Looking Back: Metropolitan Central YMCA, Toronto, Ontario

The Metropolitan Central YMCA after completion. Photo by Fiona Spalding-Smith (Reprinted from The Canadian Architect, April 1985)
The Metropolitan Central YMCA after completion. Photo by Fiona Spalding-Smith (Reprinted from The Canadian Architect, April 1985)

My first visit to Toronto was in 1972 when, as a young professor, I brought a group of architecture students from sleepy Indiana to progressive Canada, to see “real cities” and bold new works of architecture such as Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, Eberhard Zeidler’s Ontario Place, John Andrews’ Scarborough College, and Diamond and Myers’ York Square.

On that trip, the students and I stayed at the Young Men’s Christian Association on College Street, near Bay. Completed in 1912, it was a no-nonsense structure by Toronto architects Burke Horwood & White. All that solidity came tumbling down in 1985 when the aging Y was demolished to make way for a grandiose Postmodern police headquarters. 

That same year, the new Metropolitan Central YMCA opened two blocks to the north on Grosvenor Street. Well before the ribbon was cut, it was heralded by Vancouver architect Bruno Freschi as “world-class architecture” when in 1982, he and fellow jurors gave it a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence for its design.

The Y was authored by Jack Diamond and Donald Schmitt, when their firm had about 15 people. Now Diamond Schmitt Architects is an international practice with 170 people. The firm has completed projects in 14 countries on four continents. Looking back, the YMCA is a small modest project that could easily be “just one more” on Diamond Schmitt’s long project list. But this is not the case: the Y continues to endure, resonate and inspire.

Walking through the building with Greater Toronto YMCA administrators, I was struck by their genuine admiration of not only the building but also the architects, whom they characterized as practical, ethical and dedicated to furthering a social dimension through design. Property manager Alex Versluis spoke glowingly about the Y’s “big scale and good bones”—an underlying physical structure which has allowed for flexibility and change. (Most changes have been minor and on the interior. On the exterior, a glass-box meeting room was extended over the main entry a few years ago, and the forecourt was renovated to improve accessibility and functionality.) There have been challenges with upgrading mechanical systems and reducing energy consumption, but solutions have been found.

The athlete's stair. Photo by Fiona Spalding-Smith (Reprinted from The Canadian Architect, April 1985)
The central stair doubles as an active exercise space. Photo by Fiona Spalding-Smith (Reprinted from The Canadian Architect, April 1985)

The sophisticated Louis Kahn-inspired geometry continues to provide conceptual integrity, and the “exercise stair” that rises magnificently through the building looks the same as it did 30 years ago, when I first reviewed the building for Canadian Architect. Attention to the circulation armature of a building was (and still is) among Diamond Schmitt’s most admirable traits. They understand circulation as an opportunity for social engagement. As well, the robust materials—brick, manufactured stone, terrazzohave held up remarkably well. The building transcends matters of style. Although the label “world class” might seem like a stretch now, the awarding in 1986 of a Governor General’s Medal for Architecture to Diamond and Schmitt for the YMCA still seems fitting.

The only disappointing part of my visit was my walk along the east laneway, where the building wraps around Toronto Fire Station No. 314. The laneway is shabby—overrun with weeds and graffiti. Looking north, there are mundane glass towers a few blocks away, some finished, some under construction. It is the junky side of Toronto, the down-at-the-heel public-realm side of Toronto. It reminds me of how far the city’s architectural and civic aspirations have plunged since my first visit in 1972, and how extremely difficult it is today to achieve something of enduring quality like the Metropolitan Central YMCA.

Larry Wayne Richards is Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. He is cofounder of Toronto think tank WORKshop Inc.