When the Eaton Centre opened in downtown Toronto in 1977, there was nothing like it in Canada. A large urban mall stretching over two blocks in the centre of the city, the project was modeled after Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.
The centre's architect, Eb Zeidler, created the retail portion of the complex to feature a four-level shopping centre with a glass-domed galleria running the length of the building.
The planning began in the 1960s, when Eaton's partnered with Fairview and TD Bank. Originally designed to be a perfect rectangle, the centre had to work around Old City Hall and the Church of the Holy Trinity to satisfy city officials.
Today's centre was built in stages, with the southern portion debuting in 1979 and expansions opening in 1990 and 1999. It's not just a shopping mall - the site includes three office towers as well.
It's still considered one of the country's marquee downtown shopping centres, but its owners decided a renovation was needed to ensure it maintains its standing.
"Every concierge in the city still sends their guests here," said director of architecture Ian Ross. "We just need to modernize to ensure they keep coming."
While storefronts have been renovated over the years, the centre itself has never had a major facelift. Owner Cadillac Fairview Corp. began planning the $120-million "rejuvenation" as long as 10 years ago, and the two-year project finally started on July 1.
While smaller undertakings had been approved over the past decade, the company put off big disruptions until a major renovation could be done.
"We kept getting requests to do some projects and we would do the occasional small fix," said Mr. Ross. "But this is the first time where we are going in and completely renovating what is a very, very unique space."
There is no set formula to determine when to renovate, said Wayne Barwise, the senior vice-president of development for Cadillac Fairview.
"After 33 years, it's naturally time for an upgrade," he said. "It's also important that we maintain a best-in-class position across all aspects of our operations, and in so doing, Toronto Eaton Centre will continue to retain its value and annual financial contribution to the Cadillac Fairview portfolio."
The single most noticeable difference will be in the centre's food-service areas. Until now, shoppers had two main eating areas to choose from - one in the south end and one in the north. Now, Cadillac Fairview wants to drive them all to the north.
It is moving dozens of retailers to make room for a dining area that Mr. Ross says will offer a more upscale take on shopping mall dining. The food court was previously 15,000 square feet with 400 seats; after the renovation it will be 98,000 square feet with 936 seats.
"The idea is to feel like you're not in a cafeteria despite the size," he said. "This is more like a loft."
The chairs won't be anchored to the floor, restaurants will adhere to strict design principles, and food will be served on reusable plates. Employees will clear tables and bring the dishes to a central dishwashing room, from which clean plates will be redistributed to the restaurants.
The food court at the south end of the mall will be razed and replaced with a large restaurant.
Perhaps most importantly, the bathrooms will be torn out and replaced with more modern amenities. "We hear a lot about washrooms," Mr. Ross said.
When Eaton Centre was built, architects revelled in showing the industrial side of their buildings. Shoppers riding elevators have long been able to look at the dusty gears that take them from floor to floor. But no longer.
"The fashion at the time was to expose everything," Mr. Ross said. "But you can't get in there to clean, so you see dust on the gears. It's just time for a change."
The elevators - which are painted steel now - will be covered in stainless steel. Patrons will still be able to look out the glass windows onto the mall, and LED lights will be used as an accent.
"We couldn't change that, because people ride those elevators just to take pictures," he said. "But having everything exposed like that perhaps didn't suit stores of this decade such as Apple."
For decades, shoppers have looked down at other levels over metal railings that ran the length of the galleria. But the rail and its posts need to be repainted almost constantly - the centre keeps a full-time painter on staff. The new design will run 3,500 linear feet of glass barriers instead, with stainless steel handrails.
The original terrazzo floors have held up relatively well over the shopping centre's 33 years, but some portions have needed replacement. This means some tiles are of a slightly different colour, which is somewhat jarring from a visual perspective.
The tile will be covered with new slabs made of 95 per cent quartz and 5 per cent resin. The 78,000 new tiles - which cover 280,000 square feet of floor - come ready-made from Italy, eliminating the need for pouring and sanding.
One of the main complaints the centre faces is that the lower levels are too dark. It hopes to solve that problem with the renovation, installing high-powered lights that will be suspended from the galleria ceiling. They will distribute light evenly across all levels, replacing the standalone lamps that dot the walkways.
The lights will also be used to highlight Michael Snow's 60 life-sized geese that hang from the galleria - they have never been lit before. But that will be the only change to the exhibit.
"We learned you don't mess with the geese," Mr. Ross said, alluding to the public outcry in 1982 when mall management tried tying ribbons around their necks at Christmas, leading to a copyright infringement court case with Mr. Snow.
The most dramatic change will come in the form of a LED-light installation at the north end of the mall. Designed by United Visual Artists - which has worked with U2 and Massive Attack and designed several public light exhibits - the interactive display will be 122 metres long and be used year round.
LED lights will be a frequent fixture in the renovated mall - they will be installed in elevators, under escalators, along the ceiling of the food court and elsewhere.
"Maybe in the future it'll look a little out of date to have coloured lights," said Mr. Ross. "But they can always just go back to white light, and then it's just one more source of lighting."
By the numbers
Site: 6 hectares 14.5 acres
Square footage: 1,720,000 of retail, 1,894,413 of office space in 3 towers
Sales per square foot: More than $1,100 on an annual basis
Man-hours to renovate: 450,000
Renovation workers: 200
Parking spaces: 1,431
Passenger elevators: 57
Freight elevators: 11
Receiving docks: 36