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Opinion The school of hard Knox: A neglected Toronto architectural centrepiece gets its due

Toronto has squandered much of its architectural heritage. Dozens of grand old buildings fell to the wrecker's ball in the postwar rush to modernize and renew the city. So when a building that somehow survived the years of careless destruction gets a makeover, and a brilliant one at that, the only thing to do is stand up and cheer.

The new home for the University of Toronto's architecture school at 1 Spadina Crescent is the kind of little miracle that makes it possible to believe that Toronto really can have nice things after all. The school has just moved into the old Knox College, one of the city's finest remaining examples of Victorian architecture.

Anyone who has walked along Spadina Avenue or taken the Spadina streetcar will know it. Its spire stands like a punctuation mark at the top of the street. Streetcars swing around it on their way to their terminus at the Bloor subway line. It sits there in splendid isolation, on an island all its own, with views right down to Lake Ontario.

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Yet, for years, it was a pathetic sight. Years of neglect had left its old facade blackened with soot. The paint on the frames of its lovely old peaked windows was cracked and flaking. Anyone who ventured inside would find a warren of dingy offices. The place was a slum.

The building started life in 1875 as a Presbyterian theological school. After the Presbyterians decamped, a succession of occupants moved through: a military hospital for wounded soldiers of the First World War; provincial-government bureaucrats; a medical company, Connaught Laboratories, that manufactured insulin; and finally a grab bag of U of T departments, from the parking office to the fine-arts faculty. Old-timers say that taxis used to deliver eyeballs to the front door for the building's eye bank. The whole place gave off the reek of chemicals in summertime.

All the same, it remained a beautiful building on a commanding site. When U of T architecture dean Richard Sommer set eyes on it, "I pretty quickly realized no one knew what to do with this site and it was kind of an unclaimed territory." Prof. Sommer was looking for ways to increase the size and profile of the architecture school, then housed in a pokey brick building on nearby College Street.

Following a generous donation from developer and U of T architecture alumnus John Daniels and his wife, Myrna, the school had been named the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. Prof. Sommer told U of T leaders that moving to Spadina Crescent would give the school a striking new home and the university new visibility on its western flank. After another Daniels donation, the project got the green light. Architects Nader Tehrani and Katherine Faulkner of NADAAA collaborated on the design along with heritage architects ERA and landscape architects Public Work.

The results are spectacular. The old Gothic revival building has been brought back to its former glory, its yellow-brick façade all cleaned up, its windows renewed, its wood floors sanded and polished. The school's new Eberhard Zeidler Library is there, with space for its rare-book collection. So is a new reading room, in the college's old refectory.

Behind the original building, at the north end of the site, stands a three-storey glass-walled addition with galleries, a meeting hall, high-tech fabrication workshop and a huge, airy design studio with views to the north.

When I visited, students were grouped around work tables and pecking at laptops, with models and drawings scattered everywhere. A leading local architect in distinctive architectural eyeglasses was helping some of them with a project. A pile of empty pizza boxes and a foosball table completed the picture of students at work.

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Prof. Sommer says the school is already making a splash, attracting lots of new students, adding programs and giving U of T architecture a chance to be a bigger player among other well-known design schools around the world.

Workers are still putting finishing touches on the building, which should be fully up and running by spring. A terrace and event space will be added out front to take advantage of the views to the lake. If fundraisers can bring in a few more millions, Prof. Sommer hopes to add four pavilions around the edge for research centres and exhibitions.

An architecture school lives on the belief that good buildings make a difference, both to the people that inhabit them and the city that surrounds them. The Daniels building proves it in style.

The Globe's Shane Dingman and architecture columnist Alex Bozikovic weigh in on Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and their ambitious plans for a neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront.
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