Longview: R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant

Architectural photographer Amanda Large's year-long look at Canada's iconic temple to water.

In 1932, construction began on Toronto’s Victoria Park Water Filtration Plant and Pumping Station. Designed by architect Thomas Canfield Pomphrey and engineers Gore, Nasmith and Storrie, it held forty filtration beds, making it the city’s largest facility for cleaning and disinfecting water drawn from Lake Ontario, for safe use as drinking water. By the time it was completed, in 1941, it was known as “the palace of purification.” A few years later, it was renamed in honour of Ronald Caldwell Harris, the visionary Commissioner of Works that conceived of the plant.

Over the course of a year, architectural photographer Amanda Large documented the buildings and grounds of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. “I wanted to spend some time revisiting a place over and over, getting to know how it changes in the light and in the seasons,” says Large, who first became aware of the plant when an architecture professor assigned Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion. Her photographs, taken with film, digital cameras, drones, and polaroids, capture the plant’s enduring architecture, but also its ongoing life as a working facility—and a place integral to the life of the city.

Public access to the R.C. Harris Plant closed down following 9/11, but its lakeside grounds remain open to the public. Its popularity among locals increased during the pandemic lock-downs. Large took this picture on Boxing Day, 2020, when she took her kids tobogganing on the grounds. “It was grey when we left the house,” recalls Large, “and then this magical light materialized out of nowhere.”
The southern structure on the site holds a series of water filtration beds—a technology that has changed little from the plant’s inception almost a hundred years ago. The absence of mechanical systems means that the space is almost eerily quiet. “Other parts of the buildings are quite loud, but these pools are silent,” says Large. “It feels like a meditative, almost sacred place.”
Large expected the plant’s grounds to be deserted at night, but found that they were busy with groups of people lounging on the grass and socializing in the welcome cool of summer evenings. This photo was taken right after 10 pm—when the site closes for the evening, and security guards usher everyone out.