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Toronto Update: Dundas Square (1998) and Fort York Visitor Center (2009)
by Anne Cormier, published 2011-02-11
The elected of the Queen City have not hesitated in recent years to use the competition process to transform large public spaces including the Nathan Phillips Square and the shores of Lake Ontario. Toronto seems today to be the top ranking city of urban design competitions...

Toronto documentation, however has arrived in dribs and drabs (notice to interested parties), as the L.E.A.P. lab at Université de Montréal begins 2011 by presenting two competitions of great interest a few years after they were held. Their archival in the CCC will contribute to a more complete picture of the role of competitions in the development of the city of Toronto as well as to the architectural and urban ideas that we can draw from. The winning project of the first competition introduced this month, Dundas Square, is now built; the Fort York Visitor Center meanwhile is awaiting funding and should be built shortly. Eleven years have passed between these two competitions and we note that the passage of a decade is manifested mainly through the digital mode of representation and the emergence of obvious concerns for sustainable development.

Dundas Square is situated at the heart of the city, at the intersection of Yonge Street, the main thoroughfare of the city, and Dundas Street. This is a new urban space that was destined to become the Times Square of Toronto and to the achievement of which a section of the urban fabric dotted with small shops typical of Yonge Street has been compromised to the chagrin of some.

In the first phase, 48 teams submitted their candidature and outlined their intentions, of these, six competitors were selected to develop a project in the second phase with remuneration. Competitors had to contend with an irregular site perimeter, an underground parking on three and a half floors built by a third party, a connection to the subway and PATH (the Toronto underground system), a ticket office (T.O. TIX, the Toronto equivalent to the New York TKTS) and many popular activities. The program also announced the installation of giant screens in front of the buildings bordering the square.

Curiously, this noisy context inspired at least two of the most sober proposals including that of the winners Brown and Storey Architects, a firm renowned for its sensitive urban interventions who was inspired by their own work on the ravines of Toronto to develop a very nuanced project relying on the history of the site. Kohn Schnier Architects less known for the discretion of their interventions have equally opted for serenity nestled "in the eye of the tornado". In use however, once the winning design was built and adjacent buildings completed, it appears that the tornado has prevailed.

The competition for the Fort York Visitor Centre, launched in anticipation of the bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812, offered a fascinating architectural design exercise with regards to the history, the territory as well as the notions of limit and scale. As a reminder, the War of 1812 was between Great Britain and the United States where Fort York situated in the Upper Canada had twice been looted during the clashes.

The fort built on the shores of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of Garrison Creek (garrison of the French word ‘garnison'), is now surrounded by huge pillars of the Gardiner Expressway, an endless elevated infrastructure that separates Toronto's downtown and lakefront, by the important footprint of the CN rail and Bathurst Street. With time and urbanization, embankments have erased Garrison Creek and moved the shore of the lake 500 meters south. The territorial context of the fort was upset to the point of becoming completely incomprehensible.

The four firms that participated in the competition following a call for candidacies, proposed highly developed projects, each of them offering an original strategy to reinterpret this very challenging context. In all cases, the projects implemented under the pillars of the Gardiner Expressway or against them, negotiated between the strangely bucolic nature of the "commons" situated near the fort, the reality of the contemporary city and the relationship to the Gardiner highway. And in the end, the sharpness and strength of the peaceful representation of the winning proposal, Patkau Architects / Kearns Mancini Architects, which offer a skillful and idyllic reading of the highway (one of the renderings has been used by the Fort York Foundation on the homepage of their website, www.fortyorkfoundation.ca/FYFnews.html) significantly weighed in the balance of the architectural judgment. For you to see...

NOTE: The author would like to express her thanks to Marie-Paule Macdonald, professor at the University of Waterloo, for her comments and infos.
(translated by Carmela Cucuzzella)
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