Viewpoint (October 01, 2005)

There is an interesting debate brewing over a site in the historic suburb of Toronto’s Don Mills: should we save a modernist building and compromise the designs of two internationally known architects, or should we allow these architects to disseminate global culture unencumbered by a ’60s building?

The 18-acre site in question is to be developed by the Aga Khan Development Network and will be known as Wynford Park. It is located roughly within the boundaries of the Don Valley Parkway, Eglinton Avenue and Wynford Drive. Occupying the site are a few grazing Canada geese, and a building that the Aga Khan already owns– the vacant headquarters of the Bata International Centre, designed by John C. Parkin in 1964. This building, an example of Canadian corporate modernism, bears a striking resemblance to SOM’s Emhart Corporation built in Connecticut in 1957, a design that inspired Sonja Bata when she hired the architects. The Bata building has an elegant modular two-storey rectangular plan with a colonnade on the ground floor. Comprised of tree-like concrete columns that are clad with either marble aggregate or exposed precast concrete, the building is perched on top of a hill overlooking the Don Valley Expressway below. While the south faade looks onto Eglinton Avenue, the north faade contains four service cores incorporating elevators, stairs, washrooms and a staff kitchen. Parkin’s building is a decent, above-average Modernist specimen. However, to demand its retention will only mitigate the design potential for a significant architectural achievement commissioned by the Aga Khan: a new Ismaili Centre by Charles Correa and a new Aga Khan Museum by Fumihiko Maki. This will be the first time that both Maki and Correa will design a building in Canada. Moriyama & Teshima Architects are the Toronto-based joint venture partners for the projects.

If all goes according to plan, Wynford Park will become a significant international centre for the roughly 75,000 Ismailis in Canada and the 16 million Ismaili Muslims around the world who mostly originate from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Aga Khan is an influential cultural and religious leader for the Ismailis and is a sponsor of the Aga Khan Trust for Architecture, a well-known program that is credited with realizing sophisticated projects relating to cultural sustainability and Muslim heritage around the world.

Located near the Ontario Science Centre and a significant Toronto Muslim population, Wynford Park has the potential of celebrating Toronto’s cosmopolitan diversity while elevating that city’s position as a leader in disseminating global culture through educational and outreach programs. There are those who feel that perhaps another site should be considered but a vision of this magnitude should not be sequestered to an anonymous site in the city. Wynford Park should be treated as an important benchmark for architecture in Canada. It should position us as a country that is a portal for global culture in the 21st century. Don Mills represents one of the finest Canadian suburbs exemplifying the glory and ambition of postwar Canadian architecture. But in 2005, this suburb and the suburbs of most Canadian cities have become hosts to a multitude of cultural and religious interests which have yet to realize their architectural potential.

The wholesale retention of our modernist inventory may inadvertently preclude the continued evolution of our communities–suburban or otherwise–while stunting our abilities as a nation to promote cultural diversity through architecture. Nonetheless, it should be noted that destroying a good building such as the one on Wynford Drive should only take place if the new Ismaili Centre by Correa is confirmed. If we hastily tear down the Bata building while dissuading the Aga Khan from building his dream, we will have only created a monument to our own ineptitude–another empty and banal suburban lot.