Fort York National Historic Site Visitor Centre

ARCHITECT Patkau Architects Inc. in joint venture with Kearns Mancini Architects Inc.
LOCATION Toronto, Ontario

Fort York, considered the birthplace of Toronto, is a national historic site. It represents the single-most important cultural heritage link to British military and social history remaining in the city of Toronto. The Fort’s layered historical themes and associations with a rich archaeological past reinforces the need for sensitivity in design; the larger challenge of this project is not only to present the above-ground cultural heritage resources and to preserve the below-ground archaeological resources, but also to contribute in making the social, military and intangible histories of this site more present and palpable.

The project is the winner of an international competition to design and construct a new visitor centre at the Fort York National Historic Site in downtown Toronto. The Centre manages to address the natural and historical context of the site while simultaneously gaining efficiencies from a partially buried north façade and large concrete mass. The complex site chosen for the Visitor Centre sits directly beyond the Gardiner Expressway which runs along the southern end of the site. 

The Centre is part of a plan to revitalize the entire 17-acre site and is scheduled for completion in 2012 for the Bicentennial Commemoration of the War of 1812.The Fort York Visitor Centre will inform and educate the public about the history of this great site. 

Caught in a maze of giant infrastructure, the Visitor Centre participates in the architecture of lines and liquid landscapes of Fort York. Below the Common, the Centre constructs an escarpment of weathering steel, an extended wall to the site, one capable of joining with the scale of the Gardiner Expressway above to form the wall and roof of an extra-large new urban space for Toronto. The steel escarpment re-establishes the original sense of a defensive site, stretching across the site to meet the grassed escarpment directly below the Fort.

The outlines of former structures on the Common are projected down onto the urban site. These terraces trace footprints of an archaeology that is no longer actually present on the site due to the construction of the Gardiner Expressway. Traces differ in surface from contemporary terraces and are inscribed in various ways with text.

At the point that the land disturbed by the construction of the Gardiner ends, the lower Fort York Archaeological Site begins. Access to this site is carefully controlled. Visitors walk only on raised boardwalks to view the activities of the dig. 

On exiting the Centre, visitors can choose to ascend into the “ghost screen” to a viewing platform. At this height, an overview stretches between Fort York and the small cemetery to the west. The viewing platform is a prime location for watching re-enactment events on the Common.

Neighbours will continue to use the flatness of the Common for play, dog-walking and general recreation. The new pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the rail lines to the north connects across the Common, down the cut between the steel escarpment and the old concrete retaining wall toward the armoury. Other bike routes connect along the north edge of the fort, under Bathurst Street to eastern neighbourhoods and the new library and through the cemetery to the west. At night, the softly illuminated site and ghost screen encourage community events, signalling a new, safe, active and unique urban place to reconnect with history and play out the occasions of modern life.

WF This project invites the public to engage in a project that lays siege to the Gardiner Expressway. It takes the difficult underbelly of the expressway as the raw foil for an architecture of robust simplicity. Both additive and subtractive in its composition, the building speaks to the ongoing exploration of the history of the site. 

DN Framed from above by the Gardiner Expressway, the main façade of the visitor centre creates a strong and interesting elevation along Fort York Boulevard. The innovative way the architectural massing of the centre brings people through it in section, unrolling the history of Fort York as well as mediating different grades for views and access to the main fort works very well with the site and the adjacent Gardiner Expressway. The sculptural “panels” facing Fort York Boulevard create a type of ephemeral view that suggests it could disappear if the panels are closed.

PS Set between a decaying Modernist infrastructure and a hard-to-access heritage site, this project spans two fading histories which form an intriguing context and story about place. How we handle the remnants of civic infrastructure is becoming a critical discussion in Canada. Because of this, I think there is a poignancy to the urban condition in this proposal that reaches beyond Toronto. All Canadian cities are facing the hardships of decaying highways and bridges. Pressures to tend to the preservation of historical sites are as strong as the increasing demands to maintain failing bridges and highways. My hope is that the Centre, by bringing people in close proximity to this discussion, will nurture a kind of latent understanding of the severity our cities face in being able to successfully tend to both issues in years to come. The scheme itself promises to be a strong urban experience.

CLIENT City of Toronto
ARCHITECT TEAM John Patkau, Patricia Patkau, Jonathan Kearns, Tony Mancini, Mike Green, Michael Thorpe, Dan McNeil, Peter Shuter, Luke Stern, Dimitri Koubatis, Shane O’Neill, Thomas Schroeder, James Eidse, Peter Ng, Lucy O’Connor, Gabrial Didiano
STRUCTURAL Read Jones Christoffersen Consulting Engineers
LANDSCAPE Janet Rosenberg and Associates Landscape Architecture
INTERIORS Patkau Architects/Kearns Mancini Architects
HERITAGE CONSULTANTS Unterman McPhail Associates
PROJECT MANAGEMENT O.P. McCarthy & Associates Inc.
QUANTITY SURVEYOR A.W. Hooker Quantity Surveyors
LIFE SAFETY AON Risk Solutions
AREA 1,980 m2
BUDGET $12.3 M
COMPLETION December 2012