Skip to main content

A new proposed development at 1 Spadina Cres. would make the site a University of Toronto hub for education, research and public discussion about cities.NADAAA

For 138 years, the building at 1 Spadina Cres. has been an oddity in Toronto's streetscape: a Gothic dinosaur in the middle of Spadina Avenue eliciting stories of ghosts and death, but also of healing and creativity. Now the University of Toronto's architecture school is poised to move in and make this 1875 building a site for education, research, and public discussion about cities.

U of T's Daniels Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design will announce Tuesday the launch of a $50-million campaign to make this its new home – to build on a history that includes a theological school, a military hospital, art studios, medical labs, an eyeball bank and a student newspaper, all surrounded by streetcar tracks. The design, led by Boston architect and academic Nader Tehrani and his office, NADAAA, works with the historic building, and adds an expansion that combines architecture and landscape.

Prominent historian and U of T professor emeritus Michael Bliss declared One Spadina "part of the city's heritage," and former architecture dean George Baird called the revamp a "win-win for everybody." To Mr. Baird, "everybody" extends to the building: The renovations are an opportunity to shed its orphan status and become a destination location.

"It's taken on an aspect of being 'the place way over there,' " said Mr. Baird, who does not doubt departments resisted moving in because of its "spooky" past and distance from the campus's centre of gravity. "But let's face it, it's prominent. It commands the head of Spadina Avenue, after all. It'll be a big deal."

The capital campaign, part of U of T's "Boundless" initiative, is being seeded by new donations; the largest is a fresh $10-million from developer John Daniels and Myrna Daniels, who previously gave $14-million to the school in 2008. The old building is under renovation, and the new complex is scheduled to be completed by 2015.

The heritage building was built for Knox College, the Presbyterian seminary, but has made headlines for odd occurrences between – and above – its walls.

Game-changing poliovirus, insulin and penicillin were cultivated here by the Connaught Laboratories, and the Spadina Military Hospital treated patients returning from the First World War, with high-flyer Amelia Earhart among its volunteers.

Students at the newspaper recalled signing for the delivery of coolers packed with eyeballs, and in the 1980s, explosive chemicals once stored there were detonated at an Ontario military base. Some 90 kilograms of chemicals created a blast that shot 20 metres into the air, according to a 1980 Globe and Mail article.

The building has also had genuinely dark moments. In 2001, fine arts lecturer David Buller was stabbed to death in his office there. Despite more than 100 interviews, police say his killing remains unsolved. And in 2009, a 29-year-old "ghost-hunter" plunged four storeys to her death after crawling across a chicken-wire screen that gave way. The woman, reportedly seen carrying tea candles and a pink parasol before her death, fell victim to what police deemed an alcohol-fuelled death by misadventure.

Christopher Borgal, a Toronto architect and past president of the Canadian Association of Professional Heritage Consultants, said the building's narrative confers "context and a richness" on the community. "People connect to it – this is real, it's part of our history," he said.

The Daniels school's dean, Richard Sommer, said One Spadina demands a bold change, but noted for years, the university "did not know what to do with this site," which now includes a parking lot and grounds-maintenance facilities.

"This place is one of the few civic flourishes in the city."

NADAAA's plan will restore the Knox College building and add a large new wing on the back with lecture and studio space, a library, a public hall, a digital fabrication workshop – all in an irregularly shaped structure with a large sloped area cut out of the ground, and a landscape that folds up into angled green roofs.

The north side will have a multistorey glass facade that reveals the lecture hall and workshops. "The laboratory and all the research that's happening is open to view," Mr. Tehrani says. "It's looking out at the city and the city is looking back in."

The four pavilions around the edges of the main building will house a gallery and research space for a think tank called the Global Cities Institute – including a model cities theatre and lab that will test and display ideas about urban design and development. They will be visible to the 50,000 people who pass daily.

Mr. Tehrani, the Boston architect, won an international competition in 2010 to redesign the architecture faculty's building on College Street – a plan that was abandoned in favour of a bigger site.

Mr. Sommer and Mr. Tehrani, who heads the department of architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, say the Spadina building will represent the field of architecture within the city. "In its aspirations," Mr. Tehrani says, "this is about reaching out." Not entirely through its physical form, he suggests, but through its ideas. These include the merging of architecture – the design of buildings – with landscape architecture, urban design and planning.

"The disciplines of planning, urban design and landscape are central to its mission. And it's not clear, in this building or in our field, where you draw the lines between them," Mr. Tehrani says.

The new design includes a combined car-pedestrian space, as a "landing pad" for pedestrians inside the circle, and an outdoor amphitheatre to bring life to the area around the building.

The building will also include green design ideas including the use of natural light, "rainwater harvesting," and bicycle parking.

U of T says the university's visual arts program will take over two buildings on the east side of the circle.

All this, Mr. Sommer says, will help break up the slightly cult-like feeling that is traditional to architecture schools, at a time when students are engaged with global issues and designs to an unprecedented degree. "Our point of view," he says, "is that the city, and the culture of the city, is the crucible of their education."