May 11, 2017
by Elsa Lam
Roger du Toit, right, works with collaborators at a consultation session for Carleton University’s new master plan.
Canada’s centennial in 1967 arrived with a sense of decided optimism, as the country entered a period of explosive growth. Roger du Toit, this year’s RAIC Gold Medal winner, charted a career that coincided with this era. He was a leader in shaping the burgeoning country, taking advantage of opportunities that arrive perhaps only once in a generation.
Du Toit earned his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1960, but his interests in design were far more diverse than a single discipline could encompass. At the University of Toronto, he studied urban design with Jack Diamond, FRAIC; by 1967, he had become a partner with John Andrews Architects, where he came to lead the urban design aspects of the practice. Later, landscape design was also added to the purview of his expertise.
The idea of design as a holistic enterprise was in the air in the 1970s. Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature and Christopher Alexander’s The Oregon Experiment were touchstones for du Toit. The former laid out a method for overlaying multiple sources of information to understand a site’s complexities. The latter documented a pilot campus planning project that relied on broad democratic participation and user-focused collaboration.
These principles were first tested with du Toit’s leadership on the plan for Metro Centre, a modern development in downtown Toronto that was one of the largest single improvement schemes in North America at the time. Faced with an intricate web of considerations, du Toit developed a method of bringing together consultants in a collegial manner that would become a hallmark of his practice.
In a document of the same era, On Building Downtown, du Toit worked with co-authors including George Baird, FRAIC and Stephen McLaughlin to develop guidelines for the development of downtown Toronto. Rather than being prescriptive in character, the document was based on clearly illustrated design principles, which give it continued relevance. This method of demonstrating key strategies, rather than dictating the final results, is another that du Toit would develop throughout his work.
Several of du Toit’s best known projects involved long relationships with clients. In 1982, du Toit Associates Planning was asked to recommend sites for the National Gallery of Canada and Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Their study, which envisaged a long-term link between Ottawa and Hull, led to planning studies throughout the Capital that continue to the present. In Regina, he was appointed to head the Wascana Centre area’s design advisory committee and refresh its master plan every five years—a process that continued, with some breaks, for several decades.
Far from the stereotype of the top-down planner, du Toit was often engaged in issues from the grassroots level. He took an activist role in advocating for the dismantling of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway with Jack Layton, a position that would later come to underpin his firm’s work on Toronto’s waterfront. He was wary of getting pigeonholed in abstract planning, and insisted on pursuing architecture, urban design and landscape design projects that would be realized. The same philosophy continues to inform his office to this day. DTAH aims to maintain a balance between the disciplines, and seeks out well-rounded staff that can work in multiple fields.
Behind all of du Toit’s work is a vision of looking at the city from a broader perspective, and a passion for the common good. In du Toit’s spirit, his firm continues to ask: What is the public good, in both private and public projects? Says Robert Allsopp, partner at DTAH, “ This goes beyond responding to the stated need. How do you get added value, not in dollars but in something less tangible?” It’s a challenge that the insights of architecture, urban design and landscape design can powerfully respond to—especially when combined with the passion of an exceptional individual such as Roger du Toit.