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Elegant mall bites the dust Add to ...

The only shopping mall ever designed by Mies van der Rohe, the most influential architect of the 20th century, is located right here in Toronto.

Correct that: Mies's only shopping mall was located here. The ultraelegant, brilliantly restrained, marble-clad shopping concourse he built beneath the Toronto-Dominion Centre is currently in the process of demolition.

"Cadillac-Fairview, which owns the historical building, has decided it has become too old-fashioned and needs a millennium facelift," a recent article in the Toronto Business Journal said. "The new shopping plaza will focus on promoting the brand names and the logos rather than the architecture."

You can go see for yourself. One by one the TD Centre's standardized black storefronts are making way for the garish honkytonk façades you can find in any and every suburban mall. The landlord has ripped out the ceiling and pushed Mies's polished marble benches out of the way. Meanwhile, progressive new tenants are happily slapping particleboard over the famous open-veined marble walls that delighted Toronto when they first appeared 35 years ago.

It's not the real Cadillac-Fairview undertaking this dirty business, of course. For more than 30 years that company treated the design of its flagship office complex with almost religious respect, flatly banning all non-conforming signage and commercial clutter to protect Mies's vision of a uniform and proportional whole. But now that the company has fallen into the hands of the barbarian horde, a.k.a. the Ontario teachers pension fund, all standards have disappeared.

"I think it's appalling, it's shocking, it's a downright travesty," said Phyllis Lambert, director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. In addition to being the formidable doyenne of Canadian architecture, Ms. Lambert is the woman primarily responsible for ensuring that the great Mies signed his name on the Toronto skyline: The Fairview part of the company that built the centre was owned by her father, Samuel Bronfman.

"That concourse was the only example of Mies's office having very, very carefully designed a shopping mall, and tremendous care went into the width of the thing, the signage and everything else," she added. "They're destroying unique work, because there's nothing else like that."

Ms. Lambert also played a key role in ensuring that Mies designed the even more famous Seagram Building in New York, and for years she worked with its owners to ensure that no insensitive alterations destroyed the integrity of that design. "They were extremely sensitive and respectful," she said.

No such luck in Hogtown. Epitomizing the new civic standards that prevail in Toronto the Good Enough, the teachers have decreed that the dead hand of brilliant architecture shall not stand in the way of progress, especially in view of the fact that turquoise laminates demonstrably sell more running shoes than Carrara marble.

In the good old days Cadillac-Fairview was outrageously stubborn about compromising even the slightest detail of the original design. It proved happy to pay for the installation of the new PATH signage that currently attempts to make sense of the city's commercial catacombs, for instance, but wouldn't allow any of the new PATH signs to be erected on its own premises.

That was the right decision, however, because the TD Centre didn't need any goofy signs. Rather than making a mess in the basement that no amount of graphic design could hope to fix, Mies used architecture to make a place that was instantly legible and unforgettably "there." Indeed, it took more than three decades of higgledy-piggledy tunnelling in all directions beneath the financial district to reveal that Mies had solved the biggest problem facing the system with the very first underground mall.

It's going to take three weeks or so to wipe out that lesson forever.

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