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Canoe Landing Campus in Toronto.Michael Muraz/ZAS

For years, the tower neighbourhood known as CityPlace had a big hole in its heart. The downtown Toronto district, built on an old rail yard, had been filling up with high-rise apartments and condos since the late 1990s. In the middle of it all was a park, Canoe Landing, and a vacant lot.

In October, the Canoe Landing Campus opened in a 158,000-square-foot building by Toronto’s ZAS Architects. It provides the amenities that, in the minds of some Torontonians, new condo neighbourhoods are missing: schools, sports facilities and gathering places, all nestled together like a jagged Rubik’s Cube.

The architecture is competent and complicated. But a major public building should also lift the spirit. And this one – like too many in Toronto and in Canada – fails at that important task.

The $65-million structure, now partly closed by the pandemic, brings together several public functions into a pair of three-level L-shaped buildings.Michael Muraz/ZAS

The $65-million structure, now partly closed by the pandemic, brings together several public functions into a pair of three-level L-shaped buildings. The slab to the south, punctuated with marker stripes of hot red, holds public and Catholic elementary schools. The northern half, whose green roof is crowned with a spiky ridge of grey aluminum, is a community centre.

Students can spill north across a bridge to use a grand glass-walled gym, which becomes public territory after school. Other facilities are shared between the schools; the yard outside to the west, which includes teaching gardens, belongs to students during the day and the neighbourhood after hours. Schoolkids can also visit the indoor playground in the community centre, designed by the Ontario Science Centre.

“This sharing of facilities is totally logical,” said Paul Stevens, a partner at ZAS. “But it took a long time to negotiate something that makes sense.” The architects, including Peter Duckworth-Pilkington, deserve credit for meeting the many requirements of the city and the two provincially funded school boards.

Unfortunately, the place is short on beauty – a crucial element of a major public building like this. It looks okay from a distance, especially at high speed from the adjacent Gardiner Expressway, but messier and less coherent as you get closer. As you approach the schools, you’re greeted by beat-up concrete and inexpensive aluminum doors. Inside, the school walls are concrete block, the lighting harsh, the doors and fixtures low-rent institutional. Some of this has to do with budgets; even though the building was mostly paid for with development fees, governments don’t want to be seen doing anything too nice. But money doesn’t explain everything. The grey and red aluminum panels on the community centre feel insubstantial; the architects said they deliberately chose them instead of brick.

The Canoe Landing Campus opened in a 158,000-square-foot building by Toronto’s ZAS Architects.Michael Muraz/ZAS

Then there’s that faceted protrusion along the community centre’s north face. In the architects’ drawings it was a pale, wispy thing; in reality, it looks like a stealth bomber that has crash-landed.

How did it get there? It’s a 30-year story. Developers Concord Adex bought the former rail yard from the federal government. A 1994 deal set aside land for public uses – but while the park was built (poorly) in 2011, the community centre and school were not. This prompted news stories and columns about how development in Toronto was out of control, though the CityPlace situation was almost unique and the developers’ payments started flowing to the city in 1999.

The Canoe Landing Campus began 15 years ago, led by ace community centre architects MJMA. After some changes of plan, the city dropped MJMA – which won a national architecture award for its Regent Park Aquatic Centre, Toronto’s best public building in a generation – and hired ZAS.

ZAS is a competent firm that, on its better days, can make solid public buildings. But it didn’t bring a strong concept to this one, and a convoluted process killed its one large gesture. The green roof of the community centre was going to slant down and kiss the park, providing a spectacle for the high-rise dwellers all around and a green ramp to the sky. This would have evoked Oslo’s Opera House, by architects Snohetta, which has a roof you can walk onto. It has become a tourist attraction and icon of that city.

The Canoe Landing Campus provides the amenities that, in the minds of some Torontonians, new condo neighbourhoods are missing: schools, sports facilities and gathering places, all nestled together like a jagged Rubik’s Cube.Michael Muraz/ZAS

Instead, the Canoe Landing complex grew – to accommodate a space for the cultural organization The Bentway – and the ramp became impossible, through various objections from urban designers for the city, parks officials and lawyers. More good things, less architecture, less of a sense of place.

Still, there are positive lessons. Joe Cressy, the city councillor who now represents the area, cites the intergovernmental co-operation and the amenities – such as the indoor playground and a community kitchen – that speak to the needs of the area. “Building a community centre in a vertical community required us to think differently,” he said. There are “very positive, precedent-setting pieces here.”

He generally has a point. Bringing public agencies together is very hard, and this assemblage of functions shows how it should be done. In his 2019 book Palaces for the People, American sociologist Eric Klinenberg borrows the title from robber baron Andrew Carnegie, who built public libraries in the United States and Canada that still stand. Mr. Klinenberg coins his own term, “social infrastructure,” to describe such places, which build community.

The Canoe Landing Campus is solid infrastructure. But it is not a palace. And especially as we emerge from the pandemic, public buildings ought to be excellent. They should reflect our highest aspirations and ambitions. That means hiring designers based on their ideas, paying them well and understanding that special buildings – not merely adequate ones – best lift us up and bring us together.

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