“A school gives the designer an excuse to let his hair down, to join the wonderful world of children, to laugh at convention,” the architect Peter Pennington wrote in 1962.
A staff designer at the Toronto Board of Education, he was writing in Canadian Art magazine about the modernist schools he was building in the city’s old neighbourhoods: They had furniture scaled to the bodies of children, and bright colours and jaunty angles to serve children’s minds. Architecture should be well detailed, and it should work “to stimulate and not to stifle,” he wrote.
Half a century later, these words reflect a point of view that’s absent from the public sector: that public buildings should be intellectually ambitious, well considered and well built. Those ideas shaped the public schools in Toronto for nearly a century. And those high standards created excellent buildings – which are the subject of a new exhibition I’ve curated with the Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science. New School opens online Thursday evening. The exhibition centres on the work of the Toronto Board of Education and its in-house architects in the period after 1958. Mr. Pennington and his colleagues oversaw dozens of renovation and construction projects. The most interesting of these, designed by Mr. Pennington, employed a mix of modernist form-follows-function pragmatism and wild playfulness.
These 10-odd buildings included one high school, now known as City Adult Learning Centre, and a raft of elementary schools. Two have been demolished. Others are crumbling. Parents and school board officials see them, in some cases, as merely old and crumbling. In fact they are examples of creative, ambitious architecture that should be valued and should set the bar for today’s public buildings. The Toronto Board had a long tradition of high-quality architecture. In a city much smaller and poorer than today, they were hired some of the best designers in the country – such as Montreal’s Ross & McDonald for Central Technical School in 1912. They also had their own staff of talented and forward-looking architects, whose buildings stood at the centre of every city neighbourhood.
Outside of downtown, the postwar era saw a gigantic expansion of schools to meet the Baby Boom. Metro Toronto’s suburban school boards built accordingly - employing modernist architectural ideas to meet new standards for child-centred education. Some of those buildings were excellent. West Glen Junior School in Etobicoke, for one, is the work of Peter Dickinson, a leading Toronto modernist who led the design of the O’Keefe Centre. Have you ever heard of that school? Probably not. Neither has the heritage planning department at the City of Toronto.
School buildings have been strangely overlooked by the heritage preservation establishment and have been neglected by Toronto city policy. This became especially clear with the Davisville school several years ago. This was one of the Pennington schools – designed by the board’s own architects, with flair and with a very high level of detailing. The building was also the first home of the Metropolitan Toronto School for the Deaf. By the standards of what is now considered heritage in the city of Toronto, this was a shoo-in. But the city government and the Toronto District School Board, which controls it, collaborated on tearing it down instead. Heritage was overlooked for years and then the school board claimed – falsely – that heritage conservation was something it simply couldn’t afford. The city acquiesced.
The politics of school buildings are uniquely difficult in Toronto. The city’s main school board, the TDSB, has long been underfunded, and yet is also dysfunctional in its approach to buildings and real estate. It hires the wrong designers and builds poorly, chasing cost savings while spending freely on parking garages.
Strangely, many people in the world of Toronto education now accept that buildings are not important and should be as utilitarian as possible. “Design” is nearly a dirty word. The truth, however, is that beautiful buildings are also the ones that are functional and comfortable. When you aim low, as the school boards have recently done, you get poor results.
Beyond that, there’s a bigger point: Public design matters. Public school buildings are centerpieces of their communities, important even to those who don’t attend them. They can and should serve as community centres for all sorts of activity. Toronto is growing rapidly, and these public facilities will only become more important in a denser, hotter and more diverse city.
By looking at the postwar history of competence and innovation, we can learn invaluable lessons for the future.