Viewpoint (April 01, 2007)

The spirit of the competition is not dead. The Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization Competition–recently won by the collaboration of PLANT Architect Inc., Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners, Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture Inc. and Adrian Blackwell–is the successful outcome of a well organized initiative to renew Toronto’s premiere public square.

The decision to pursue a competition came shortly after an article by George Baird in the summer of 2005. Baird’s article, appearing in a Toronto Society of Architects newsletter, poignantly called for the square to be properly “curated” instead of undergoing a design competition. City Council proceeded with the competition, taking Baird’s criticisms to heart. The guiding principles for the competition were eventually described in an extremely thorough design brief that outlined real programmatic requirements while respecting the original iconic design by Viljo Revell.

At the end of last February, the winning team plus the other three finalists (Baird Sampson Neuert Architects with VLAN paysagistes; Rogers Marvel Architects with Ken Smith Landscape Architect; Zeidler Partnership Architects) presented their designs to a packed crowd in the Council Chambers at City Hall. Competition advisor Peter Ortved–a principal of the Toronto firm of CS&P Architects–shed a tear of gratitude acknowledging all the competitors assembled inside the room. The remarkable energy displayed by the finalists demonstrated a sincere desire to improve the site’s potential. However, a highly instructive aspect of city-building emerged in the process–the different approaches to conveying the ideas behind one’s own work. Such lessons are important to understand–whether one is an architecture student or a seasoned professional. To be focused and visionary is more than just about perfecting a speaking style–it reveals an ability to be engaged with the public.

For example, even though Tarek El-Khatib of the Zeidler Partnership worked with a large team, delivering a solo presentation for a public site like Nathan Phillips Square was perhaps a misguided strategy. While earnest and extremely well intentioned, El-Khatib’s presentation contained too many features (i.e., product) and not enough process. Thoroughly professional, his pitch for the Square would be better served in a boardroom rather than a public forum. The presentation led by architect Barry Sampson and landscape architect Julie Saint-Arnault was credible but failed to convince the audience of their scheme’s clarity of vision–their landscape strategy appeared disconnected from the architecture. With a scheme lacking coherence, it was not surprising that they were interrupting each other during the presentation. In a style honed by experience, the undeniable victors of the evening’s presentations were Jonathan Marvel and Ken Smith, who delivered a seamless dialogue in which both architect and landscape architect conveyed a carefully edited concept and vision. As for Chris Pommer and Andrew Frontini, members of the winning team, what they lacked in age-acquired experience was compensated for by ambition and a knowledge of the local political context and the design capabilities of the site.

Pommer and Frontini emerged as winners who clearly demonstrate a design intelligence that will clarify the perimeter of the Square, consolidate many of its functions towards the periphery, improve connections to the site, and finally, redesign the Peace Garden–that ill-conceived heap of postmodern dreck infested by cigarette butts, garbage cans and benches placed amidst what appears to be the detritus of a neglected City-operated garden nursery.

Nathan Phillips Square has the potential to emerge as a pre-eminent public space to accommodate the various constituencies comprising such a cosmopolitan city. As a public process, the competition allowed designers to reflect upon the ways in which they engage in a dialogue with the city.