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Governor General’s Medal Winner: Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization

WINNER OF A 2016 GOVERNOR GENERAL’S MEDAL IN ARCHITECTURE

May 19, 2016
by Canadian Architect

The revitalized Nathan Phillips Square includes the renewal of infrastructure underneath the plaza, as well as the addition of a new theatre, skate and snack pavilion, relocated Peace Garden, and an extensive green roof on the podium. Landscape and seating areas at the perimeter encourage movement under the surrounding walkways and into the Square. Photo by Chris Pommer.

The revitalized Nathan Phillips Square includes the renewal of infrastructure underneath the plaza, as well as the addition of a new theatre, skate and snack pavilion, relocated Peace Garden, and an extensive green roof on the podium. Landscape and seating areas at the perimeter encourage movement under the surrounding walkways and into the Square. Photo by Chris Pommer.

LOCATION Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECTS PLANT Architect Inc. in joint venture with Perkins+Will Canada (formerly Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners Inc.)

Toronto City Hall is a well-loved Modernist icon. Completed in 1965— after the death of its architect, the Finnish master Vijo Revell—the heritage-designated square was true to the spatial arrangement Revell had envisioned. Over time, however, it had become run-down.

In 2007, the City of Toronto launched an international competition to redesign Nathan Phillips Square. The winning design both draws from Revell’s own references to the classical Athenian agora and transforms the square into an exemplary 21st century public space. Through the redesign or relocation of existing elements and the addition of a new series of buildings and gardens framing the open plaza, the revitalization enhances the functionality, versatility, connectedness and appeal of Toronto’s signature civic space.

One of Revell’s master strokes was never fully developed: while his elevated walkways framed the square and focused views toward the council chamber, the Athenian idea of the stoaa porch at the perimeter that clearly defined the interior voidwas lost in translation.

Designed to complement the Modernist style of Viljo Revell’s City Hall, the theatre accommodates large scale performances as well as encouraging casual use as a perch overlooking the plaza. Photo by Steven Evans.

Designed to complement the Modernist style of Viljo Revell’s City Hall, the theatre accommodates large scale performances as well as encouraging casual use as a perch overlooking the plaza. Photo by Steven Evans.

To return to Revell’s idea and strengthen the square’s coherence, the winning team executed four tactical moves. First, it opened the square by removing clutter at the centre, allowing the space to accommodate large events. Second, it created programmed, porous “green rooms” around the perimeter to frame the square and provide gathering spaces. Third, it created new connections between the raised walkway and the square, and activated these spaces to feed the plaza’s programming. Finally, it strengthened links between zones by using new architecture to bridge between the two levels of the square.

Major architectural components include the redesigned skate pavilion and a permanent stage with back-of-house suspended below in the parking garage. All elements are multifunctional. The glass-canopied, terraced form of the theatre, for instance, provides covered public space and casual seating when not in use for performances, and its stairs connect the raised walkway to the square. Small events can take place with performers facing westward toward stairs that act as bleachers; for larger events, the stage faces eastward to overlook the entire square.

The original Peace Garden, added in 1983 near the square’s centre, had compromised the sense of openness and ability to accommodate crowds. The design team relocated it to the western edge, freeing up space for larger events. The new Peace Garden features terraced seating that conceals an underground parking garage’s exhaust duct while muffling its sound. Other elements include a playground redesign, a new Sculpture Garden, a new forecourt along Queen Street, and a future two-storey restaurant. The master plan includes refurbishing the existing elevated walkways with gardens and seating.

Prior to the revitalization, City Hall’s podium was a grim, paved void: it is now Toronto’s largest publicly accessible green roof, a popular urban retreat for sitting and strolling. The Podium Roof Garden’s plantings, which change seasonally from bright yellows and oranges in the southwest to deep reds and purples in the northeast, were chosen to thrive in the site’s challenging shade and wind conditions.

From the ground up, the new City Hall has achieved a 21st century remake.

:: Jury :: Nathan Phillips Square has long been the symbolic centre of the city, but was too often left empty or littered with temporary structures. The courageous renovation and reprogramming of the square now makes it one of the most sought-after public spaces in Toronto. Carefully balancing Viljo Revell’s original design with new additions to support active uses in all seasons, it has become a hyper-democratic place. With purposefully designed spaces allowing people to unwind or be active, engage in collective experiences or seek solitude, the square accommodates many different users and uses. What makes this project so great is that it preserves the essentials of this historic square while adapting it for future generations. The jury commends the architects and the City of Toronto for realizing this project, which has created one of the most outstanding public spaces in Canada.

Client City of Toronto | Competition/Project Design Team PLANT Architect Inc., Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners/Perkins+Will, Inc., Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architecture, Adrian Blackwell Urban Projects Architect 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. Hoerr Schaudt—Peter Lindsay Schaudt, John Ridenour, Jon Brooke, Shawn Weidner, Justin Libra. Adrian Blackwell Urban Projects—Adrian Blackwell, Marcin Kedzior, Geoffrey Turnbull, Alan Kwan. | Structural Blackwell Bowick Engineering | Mechanical/Electrical Crossey Engineering Ltd. | Soils Urban Trees + Soil | Heritage Blanche Lemko van Ginkel | Lighting Crossey Engineering Ltd. | Quantity Surveyor Vermeulens Inc. | Fountain Waterworx | Ecological Enermodal Engineering Ltd. | Interiors Perkins+Will, Inc. | Contractor Flynn Canada/Gardens in the Sky (Phase 1A); PCL Constructors Canada (Phase 1 & 2); Four Seasons Site Development (Phase 3) | Area 10 ACRES (LAND); 2,953 M2 (THEATRE) | Budget $42 M | Completion 2009-2015