It’s got a fresh brand, a pair of festival tenants, and several glittering new high-rises for neighbours. Now, the re-christened David Pecaut Square – a muddled plaza that has long functioned as Metro Hall’s inauspicious front yard – needs an ambitious makeover to give it the gravitas befitting a major public open space at the heart of Toronto’s theatre and film district.
As it happens, for the past two years, a prominent architecture firm advising Roy Thomson Hall and Oxford Properties, which owns the site, has been quietly experimenting with ideas meant to transform the square into an outdoor cultural space with a strong sense of urban drama.
That kind of attention is a novelty. Until recently, few Torontonians thought twice about the gap between the Metro Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. It featured heavy-handed landscaping, unremarkable public art and pod-like stairwells protruding from the food court below. Roy Thomson turned its back to the square, built in 1982 by Arthur Erickson, and with good reason.
But then the city stirred. In the past year, construction crews have completed a sleek bank tower (RBC Dexia) and the Ritz-Carlton on Wellington, creating the atmosphere of a grand outdoor room, like New York’s Union Square.
The opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox down the block has injected the city’s signature festival into the King theatre strip. And this spring, Pecaut Square became the hub for Luminato and the TD Jazz Festival, confirming its role as a significant destination on the John Street cultural corridor.
Globe T.O. asked four prominent designers to discuss the square’s challenges and opportunities: Landscape architect Christine Abe, a principal at MBTW, is a member of the 2010 City of Toronto Urban Design Awards jury. James Brown, of Brown & Storey, designed Yonge-Dundas Square. Mark Sterling, a founding partner at &Co, teaches architecture at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture and Landscape Design at the University of Toronto. Tom Payne, a founding partner of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, has been working with Oxford and RTH since 2009 on ideas for re-inventing the Square.
JL: What’s the problem with Pecaut Square?
James Brown: It’s positioned beautifully, right in the middle of the city. It’s a large square and it’s got all kinds of things around it. [But] seeing it from the outside, it’s hard to understand that there really is a square there.
Christine Abe: With the plaza in the TD Centre, you can actually see the space as you walk along the street. With Pecaut Square, there’s no entry moment. There’s nothing that says, “Hey, there’s a great public space here. Come in and use and participate in it.”
JL: What’s the opportunity?
JB: The square’s got to evolve, adapt and find ways to change itself to the context. That’s the challenge.
Tom Payne: The centre of gravity of the downtown core has shifted west in the direction of the square. All the stakeholders around the perimeter are re-imagining how they can position themselves [in relation to it]. It’s very easy to scour the top. A reinvention of the retail [underneath] goes along with scouring the top. Roy Thomson is looking to symbolically bring the institution to King Street to make a physical and metaphorical bridge. They’re also looking to bridge to the west.
Mark Sterling: You also have to think about the connection back to the PATH. The sunken court along Roy Thomson Hall – I was walking through there the other day and realized there were sliding glass doors that open into the concourse. Never get opened. It’s essentially chopped up, privatized territory.
TP: I’ll just put out one idea. We imagined conceptually inscribing the ellipse [the large area of lawns and fountains in the centre of the square] and lifting it and tilting it to make a kind of viewing platform. You could draw light in and have people actually connected to the section of the plaza. But it would also be a viewing platform from which TIFF would benefit, with the galas, and the festivals.
MS: I like the idea of the tilted plane. I’m just back from Melbourne, where one of the things I was looking at was Federation Square. It’s a really interesting kind of tilted plane, built over a former railway cut. They populated the surface with cultural institutions and built some structures that helped the performance activities. Plus they were really good about managing the ways in and out of that square. They had very similar indoor lobby-like spaces, not unlike the two that are at the north and south edges of Pecaut Square. But they were more than just an office lobby.
TP: For us, [the tilted plane] was an idea about how you could accommodate performances more readily, but also incorporate into the landscape of the plaza some really meaningful artwork at a big scale. Chicago’s Millennium Park delivers a powerful lesson about the need to seduce and then deliver. When you get there, there are these awesome public-art pieces by Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, and then the [Jaume] Plensa piece, about water and pleasure. Everything is working together – landscape, public art, the cultural pieces. And it’s revalued the entire Loop.
CA: The Crown Fountain in Millennium Park is almost like this changing, moving dynamic piece. If you go to that space, whether it’s 4 o’clock in the morning or 4 in the afternoon, it has a character and it draws people in. We don’t have anything like that. Particularly in the cultural corridor, where you have theatres letting out at 11 p.m., is there a space that brings you in and engages people?
MS: The square has got to start to feel like one of the living rooms of the city. It’s got to have some of the things we might want to find in our own living rooms, such as an ability to leave and get something to eat. There’s one or two restaurants on the outside but there’s nothing on [the square itself].
That’s one of the real opportunities. What if there were three restaurants in that square? You’d have people coming and going all the time. As it is now, you have a whole bunch of office lobbies that are very cyclical in their ability to draw people.
JL: Tom, can you bring Roy Thomson into this discussion?
TP: If you look at cultural institutions in Toronto and the world, some have re-imagined themselves in a new paradigm, where the lobby ceases to be a kind of dark space most of the day. [Instead] it comes alive early and stays lively late into the evening. TIFF does that and so does the Young Centre. Roy Thomson wants to re-imagine itself as a much more lively place during the day. That may involve a different way to take tickets. Everything that has been imagined [for RTH] is about dissolving the boundaries between it and the square.
JL: Who will be the champion of David Pecaut Square?
TP: Control resides with the city through a lease agreement, but the land is owned by Oxford. The participants would also include Roy Thomson, because they want to do the right thing. All the people around the perimeter, whether they are cultural facilities or commercial, want to have a voice.
JB: It’s not just an expenditure. It’s an investment that pays back in spades once you get that space to really work.
MS: The CBC refers to it now as “the new David Pecaut Square” when they’re talking about all the events going on here. You think “Well, that’s great, but what if that’s all we get – just the renaming?”
CA: You don’t want a great person’s name attached to a mediocre space.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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