Canada history: Sept 13.1965: Toronto takes a bold architectural risk

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Architecture should be functional but also aesthetically pleasing in a style that survives time and taste. That is clearly the case for the ‘new’ city hall in Toronto, Canada’s largest city and capital of the province of Ontario.

On yesterday’s date  on September 13, 1965, the structure and public square that would become a landmark and focal point for the city was officially opened.

The new civic building was to replace the ‘old’ city hall which had served since 1899 and upon completion was the largest building in the city and indeed the largest municipal building in North America.

Still, a new building was needed and discussions had begun as far back as the Second World War.

The idea for a new city hall was initially rejected by Torontonians in a 1947 plebiscite, but the idea resurfaced through a citizen panel in 1952. Two years later the city asked Toronto’s three major architectural firms to submit a proposal.

The eventual proposal was widely panned first by University of Toronto architectural students who, in a 1955 article in the university paper, The Varsity called in a “funeral home of vast dimensions” and asking, “Why have we been presented with this monstrous monument to backwardness? Should the Toronto City Hall become another member of the insipid collection of Insurance buildings on Bloor Str?”

It also faced criticism from world famous architects Walter Gropius who called in unworthy of Toronto and “a very poor pseudo-modern design”, and Frank Lloyd Wright who labelled it sterile and “a cliché already dated”.

Thus it was the $18 million proposal was scrapped and plans for an international competition were begun. The city set a deadline of 1958, by which time 500 proposals had been received from 42 countries. The expert panel selected a short list of eight,

Eventually chosen was the design by Helsinki architect Viljo Revell (with collaborators  Heikki Castren, Bengt Lundsten, and Seppo Valjus and subsequently with Canadian landscape architect Richard Strong and Toronto architectural firm John B. Parkins Assoc.).