Toronto City Hall

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It is but ugly from North-East-West; when the view is Southerly, it can tell a hawk from a handsaw.

The Long Version: This review is about the architecture: the container, not the contents.

The building itself is a square base with two curved towers cupping a flying-saucer shaped council chamber. It's an excellent piece of Modernist architecture, completed in 1965, and designed by Viljo Revell as his only work outside of his native Finland. It faces south, looking at the public square in front of it, Queen street, the Financial district, and Lake Ontario. Seeing the structure from Queen street is an impressive sight -- soon to get better once the square is redone -- exactly the way the architect intended it.

There's a lot to like about the New City Hall. It has outdoor art, a much-photographed fountain that turns into a mushy skating rink in our increasingly mild winters, and even has a peace garden with an eternal flame lit by His Holiness Pope John Paul 2. There are free concerts and art festivals in the summer, it hosts Christmas and New Year's celebrations in the winter, and has hot dog vendors all year. What more could you ask?

How about wanting a better metaphor for city governance?

The photo at top of this review shows the other side of City Hall -- the sides that face the city. Here all of the positive associations are reversed: the building has its back to the city it serves, showing only windowless walls as the towers huddle inwards to shelter the council chambers. It's ugly and unwelcoming, to the point where being buried in more glass condo towers with uninspired names will be a relief. Ever the source of understatement, even Wikipedia has an opinion: "The north, west, and east elevations are plain in contrast with the south elevation; each presents a view of unrelieved concrete."

Displaced to build it in the mid 1950's, much of Toronto's Chinese population moved just a little north and west to Spadina avenue, largely but not entirely displacing most of Toronto's Jewish population, who also moved a little farther north. Since then, the city has expanded tremendously, all to the north, east, and west of the building that houses the city's management and forms its logo. You literally cannot see the vast majority of the city from city hall.

Given that architecture is a form of communication, and that this building is a monument to public life, there's no excuse for such an insular and literally self-centered design.


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