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the architourist

Tommy Thompson Park Pavilion, Toronto.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

During Toronto’s last great construction boom—which lasted from, say, 1955 to 1980—something magical began on a random day in 1959. A few dump trucks loaded with, perhaps, pieces of a Victorian-era, carved sandstone building (demolished to make way for a new, glassy one) were dumped into the lake at the foot of Leslie St. in the city’s light-industrial east end.

Eventually, with the construction of the Bloor-Danforth Subway, dozens more glassy skyscrapers, and the general movement of earth required to build a modern city, the Toronto Harbour Commissioners had, rubbly bit by rebar-encrusted bit, created a breakwater that stretched out like a long finger into Lake Ontario.

By the mid-1970s, as that finger began to sprout more appendages—and the whole man-made peninsula began to grow wild—the Commissioners decided they didn’t need the spit for port-related activities, so it was handed over to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Tommy Thompson Park—stretching five kilometers into the lake and encompassing 250 hectares—is a haven for cyclists, hikers, walkers and, most importantly, nature-lovers, a place David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things christened an “accidental wilderness” that’s teeming with migrating birds, turtles, frogs, coyotes and butterflies. In all, there are as many species that call Tommy Thompson home as there are days in the year.

So grand, so essential…and so like Toronto to forget to build a front door to such a magical place.

Until now, that is. Where once there was a pair of rusting, yellow-painted swing-gates, a chain-link fence, and a utility pole with a sign declaring “Public Road Ends,” there is now a wide driveway, big green berms, native plantings such as Red Osier Dogwood, gabion baskets containing ‘curated’ rubble, places to sit, and, best of all, on a new “tabletop” of land, a small, hardy, welcoming pavilion.

“This is home base now,” says architect Megan Torza of Toronto-based architecture, landscape architecture and urban design firm DTAH. “The folks that are walking can come through what we’ll call a tabletop, which is an elevated road bed just beyond the pavilion; that tabletop can also be transformed into an event space [for] the bird migration festival, the butterfly festival, [and] the other programs that the city and the TRCA run.”

Where once there was a pair of rusting, yellow-painted swing-gates, a chain-link fence, and a utility pole with a sign declaring 'Public Road Ends,' there is now a wide driveway, big green berms, native plantings, gabion baskets containing ‘curated’ rubble, places to sit, and, best of all, on a new 'tabletop' of land, a small, hardy, welcoming pavilion.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

But this new home base couldn’t look any old way. Or, more accurately, any new way: it had to look as if it belonged in such an unruly, wild place; it had to ‘speak’ with existing pavilions designed by Montgomery Sisam in 2013 (Staff Booth, Environmental Shelter, Bird Research Station); it had to be vandal-proof and low maintenance; and, finally, it had to be equally useful while swarmed by schoolchildren in muddy boots or by a small group of birdwatchers needing to use the bathroom.

On that first requirement, Ms. Torza points to the pavilion walls. A “monolithic pour” that is both structural as well as the final cladding, DTAH asked for a “sacrificial” layer of concrete in order to create a chiseled finish “for the purposes of deterring graffiti and creating a uniform, weathered appearance.” After some trial-and-error on a mock up, it was determined which chisels worked well for the main body sculpting as well as the finer work near the edges and windows; it was also decided that each individual wall be chiseled by one person “so the hand is even,” explains Ms. Torza, “which is kind of fun.”

According to a colleague of Ms. Torza’s who was trained in Austria, while this type of finish is common in Europe, it’s rarely done here.

“There is a kind of vintage, Brutalist aspect to it,” says Ms. Torza, who assures this writer that, once the sun goes down, LED lighting will turn those chisel marks into a craggy-yet-beautiful beacon.

Another way to bestow some rough charm was to create a feature wall using a gabion basket (wire baskets filled with rocks that are usually used to stabilize soil or prevent erosion). Since park-goers would be able to examine the contents of the basket up close, last summer DTAH staff organized a field trip of the spit to collect samples.

“It was the one social event of the DTAH summer COVID season,” laughs Ms. Torza. “A group of us—with the TRCA’s permission and oversight—went and collected buckets of rubble and brought it here.” Then, Somerville Construction staff placed it in the baskets; one Somerville member, a fairly small woman, stood directly inside and laid the pieces so that “the best bits are the bits that you see on the exterior: the stamps on the bricks are visible, these really interesting, weathered pieces of mortar,” and, strangely, quite a few pieces of discarded granite countertop. There is even a progression: the ‘newest,’ non-weathered rubble was placed at the bottom, and then, gradually, towards the top, the most weathered (and most interesting) pieces.

To create a family resemblance between DTAH’s work and that of Montgomery Sisam, the dramatic cantilevered roof (as figured out by Shannon Hilchie of Faet Lab) is clad in Corten steel, which was first weathered on site before being bolted on.

As far as vandals and muddy-booted schoolchildren are concerned, the former has been addressed with “correctional-grade” sinks and toilets in the pavilion’s four washrooms (as well as other bash-proof surfaces), and the latter will be met with a concrete floor and slop sink in the big room at the north end, which, very soon, will be filled with boot-racks and pegs to hang binoculars.

The city had hoped to open the pavilion by the end of the month, but pandemic restrictions have delayed that. Phase two of the project, which DTAH hopes to begin within a year, will address the parking lot to the west, adding better barriers to the wilderness (so gravel doesn’t bleed in), more native plantings, and drainage.

Consider this front door open very soon. And wildly beautiful.

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