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6 beautiful Toronto buildings that let in (plenty of) winter light

With the winter solstice behind us and the holidays ahead, architecture critic Lisa Rochon goes on a quest to find places that poetically capture light in the city – and discovers that even an elementary school or community centre can offer spiritual respite when the winter sun hangs low in the sky

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Oak Ridges Community Centre, Richmond Hill: Past the big-box retailers and just-constructed executive townhomes, on a lonely, rural stretch of Bayview Avenue, comes a muscular, big-beamed community centre that celebrates wellness as well as the hard-fought battle to preserve the lush ecosystem of the Oak Ridges Moraine. The stone and wood lodge spins its facilities – including a gym, work-out room and multiple pools – out into the gorgeous landscape; terraces step down to the shimmering Lake Wilcox. The bloom of the sunset comes at me when I step into the big lounge, with its suspended white globe lights and glassed-in fireplace. A guy in a baseball cap falls asleep in one of the lounge chairs. By 4:30 p.m., I can track the sunset blaze of golden-pink further back, through the glass of the pool area. In downtown Toronto, this community centre would be jammed with an adoring public, folks looking to invigorate their bodies and bring some badly needed sunlight to their winter eyes. Think of it as a temple of fitness and light, and every community serious about reducing health-care spending should build one. Its sweet Oak Ridges Moraine Eco Centre, with displays of native flowers, local birds and the 73 fish that flourish on the moraine, is worth a trip. Genuinely intelligent and invigorating architecture is a rare gift, so thanks goes to Andrew Frontini, design director at Perkins + Will, and his team. Days before Christmas, the glow of the sunset spreads joy

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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Sunrise, Ferry to Ward’s Island: When morning cracks open to the east, I’m floating on the steely-teal roil of Lake Ontario, out on the deck of the Ongiara Ferry. It’s been raining and overcast for days, but on this day there’s a strip of orange blossom pinned hard to the horizon by brooding clouds. Above this little machine of a ferry, designed to haul people, cars and often heavily laden bikes back and forth from the Toronto mainland to Ward’s, stretches a brilliant blue sky. The summertime ferries, the ones lined with wooden floors and ceilings festooned with ancient-looking orange life preservers, have been stored away. For the winter, commuters and visitors – possibly the occasional tourist – are treated to the Ongiara, the poor cousin, but I sort of like its severe functionality. On the deck, in the biting winds, standing between two submarine-like white cabins, there’s little to separate you from the choppy waters and the optimism of the blue canopy overhead. That pure connection to the sky, head cranked, recalls the time I stood on a roof deck surrounded by white-washed walls at Luis Barragan’s exquisitely modern house in Mexico City. When I enter the ferry’s cabin, the one with a long stretch of metal windows facing east, there’s just enough room to sit on one of the long wooden benches and meditate on the powerful chop of the lake, the growl of the engine and the thrill of sunshine, strictly (and joyfully) observed. We’re floating, the white caps are flashing, and, besides the Canadian flag snapping in the winds, there is no evidence of decorative flourish. Just a bare bones structure forcing a no-nonsense exposure to the morning light

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

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Old City Hall: Even if you don’t happen to be charged with a criminal offence or petty crime, enter Old City Hall – a masterful, robust work in sandstone by EJ Lennox – whenever Toronto’s grey winter begins to weigh heavily on your mind. Haul open one of the three chunky oak doors below the clock tower, trudge through the X-ray security check, and if you have time before your provincial court appearance – or, better, if you have no appointment with a judge – look up within the stone arcade to the depiction of Toronto’s pioneers by muralist George Agnew Reid. Bathe yourself in the artfully mediated light of the two-storey main hall, where The Union of Commerce and Industry by the legendary stained-glass artist Robert McCausland depicts in bright colours the up-building of Toronto during the late 1800s. A grand staircase split to east and west landings rises up from the mosaic floors. Why is it that one of Toronto’s most formidable civic buildings feels like a forbidden, tainted secret every time I enter? Because the installation of criminal courts has dragged on for decades with no political will to have them moved elsewhere. And because cars and trucks clog the interior of the building’s quadrangle when a glorious civic courtyard is what rightfully belongs there

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Main lobby, Koerner Concert Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music: Within the elegant confines of University of Toronto campus, a beam of southern light travels like a silver river along the historic Philosopher’s Walk and into the main concert lobby of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Like the chestnut trees outside with branches lit up by frost, the triple-height glass volume, designed by Marianne McKenna of KPMB Architects, comes alive with the morning light. The Leslie and Anna Dan Gallerias (2009) at the orchestra level of the sumptuous oak Koerner Concert Hall are part of the transformation of the staid heap of brick and stone that once lorded over Bloor Street. The brilliance of KPMB’s design comes not only in its choice of sublime materials – from French limestone on the floors to Turkish grey-black stone on the walls – but the bucolic view to the CN Tower and the finely crafted east wall of the Royal Ontario Museum. Members of the public interested in taking in the southern light of the main concert hall lobby may request a tour on Mondays, when the hall is dark

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

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Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati Catholic School: In the farthest northeast corner of Toronto, in the Scarborough neighbourhood of Malvern, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati Catholic School brings a new standard for light-filled school design to a residential subdivision. Designed with Scandinavian-style white brick walls, generous windows with black mullions and the occasional flourish of lime-green paint, the architecture is clearly intended to invigorate the minds of young learners. Architects MJMA worked closely with their client, Toronto Catholic District School Board capital supervisor Paul Nynkowski (previously based for several years as an architect in Stockholm), to create white, slightly deflected corridors that end with picture windows. The ground-floor lobby serves as command central, warmly defined by a cedar ceiling, welcoming maple benches and surround views into the white gym. The school is nearing completion and is scheduled to open in the new year. I expect that the facility, completed for under $200 per square foot, will become a new template of humane school design

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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Thomas L. Wells Public Elementary School, Morningside Heights: West of the Toronto Zoo, in a new housing development where Southeast Asian immigrant families often share single-family homes, the Thomas L. Wells school cuts a handsome profile. Designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects and opened in 2005, the school for students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 presents a series of dynamic brick volumes cut open to allow wide swaths of natural light. In the late afternoon, the soft light of the diminished sun enters the slanted monumental window of the school library. A wood-clad, floating classroom in the library operates as a computer lab. The school was designed as a template of energy conservation to embrace and mitigate solar energy. Its popularity with the community is confirmed by the constant bookings in the gym, with wooden floors and a massive curtain wall facing south. The students are lucky to have the naturally lit gym but so is the community, which rents it out for everything from church meetings to karate lessons. The classrooms harvest daylight, but the windows are specifically recessed into the masonry to prevent overheated spaces during hot weather. Like the Oak Ridges Community Centre, the school has earned an impressive LEED Canada Silver rating for its high-performance environmental design

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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