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Grey Bancroft granite, arranged in book-matched pairs at the MacDonald Block located at 900 Bay St. in Toronto, on Nov. 28, 2018. Photos by Fred Lum.

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What does a historic building look like? One would think it’s got lots of fine craftsmanship, some marble and some granite and the odd flash of gold. I saw all of that recently when I visited some Ontario government buildings in Toronto – along with some fine-grained concrete and a fabulous collection of modern painting and sculpture.

The MacDonald Block complex was completed in 1971; its architecture (and the integrated art) reflect the period in fine style. And the complex is being cared for, as part of a major renovation. But this is sadly an exception: Too often in Canada, discussions about modern buildings and places still run into the objection that they’re not really important or not really historic. That must change.

First, the good news at MacDonald Block. This set of office buildings, near the legislature at Queen’s Park, is the largest cluster of workplaces for the Ontario government, housing about 3,600 workers in a set of office towers that are dressed in a fitted grey suit of stone. That cladding looks like concrete, but in fact is Queenston limestone, extraordinarily well detailed. As with the whole complex, “It has a very conservative-Ontario atmosphere,” said Frank Dieterman, a staff heritage architect with Infrastructure Ontario who was touring me around the project.

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Marmora marble tiles on the floor of the MacDonald Block.

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The complex was designed by a consortium of established local architects: among them Gordon S. Adamson Associates, Allward and Gouinlock, Mathers and Haldenby, and Shore and Moffat. These were no radicals; of the men in charge at these offices (they assuredly were all men), most had transitioned in the 1950s from neo-classical architecture to modernism.

The result was a sober, serious public building: The floors are lined with pinkish Marmora marble, and the walls with slabs of grey Bancroft granite, arranged in book-matched pairs. The sans-serif typeface on the wall signs, the custom-made shades on the overhead fluorescent lights – all of them reflect a comprehensive and elegant architectural sensibility. “It’s from the large scale, the four towers and the quadrangle within them” – designed by Boston firm Sasaki and local Richard Strong – “the artwork, and … the many details, down to the window patterns,” Dieterman says. “It’s a very significant site.”

Completed in 1971, the MacDonald Block complex's architecture (and the integrated art) reflect the period in fine style.

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Detail of overhead lighting at the MacDonald Block.

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The colonnade outside the MacDonald Block.

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All this is being looked after, as the province proceeds with a major reconstruction project that is in the middle of its procurement process now. “We’re making improvements to allow it to exist for another 40 years,” says Jesse Zuker, an Infrastructure Ontario architect who is overseeing the renovation project. The rebuilt towers will be more densely used, with about 5,000 workers, have entirely new mechanical systems and will be vastly more energy-efficient. “We’re doing what needs to be done,” he says, “but that needs to be balanced with respect for the heritage elements.” The public areas, the art, the exterior and the landscape are all being treated with respect.

The rebuilt towers will be more densely used, with about 5,000 workers, have entirely new mechanical systems and will be vastly more energy-efficient.

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There’s less good news at the Arthur Meighen Building, across town. This federal government facility in Toronto was designed by Charles Dolphin for Canada Post in the 1950s, and now houses a variety of federal offices; to my surprise, I noticed recently that its façades were coming off. This is part of a multiyear reconstruction that will make the building carbon-neutral and reshape its interiors to serve contemporary operations. The project is being designed by Toronto office of design firm Dialog.

But what about heritage? The façades of that building by Dolphin combine a glass “curtain wall,” the height of fifties Modern chic, with more conservative strip windows, ornamental stonework, and metal reliefs of the Ontario landscape. All of that appears to be vanishing, to be replaced by a clunkily massive façade largely free of detail. So where did heritage figure in here? Public Services and Procurement Canada didn’t respond with a comment by press time.

This sort of thing would never happen with a big, elaborate building of the twenties, and it absolutely shouldn’t be happening now to a building of the fifties. But there are many more subtle cases, such as an old Sears at Fairview Park Mall in Kitchener, Ont., completed in 1964 by architect Maxwell Miller. Developers Cadillac Fairview want to rebuild that structure as part of a rebuild of the mall, tagged “Grand Market District.” It will add faux Victorian lofts and will pay homage to … Victorian-era industrial architecture,” the marketing copy boasts.

After a recent decision by city council, the Sears is set to lose most of its façades of eggshell precast concrete and green glazed brick. Built for prosperous postwar suburban shoppers, this bold building has more craft and heft than most of what gets built in this country today. Why not hold onto that place, too, until everyone can see that it’s history?

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