Architecture of Toronto

Architecture of Toronto

The architecture of Toronto is most marked by its being the financial and cultural capital of Canada. Once an important port and manufacturing centre, today Toronto's economy is dominated by the service sector.

Toronto has traditionally been a peripheral city in the architectural world, embracing the styles and ideas developed in Europe and the United States with only limited local variation. Many of the world's most prominent architects have done work in Toronto, including Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, Will Alsop, I. M. Pei, and Mies van der Rohe. A few unique styles of architecture have also developed in Toronto, such as the bay and gable house and The Annex style of house.



Toronto is built on the former lake bed of Lake Iroquois. This large, flat expanse presents few natural limits to growth, and throughout its history Toronto has sprawled outward and today has a ring of suburbs that spans hundreds of kilometers. Recently the provincial government has attempted to place an artificial limit to this growth in the form of a Greenbelt around the city.

Toronto was planned out on a grid system with the major streets forming wide avenues. In keeping with the dominant design ideas of the time the suburbs built since the Second World War have abandoned the grid system in favour of networks of crescents and cul-de-sacs designed to reduce and slow traffic, with vehicles being redirected to the avenues. Early in the city's history major avenues were established running along each concession line that separated rural landholdings. As the city spread outward, these routes have been maintained and even in the distant suburbs a very regular grid of avenues spaced about two kilometres apart continues. These avenues run straight with few diversions for long stretches, and Toronto is notable for how long its major streets are. Most of the avenues go from one side of the to the other, and often continue deep into the neighbouring suburbs. Yonge Street, the city's most prominent thoroughfare, is by some measure the longest street in the world. These wide avenues, that even run through the the central city, have also made it easier for Toronto to retain a streetcar system, one of the few North American cities to do so.

The most important obstacle to construction is Toronto's network of ravines. Historically, city planners filled in many of the ravines, and when this was not possible, planners mostly ignored them, though today the remaining ones are embraced for their natural beauty. Ravines have helped isolate some central neighbourhoods from the rest of the city, and have contributed to the exclusivity of certain neighbourhoods such as Rosedale.

Building materials

Thanks to its vast hinterland, Toronto designers have had access to a wide array of raw materials for construction. Thanks to the sediment of the former lake bed that Toronto is built upon, brick has been an especially cheap and available material for almost the city's entire history. Much of it was provided by the now closed Don Valley Brick Works, whose output can still be found in thousands of structures across the city. Throughout the city most homes from all eras are made of brick. Commercial and industrial builders also long embraced brick, with the Distillery District being a prominent example, though today more efficient materials, such as cinder blocks, are more common for commercial projects. Prominent landmarks have also gone to greater expense and generally eschewed simple brick. Older banks and government buildings used stone, and modern attempts to marvel have embraced modern materials such as concrete and aluminum. Still today the overwhelming bulk of residential buildings constructed in the Toronto are today clad in brick.

Sandstone was also historically a readily available building material, with large deposits quarried from the Credit River valley. More expensive, but also more ornate, than brick it was used for many early landmarks such as the Ontario Legislature, Old City Hall, and Victoria College. It is also the main material used in the unique Annex style house.

Industrial architecture

The city of Toronto originally formed as a result of its good harbour, and the port was the source of the city's prosperity for most of its early history. The oldest parts of the city are thus by the harbour, with newer growth spreading out in all directions possible. Around the harbour grew up a belt of industrial structures, especially just east and west of downtown. These included massive facilities such as Gooderham and Worts whiskey distillery and Massey Ferguson's farm equipment factories. In the later half of the nineteenth century the railways became Toronto's main connection with the outside world, and further industrial areas grew up around the freight lines, in areas such as Weston and East York.

In the 1970s deindustrialization began to have a dramatic effect on Toronto. By 1990s almost all of the older factories by the waterfront were gone. Some of the newer facilities further north still remain, but are constantly disappearing. Many of the more historic industrial buildings have been converted into lofts and offices. Most have been demolished, and in their place dozens of condominium towers have been erected by the lake shore. There are also still large stretches of abandoned industrial land in the Port Lands district and other parts of Toronto, awaiting a redevelopment plan.

Residential architecture

Nineteenth century

Few structures survive from the earliest period of Toronto's history. Two of Toronto's oldest surviving houses are Campbell House and The Grange. Both are brick structures built in the Georgian style during the first half of the 19th century. By this date the Georgian style had long been out of favour in the United States, rejected because the Colonial style was considered too British for the newly independent nation. In the Loyalist dominated Upper Canada the style was embraced with fervour in part because of its British connections. Incongruously it had also fallen out of fashion in Britain by this time, where it was considered outmodded, but in Toronto it remained popular until the 1850s. When the Colonial revival was embraced in the United States in the 1890s, Georgian architecture also returned to Toronto. Structures continue to be built in the style today. It has been especially popular with the city's elite and many Georgian manors can be found in wealthy neighbourhoods such as Rosedale and the Bridle Path.

The late nineteenth century Torontonians embraced Victorian architecture and all of its diverse revival styles. Victorian style housing dominates a number of the city's older neighbourhoods, most notably Parkdale which has one of the largest collections of Victorian houses in North America. During this period Toronto also developed some unique styles of housing. The Bay and Gable house was a simple and cost effective design that also aped the elegance of Victorian mansions. Built of the abundant red brick, the design was also well suited to the narrow lots of Toronto. Mostly built in lower and middle class areas the style could be used both for town houses, semi detached, and stand alone buildings. Hundreds of examples still survive in neighbourhoods such as Cabbagetown and Parkdale. [Weir, Scott. "Toronto's house next door." "National Post." Don Mills, Ont.: Mar 3, 2007. pg. PH.12] Also unique to Toronto is the Annex style house. Built by the city's wealthy and mostly found in the neighbourhood they are named after, these houses contain diverse and eclectic elements borrowed from dozens of different styles. Built of a mix of brick and sandstone, turrets, domes, and other ornamentation abound. [Weir, Scott. "Torontonian to the core;" "National Post." Don Mills, Ont.: Mar 17, 2007. pg. PH.6]

Rise of the suburbs

The post war years and the rise of the personal automobile saw the rapid rise of the suburbs, as occurred across North America. The earliest suburbs in North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke mostly consisted of small single family homes often bungalows. Over time suburban houses have grown in size and moved away from the simplistic post-war designs embracing the neo-eclectic style. Suburban growth has continues to this day, with new projects in far flung regions such as Milton, Ontario. The Toronto suburbs are far vaster than those of other Canadian city, with Mississauga, the largest of its suburbs, itself being one of Canada's largest cities.

Toronto never experienced the inner city collapse that affected many American cities. Certain neighbourhoods did become much lower income. Many of the mansions of the Annex were subdivided into apartments, and in the 1950s the area became home to a mix of Hungarian immigrants and students from the nearby university. Parkdale also switched from a largely upper middle class to a poorer population. Many central neighbourhoods did also remain popular and prosperous, such as Riverdale and Yonge and Eglinton.

Toronto suburbs are different in character than those of other North American cities. During the 1960s and 1970s city planners tried to curb sprawl by encouraging high population density in the suburbs, with small lots and many apartment buildings placed in areas far from the downtown core. This has had mixed results. Toronto is considerably denser than most other North American cities, which has reduced sprawl and made it easier to provide city services such as mass transit. At the same time planners avoided creating mixed use areas, forcing suburban residents to work and shop elsewhere. As these suburban districts have aged the housing stock has declined and large stretches of suburban Toronto have become depressed and plagued by crime, such as Jane and Finch, Rexdale, and Malvern. Modern planners have been trying to adjust this, and several Toronto suburbs have been working to build their own central business districts and move beyond being bedroom suburbs to also being centers of business and industry.

Apartments and condominiums

The post war years also saw the rise of apartment style housing. In the 1960s and 1970s this was mostly focused on lower income earners. Beginning in the 1950s the city bulldozed older lower income neighbourhoods, replacing them with housing projects destroying large sections of Victorian housing. The earliest and most notorious example of this is Regent Park. It replaced a large portion of Cabbagetown with a series of towers that quickly became crime ridden and even more depressed than the neighbourhood it replaced. In later years similar projects such as Moss Park, Alexandra Park, and St. James Town were less disastrous, but also far from successful. These patterns changes dramatically beginning in the 1970s and gentrification began turning once poor neighbourhoods, such as Cabbagetown, into some of the city's most popular and expensive real estate.

Outside of the core even new neighbourhoods saw a great deal such construction, as builders embraced the "tower in a park" design. The buildings are built further from the sidewalk, leaving room on the property around the edifice for lawns, trees, and other landscaping. These towers were almost all built in what is today colloquially known as "commie block" style, for their similarity to Communist apartment architecture in Eastern Europe and the USSR. "Commie blocks" are simple high-rise buildings with rectangular footprints and little ornamentation other than repeating series of balconies for each apartment. However, some apartment buildings from this era utilize less conventional designs in the "tower in the park" format, such as the Prince Arthur Towers and 44 Walmer Road designed by Uno Prii.

In 1972 the Canadian tax code was radically altered making rental housing much less attractive to investors. At the same time deindustrialization opened a number of new areas to residential development. The new projects took the form of condominiums. This form of housing was introduced in the province's Condominium Act in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1980s that condos become very popular. An initial condo boom started in 1986, but the market collapsed in the late 1980s recession, and many investors were badly mauled. [Maureen Murray. "Realtors sing the condo blues." "Toronto Star." Toronto, Ont.: Dec 31, 1991. pg. C.1] In 1995, condo prices were still 30% below the earlier highs. ["Condo boom unlike excessive '80s." "Toronto Star." Toronto, Ont.: Aug 21, 1998. pg. 1] That year a new boom began in Toronto, that has continued to this day. An unprecedented number of new projects have been built in Toronto. In 2000 "Condo Life" magazine listed 152 separate projects underway within the city of Toronto [Peter Kuitenbrouwer. "Condo boom has city dwellers lining up: Unprecented growth;" National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: Jul 22, 2000. pg. E.1.FRO] by 2007 the number of projects in the GTA had reached 247 [Jane Renwick. "Condo boom, record digits." National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: Aug 11, 2007. pg. PH.2]

This development has been concentrated in the downtown core, especially in the former industrial areas just outside of the central business district. The largest such project is CityPlace, a cluster of condo towers on former railway lands by the lake shore. This $2 billion project will eventually consist of 20 different towers housing some 12,000 people. [Joanne Lovering. "City within the city: After years of planning and millions spent, a company's grandiose plans for Toronto shoot up at CityPlace." "National Post." Don Mills, Ont.: Feb 23, 2002. pg. PH.1.FR]

Commercial architecture

Financial district

Toronto is the commercial centre of Canada. Many of the countries largest firms are based there, and most others keep a major presence in the city. Among Canada's oldest and most prominent firms are the Big Five banks and the banks have erected many of Toronto's most prominent buildings. The Financial District is centered on the intersection of Bay and King in the heart of downtown. The block at each corner of this intersection are home to office towers for one of the four banks. This cluster includes four of Canada's five tallest buildings.

At the southwest of Bay and King is Mies van der Rohe's Toronto Dominion Centre. It is a black modernist complex of six imposing towers. It was the tallest building in Canada from 1967 to 1972. On the southeast is CIBC's Commerce Court complex. It is a cluster of four office buildings. The first building, now known as Commerce Court North, was built in 1930 as the headquarters. Designed by the firm Pearson and Darling, the 34-storey tower was the tallest building in the British Empire/Commonwealth of Nations until 1962. In 1972, three other buildings were erected, thus creating the Commerce Court complex: Commerce Court West designed by I. M. Pei (the tallest building in the complex, at 57 storeys, and the tallest building in Canada from 1972-1976), Commerce Court East (14 storeys), and Commerce Court South (5 storeys). Across the street on the northeastern corner of the intersection is First Canadian Place, the main Toronto offices of the Bank of Montreal. Since 1975 it has held the title of Canada's tallest office building with a height of 355 metres. Scotia Plaza, headquarters of Scotia Bank, is the second tallest building in Canada and is the newest of the Bay and King office towers having been completed in 1988. Just beyond Bay and King a number of other towers are found. To the south is the Royal Bank Plaza, the Royal Bank of Canada's main building in Toronto. At Bay and Wellington is TD Canada Trust Tower, the third tallest building in Canada, and its mate the Bay Wellington Tower.


:"Main article Hotels in Toronto"

Main Streets

A largely implemented concept in the Toronto cityscape is that of the Main Street, which entails a streetscape which is

"characterized by buildings on small lots (frontages less than 12.5 metres) ranging in height from 2 to 5 storeys. These buildings have street-related retail uses at grade and residential uses above. Typically, they are built to the lot line and span the width of the lot. These characteristics produce the familiar retail strip in which there is a continuous wall of retail activity and there is a direct relationship between the main entrance of a store and the public sidewalk." [ [] : Proposal to amend the Zoning By-law for the former City of Toronto regarding development standards to address drive-through restaurants and other drive-through operations.]
The Main Street is the concept of small avenues and store frontages on busy roads which maintain the vitality of communities and the continuity of the streetscape.

hopping centres

Designed by Eberhard Zeidler, the Eaton Centre represented one of North America's first downtown shopping malls. It was designed as a multi-leveled, vaulted glass-ceiling galleria, modeled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy. At the time of its opening in 1977, the interior design of the Eaton Centre was considered quite revolutionary and influenced shopping centre architecture throughout North America. Plans originally called for the demolition of Old City Hall, but these were eventually dropped after a public outcry. Ultimately, Terauley Street, Louisa Street, Downey's Lane and Albert Lane were closed and disappeared from the city street grid to make way for the new office and retail complex.

Large, sprawling retail centres are common in suburban Toronto. Of the more notable is Yorkdale Shopping Centre, which opened in 1964 as the world's largest mall. The mall was constructed with a novel system for its retailers to receive merchandise. Most shopping centres have their receiving doors located at the back side, while Yorkdale was constructed with a one-way, two-laned road for trucks running beneath the centre that leads directly to retailers' basement storages.

Institutional architecture


Toronto is the provincial capital of Ontario. The Romanesque Ontario Legislature is one of the most prominent monuments in the city, forming a terminating vista at the end of University Avenue. To the east of the legislature are a number of governmental buildings, with the best known being the Whitney Block. Constructed over many decades they embrace a number of different styles. The provincial government have been unwilling to pay for structures as lavish as those of the private sector, and few of the provincial buildings are of much prominence.

Two of the most distinct and well known structures in downtown Toronto are the old and current city halls. The Old City Hall was built in 1899 and is a prominent example of a the late Victorian Romanesque Revival style. Across the street is the starkly different new Toronto City Hall built in 1966. This brashly modernist structure was designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell. Today both buildings are considered symbols of the city.


designed the University of Toronto's Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building, which is home to the largest pharmaceutical faculty in Canada. It was completed in 2006.

The other two major universities York and Ryerson have largely been built in more recent years and have fewer architectural monuments. Ryerson was long mostly hidden within the downtown streetscape, but in recent years an unprecedented building project has greatly expanded the campus and made it much more visible. York, like many of the universities that largely came into being in the 1950s and 1960s, has mostly eschewed monumentalism in pursuit of less dramatic, but more egalitarian architecture.

The Ontario College of Art and Design, for many years confined to a series of comparatively unprepossessing buildings in the western part of downtown, was transformed in 2004 by the addition of the Will Alsop's Sharp Centre of Design. It consists of a black and white speckled box suspended four storeys off the ground and supported by a series of multi-coloured pillars at different angles.


Toronto is home to a variety of museums of varied styles. The Hockey Hall of Fame is housed in a Beaux-Arts building designed by Frank Darling. Several of Canada's most prominent museums are located in Toronto and recent years have seen a number of architecturally bold expansions. The Gardiner Museum recently commissioned KPMB Architects for a renovation and expansion, which was completed in 2006. The design consists of strongly pronounced rectangular and square windows, with various asymmetrical setbacks. The Royal Ontario Museum is Canada's largest. In 2007 Daniel Libeskind's expansion arrived, giving the museum a series of enormous "crystals" that rise dramatically five storeys from the street surface. Currently underway is Frank Gehry's redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which will completely alter the museum inside and out. The new front façade of the gallery will become an exercise in transparency, with the upper level transformed into a new sculpture court.


The most prominent landmark in Toronto, and its best known symbol, is the CN Tower. It was the world's tallest free-standing structure since its completion until the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates surpassed it in 2007. The CN Tower is used as an observation tower, as well as a communications tower.

In June 2006, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts opened as the new home of the Canadian Opera Company and The National Ballet of Canada. Designed by Diamond + Schmitt, the 2,000 seat opera house has a European style tiered horseshoe-shaped auditorium.

ee also

*List of tallest buildings in Toronto
*List of oldest buildings and structures in Toronto
*Architecture of Ottawa



*Cruikshank, Tom. "Old Toronto Houses." Toronto: Firefly Books, 2003.
*Denby William and William Kilbourn. "Toronto Observed." Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986.
*Fulford, Robert. "Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto."
*Kalman, Harold D. "A History of Canadian Architecture." Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994.

External links

* [ Cultural renaissance projects]

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