Toronto’s architecture is also getting the kind of critical attention it hasn’t enjoyed since the 1960’s, when Mies’s blackened-steel Toronto-Dominion Centre and Finnish architect Viljo Revell’s retro-futuristic city hall went up. Until recently, the city’s most recognizable architectural icon was the quirky CN Tower. Things took a sudden turn for the better when British maverick Will Alsop’s small but influential Sharp Centre for Design, at Ontario College of Art & Design’s downtown campus, opened in 2004. A pixelated black-and-white box suspended nine stories above the existing facility on 12 giant angled steel legs painted a rainbow of colors, the whimsical building became an instant icon—and Torontonians began to awaken from the long slumber of gray steel and concrete.
Now, the city is slowly catching up, with new buildings by foreign architects and hometown designers alike. Daniel Libeskind’s crystalline addition to the 1914 Romanesque-revival Royal Ontario Museum opens this June. Its narrow slabs and expanses of glass slice through the original stone exterior, exposing the interior of the museum to passersby on Bloor Street. For the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto-born Frank Gehry has designed a glass-and-titanium structure—to house a center for contemporary art—and a glass-enclosed sculpture gallery promenade to open in 2008. Last summer, the Gardiner Museum, home to a superb ceramics collection, unveiled an elegant new wing by Toronto’s Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, and the Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet of Canada inaugurated their new venue: the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (named for their hotel company benefactor)—Canada’s first building devoted solely to opera and ballet. By day, the simple, glass-enclosed box isn’t as eye-popping as the Alsop or Libeskind buildings, but at night it glows like a giant lantern while festively buzzing crowds flow up and down the lobby stairs.
Like many American cities in the 1960’s, Toronto made the great urban-planning blunder of erecting an elevated highway along its waterfront, leaving a desolate pack of high-rises trapped between an expressway and the water. Over the next four years, the winners of an international competition to redesign the lakeshore—a team headed by the Rotterdam design firm West 8—will implement their plan in stages: a boardwalk along the lakeshore; a new ferry terminal; and a floating park, shaped like a giant maple leaf. A double allée of maples will give the waterfront a green edge, and a new park around the foot of the CN Tower will link that landmark to all the new lakeside activity. It’s an ambitious undertaking, likely to draw even more residents and visitors to a city that knows how to go global, and make people feel at home.