This weekend's Doors Open festival is an opportunity to explore some of the best of Toronto's architecture. Running both Saturday and Sunday, the event features 155 of Toronto's most interesting places, and each year the most popular venues are 19-century ones such as Old City Hall.
But most of Toronto was built after 1950, and its architecture and design is livelier than it's ever been. Architecture critic Alex Bozikovic picks four Doors Open spots that tell that part of the story – plus a panel discussion of influential architects "redesigning" the city, and four more places outside the festival where you can sightsee, have a coffee or go swimming 21 century-style. All in all, here are ten places and events that should be on your can't-miss list.
Native Child and Family Services
This centre includes offices and a clinic for a social services organization, and it’s in a 1980s office building at the busy, grey corner of Yonge and College. The architects LGA took the space, stripped it back to its concrete bones, and put some real personality into it, with tastefully applied plywood, warm colours and a planted “green wall.” On the roof are a sacred fire pit and a garden with traditional crops. And right in the lobby LGA built an oval-shaped longhouse out of cedar, drawing broadly on aboriginal traditions and modernist engineering to create a special place – for meetings and private counselling – that serves up calm, quiet and the smell of cedar. 30 College Street.
Canada’s National Ballet School
If you’ve driven or cycled down Jarvis Street, you know this complex – and you may have seen young dancers practicing in the glassed-in studios of the school’s Celia Franca Training Centre. The former downtown home of CBC, it was rebuilt a decade ago in a highly sophisticated piece of architecture and urban design, by KPMB and heritage architects Goldsmith Borgal & Company. It mixes delicate new construction with a pair of restored heritage buildings. (The older one, a yellow-brick Georgian house, was built in 1856 by the future premier Oliver Mowat.) This weekend is a rare opportunity to see inside the whole ensemble, including the dance studios and the lovely lobby space. If you don’t think concrete block can be lovely, you will be surprised. 400 Jarvis Street.
This is an old building that serves contemporary culture: erected in 1914 as a grand public school, it’s now an arts centre under the care of the invaluable nonprofit group Artscape. A light-touch renovation (by Teeple Architects) kept much of the place’s character – classrooms, with chalkboards intact, are now studios and offices for groups such as Luminato and some A-list local artists. Take a guided tour (on the hour), see some art (don’t miss the Adad Hannah show at the Koffler Centre Gallery) and enjoy the feeling of going back to school, in the best possible sense. 180 Shaw Street.
Andrews Building, University of Toronto-Scarborough
He designed the CN Tower, but the Australian architect John Andrews got far more acclaim for designing Scarborough College. And while it has aged, his central piece of that complex, now dubbed the Andrews Building, remains a strong-willed and very handsome piece of architecture. It’s a monolith that winds for a kilometre through the Rouge Valley; made of solid, poured-in-place concrete, it feels less like a university campus than a piece of the escarpment it sits upon. Inside, the building is a labyrinth, full of surprising spaces and details. In Toronto especially, many people have troubling thinking of concrete as a noble material. This building turns concrete into poetry. 1265 Military Trail, Scarborough.
You can visit the offices of one of the city’s leading design firms, Diamond Schmitt Architects (384 Adelaide St. W.) both Saturday and Sunday afternoons to hear staff talk about their work. And the the talented architects at Johnson Chou will open up their sleek studio in East York (1085 Woodbine Ave.) for tours and questions.
Talk: Redesigning Toronto
On Saturday at Fort York, six of Toronto’s leading architectural minds come together to explain their work and offer solutions for the city – among them Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini, Donald Chong of Williamson Chong, and the heritage architect Michael McClelland on the challenges and rewards of working with older buildings. Plus, the architect/artist Paul Raff offers some ideas about what to do with the Gardiner Expressway. (Saturday, 2 p.m., Fort York Blue Barracks, 190 Fort York Blvd.)
Beyond Doors Open
Beyond the official tours this weekend, there are places across the GTA where you can experience great modern and contemporary design firsthand. Here are four that’ll make your Doors Open weekend richer.
Pilot Coffee Roasters
Young architects rarely get to design public buildings – but occasionally find great clients in retail and hospitality. Such as Pilot Coffee Roasters, who hired the ambitious firm Williamson Chong Architects to design their roastery, warehouse and tasting bar near Greenwood and Gerrard. Head down the laneway; inside the warehouse you’ll find a gorgeous, curvy bar of finely detailed white oak and concrete. And excellent coffee. Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. 50 Wagstaff Dr.
Regent Park Aquatic Centre
As part of its rebuilding, the Regent Park neighbourhood is getting a new crop of contemporary buildings; this is the best by far, and you can go swimming there, too. Designed by Toronto’s MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller, it resembles a big shark on the move - a long, charcoal-grey slab of a building with a fin (actually a skylight) on top. But the large windows connect a new park with the pool, which features cedar panelling, family-friendly changerooms and a waterslide. Expect crowds. 640 Dundas St. E. Public swims Tuesday through Sunday.
When foreign architects visit Toronto, this is one of the places they’re sure to visit. Happily, the best spaces – the lobbies and the single-storey bank branch – are wide open during business hours, to customers and other wanderers. There’s no better place in North America to appreciate the vision of the architect Mies Van der Rohe than here in the banking pavilion, or out on the plaza, a tightly designed modern landscape that works beautifully. 77 King St. W.
University of Toronto Mississauga
This campus (like its Scarborough counterpart) is an intriguing little zoo of modern and contemporary buildings; go during business hours and you can wander the public spaces more or less freely. The best include the new Donnelly Health Sciences Complex, by Toronto’s Kongats Architects, a shimmering Jenga stack of glass, steel and wood; and right next door the Communication, Culture and Technology building by Montreal’s Saucier + Perrotte. 3359 Mississauga Rd. N.; campus map here.