Toronto bemoans its lack of history and grandeur while the wrecking ball demolishes what little historic artifacts it has left. While Toronto compares itself to New York and London, much of its built heritage is disappearing. Is it any wonder that we’re confused about who we are and where we are going when we can’t see our past?
There are a few pockets around the city where one can see some of Toronto’s excellent historic architecture. The St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood and Cabbagetown are two examples. The University of Toronto is another unique and notable specimen. With only five structures demolished over the course of its 154-year history, the campus has one of the best preservation track records in the city.
Just because the University hasn’t dismantled its past doesn’t mean it’s stuck there. The campus has seen an incredible amount of change over the years, with enrollment continuously rising – and through the symbiosis of old and new, U of T has found a way to grow, adapt and expand as needed.
In recent years, the campus has seen a wave of thoughtful additions and expansions to historic structures on site. These new buildings respectfully improve upon the existing structures while adding 21st century space to accommodate more students, faculty and programs. These changes are not just about adding square footage. Through new connections, such as ramps and corridors, accessibility and circulation have been improved. Besides enhancing outdoor spaces, landscape and lighting features improve the campus’ sustainability and increase safety.
The Munk Center for International Studies is one example of a complementary update and addition to three historic buildings, once residences for men, built by Eden Smith & Sons in 1909. The new additions, by KPMB Architects in 2000, unite the three buildings with a cloister and additions between and at the end of the existing structures. The architectural detailing and warm-toned material selections highlights the older architecture without copying it.
Max Gluskin House, the home of The Department of Economics, is another interesting blend of old and new. A contemporary glazed addition peeks out from between a 1960 Georgian-revival style building and a Victorian mansion from 1889. The scale and simplicity of the addition, designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects in 2008, does not overpower the historic architecture but playfully provides a counterpoint.
Robarts Library is currently undergoing a contemporary facelift as well. The monumental building, loved and hated since its construction in the 1970s, is receiving interior upgrades as well as expansions into the former exterior terraces (which connect the main building to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and the Faculty of Information pavilions). The renovations are being led by Diamond + Schmitt Architects, who have executed several exemplary buildings across campus (such as the Bahen Center for Information Technology and the Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories/Davenport Chemical Research Building, two excellent projects that beautifully blend old and new). Here, however, something has gone slightly awry. While the interior upgrades are simple, respectful and much needed, the expansion into the terraced spaces feels wrong. The new exterior glazing for the enclosed terraced spaces makes no reference to the original glass detailing of Robarts whatsoever – a missed opportunity for a contemporary retake on the library’s architectural details. This lack of harmony - or even dialogue - between the old and the new could be excusable if it created a significant amount of study space for students. However, the majority of the new interior space is occupied by display cases, with ‘study space’ relegated to the edges in an awkward bar and stool configuration. While the motives to enclose these once stupendous outdoor spaces were honourable, the design forgets both students and the original architecture.
With so much of Toronto’s historic architecture lost, it is not surprising that sometimes we get a little confused going forward. For the most part, this is not a problem for the University of Toronto. It knows where it came from, and it displays its past proudly, side by side with its new edifices. The campus is solidly building its bridge into the future.