Tottering on the edge of bankruptcy in the early 1990s, late in his long creative career, Toronto architect Rod Robbie remarked to a reporter that “doing schools is the thing I really get off on.” The message was clearly intended to reach potential clients inclined to think of Robbie only as the famous lead designer of the huge sports and entertainment complex, now known as the Rogers Centre, at the foot of Toronto’s CN Tower.
“You fall off people’s calling lists,” he said, “because they figure you don’t have any time, you’re so tied up doing these big stadiums all over the world that you wouldn’t want to fiddle with their elementary schools.”
Despite his tone of hard-times advertising, there can be no doubt about his professional enthusiasm for executing the bread-and-butter institutional projects that more artistically high-flying architects might turn up their noses at. His very large portfolio included numerous schools, along with child-care facilities, university laboratories, pharmaceutical and food-processing plants, a new town in the Arctic, a dairy and a hangar at Toronto’s Pearson airport.
Robbie’s preparation for these unromantic tasks had itself been as unromantic as any career path you can imagine. Born in 1928 in the English Channel port town of Poole, he was just 15 and knew nothing at all about the building art when his ambitious mother, a barmaid, prompted him to take a scholarship exam in architecture. (Architecture, simply because that was what was on offer.) He passed the test and went on to study this subject (and, later, town planning) at the Regent Street Polytechnic School in London (now known as the University of Westminster). In 1956, after a stint with British Rail, Robbie immigrated to Canada, where, he later said, his “peasant” accent wouldn’t be held against him.
He soon found a position in the Ottawa office of the prolific and charismatic English-born architect Peter Dickinson. Recognition in the world outside architectural and engineering circles – in which his talent and energy were greatly admired – eluded Robbie until 1967, just after he moved permanently to Toronto. It was then that his name briefly surfaced in connection with the Montreal Expo’s official Canadian pavilion, which he designed in collaboration with Toronto colleagues Dick Williams and Colin Vaughan. This large, architecturally adventurous structure, crowned by an inverted pyramid, was an instant hit with the fair-going public. And the building effectively symbolized the social modernity and forward-looking political maturity that Canada had attained during its first century as an independent country.
Had he not landed the SkyDome commission in 1985, when he was 57, Robbie would be remembered today for the Expo 67 pavilion, and little else. But the fact that he and the consortium of engineers and construction companies he led got the immense job – and saw the technologically complicated project to a successful finish in 1989 – changed everything.
He and Michael Allen, the Ottawa structural engineer who crafted the stadium’s retractable roof, were catapulted from obscurity into the local and international spotlight. Overnight, they became the go-to guys for anyone, anywhere in the world, who was thinking about putting up a similarly gargantuan facility – investors and politicians in several places were thinking about doing exactly that – and just as quickly became targets for criticism.
As soon as the stadium corporation announced that Robbie’s bid had won the day, the barbs began to fly. The three other teams that took part in the limited competition – all massive, established hard-hitters in the Canadian design and construction industry – were aghast that the nod had gone to a small office: Robbie had six employees at the time, no skyscraper or shopping mall or convention centre to his office’s credit, or much of anything else that demanded advanced expertise in handling mammoth amounts of concrete and steel.
Nor, the doomsayers argued, could a group led by such an inexperienced architect fashion a sliding, 3.25-hectare roof that worked properly. And the Robbie partnership certainly couldn’t be counted on to bring in the stadium on its $225-million budget.
The critics were wrong about Allen’s elaborate steel roof system, which has continued to open and shut on cue throughout its 23-year history. But they were right about the budget. The final construction cost of SkyDome, as the building was called until 2005, has been estimated at $650-million (including interest charges), with most of that staggering sum coming from the taxpayers.
Assessing Robbie’s accomplishment from an aesthetic angle, architectural and urban-design commentators have long found the SkyDome to be a problematic proposition. Immediately after the public unveiling of Robbie’s scheme, the city’s head of planning said flatly: “It’s too tall, too wide and too ugly.” And Toronto architect A. J. Diamond, weighing in soon thereafter in Canadian Architect magazine, also took Robbie’s design to task on artistic grounds: “The governing idea of the domed stadium’s façade,” he wrote, “is only a systematized set of openings, within a masonry framework. … This is too simplistic and featureless for a building of such monumental size and public importance.”
Some early foes relented, however, once the SkyDome was up and running. Writing in 1989, Globe and Mail architecture critic Adele Freedman said that “the SkyDome, as it looks, as it feels is on the way to fulfilling architect Rod Robbie’s hopes of designing ‘a pleasure palace for the people.’ All round, this is a building to be lived up to. The dome isn’t sculpture. It’s a place of public assembly that, with luck, will generate new forms of social interaction and public life.”
For my own part, I have never really liked the place. I see no evidence that the Rogers Centre has spawned the “new forms of social interaction” that Ms. Freedman hoped for. And Mr. Diamond’s portrayal of the building as “simplistic and featureless” seems as apt today as it was more than 20 years ago.
But since the day the SkyDome’s ponderous roof rolled smoothly away for the first time, downtown Toronto has changed, and so has the building’s place in our imagination of the city.
The stadium is now surrounded by a forest of shiny towers, for example, so it doesn’t stand out on the skyline as conspicuously as it once did. If the SkyDome once seemed imposing and looming, the Rogers Centre now appears to be just another big, galumphing piece of urban fabric in the crazy-quilt downtown that the recent real-estate boom has produced. It may be ugly; but it has become our ugly – a living part of the Toronto story, a memory of something Toronto wanted to be, and a dream about the sprawling, hard-driving, hard-playing North American metropolis that, rightly or wrongly, we still want to be.
Rod Robbie had strong ideas about the roles he desired his super-stadium to play in the life of Toronto.
“In the initial phases of its construction,” he said soon after receiving the go-ahead, “the dome will look a little like a ruin, like a coliseum if you will.” But when it’s finished, it will be “a secular cathedral. … And that’s not really far-fetched. In Gothic times cathedrals were used for markets and a wide variety of public uses.”
What he looked forward to most of all, however, was the time when the building operated so perfectly that the architecture would simply disappear. It would happen, he said, “the day they close the roof and everyone is concentrating so much on the game being played [that]nobody notices the roof closing. That will be a great day.”
Mr. Robbie died Wednesday. He was 83.
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