had initially suggested drywall or concrete for the wall but Bortolotto dismissed these suggestions as impractical for reasons of safety and durability. Her response was to develop rows of horizontal, rubberized tubes that would become a series of lockable gates that could withstand stray basketballs and overzealous basketball players inevitably flinging themselves against the wall. Bortolotto had to undergo a fair bit of research into the design and manufacture of the rubberized tubes. Issues included the precise spacing of the tubes to prevent climbing and to provide an otherwise safe facility as well as concerns regarding vandalism by knives and cigarette lighters.

The challenge of the gates for Toronto City Hall– Viljo Revell’s 1965 Modernist icon– was to prevent people from walking up to the podium level of the building. With the current considerations for defensible public spaces, Bortolotto intended to maintain the original design intentions of the architecture while addressing the myriad of security issues. The transparency of the gates is noteworthy and is meant to reinforce the public nature of City Hall. This is ironic considering that the new intervention can only control and undermine public movement through Nathan Phillips Square.

The interconnecting steel frames are manufactured with elegant handles that swing up and out which can be easily operated, even by a municipal worker wearing heavy gloves. The hanging curtains of metal mesh reflect the horizontality of the steel elements found in the original City Hall. The linearity of the gates is also reflective of the strong vertical fluting found on the concrete that comprises the north curvature of City Hall. Although the extent of Bortolotto’s design is small, the architectural ideas address the issues associated with public safety, the reinterpretation of public space, and the challenges associated with responding to a Modernist icon.

At Fort York, a series of new design interventions were commissioned by the City of Toronto so that both the interpretation of the site and the preservation of its character would be ensured. The design response consisted primarily of a concrete terrace to guide visitors through a central entrance. The new forecourt is supposed to keep visitors–such as irreverent school children–within a central area before staff members can safely take them through the facility. A glass entry canopy, drinking fountain, bench and a series of stainless steel gates and guardrails were also used to ensure a controlled flow of visitors through a sensitive historic facility. Original stone and masonry walls need to be protected from both people and the elements. There are many archaeological remains on the site from earlier buildings and events, and are critical aspects of the site that must be preserved for future study and appreciation. Thus, in addition to the watchful eye of staff, the gates, lighting and hardscapes allow Fort York to be both appreciated and preserved.

The aesthetic of the material palette (concrete, steel and glass) allows the new design interventions to remain separate from the original Fort York, which dates back to 1793. For example, the new concrete forecourt was designed to appear as though it sits tentatively on the historic landscape that distances itself from the historic barracks. The stainless steel guardrails ensure that the original buildings are protected from visitors, and remain as unobtrusive as possible to mitigate the barrier between visitors and the original buildings.

Many lessons can be learned from these three commissions. Modest budgets, simple material palettes, industrial design, defensible space, historic preservation as well as the experience of outdoor civic and interpretative spaces can be used to define future agendas and grander operations of this young practice. After several years of silence in the Toronto architectural scene, we are witnessing the establishment of a new generation of firms.


Project: Fort York Entrance, Historic Fort York, Toronto, Ontario

Client: City of Toronto

Architect Team: Tania Bortolotto, Flavio Trevisan, Alex Horber, Jerry Lin

Structural: Blackwell Engineering

Mechanical/Electrical: G&M Technical Services Ltd.

Steel Manufacturer: Pengelly Iron Works

Area: 1,800 ft2

Completion: September 2004

Project: Crash Pad at the Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre, Toronto, Ontario

Client: City of Toronto

Architect Team: Tania Bortolotto, Greg Hildebrand

Contractor: Builtron Ltd.

Structural: Blackwell Engineering

Completion: September 2004

Project: Toronto City Hall Gates, Toronto, Ontario

Client: City of Toronto

Architect Team: Tania Bortolotto, Jerry Lin, Flavio Trevisan

Contractor: Builtron Ltd.

Structural: Blackwell Engineering

Mechanical/Electrical: G&M Technical Services Ltd.

Contractor: Across Canada Construction

Steel Manufacturer: Soheil Mosun Ltd.

Completion: January 2004

Photography: Tom Arban

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