Toronto is such a unique city. The core has so much history and it can be seen in its various styles of buildings. There’s an origin for why every structure is the way it is. As we’ve developed we’ve adopted so many different styles of architecture throughout the decades, and at one point one of our own. This summary provides the history and purpose of why Toronto has no other city brushing close to its unique presentation.
The Settlement of Toronto
In the very early 17th century, French colonists stuck their claim on the land of the Iroquois and other tribes. In 1760, the British took claim to that domain and removed the French. In 1793, is when that land became the town of York, following years of development it became the city of Toronto in 1834.
An unfortunate fact about this city is that we have little in the way of historical structures due to massive fires. The Great Toronto Fire occurred on April 7, 1849 which consumed an extensive portion of the downtown area, including City Hall. The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 destroyed 118 buildings in the span of 8 hours. This tragedy was the biggest disaster in the history of the city, claiming a large portion of the downtown core. As a result, of all of the destruction and it’s eventual turn into a megacity, the majority of Toronto consists of new buildings as we don’t have the opportunity to hang on to the past.
Painting by John Howard, Toronto Archives
In the middle of the 19th century, the increasing railways and steamboat ports brought in an ever-increasing urbanization to a prominently green land from it’s useful harbour. The increasing amount of trade began to develop into a massively increasing manufacturing industry. Along the shoreline we had kept expanding up until the mid 20th century. Our production plants were not limited to: refineries, soap factories, aviation plants and munitions facilities.
Due to the increasing population and the evolving world no longer needing use for much of the factories, the 1970s saw a decrease in their production. Corporations realized they could save money by utilizing overseas workers as it saves them exponentially due to lower pay rates. A massive deindustrialization began in Toronto, the factories were developed into offices, lofts or torn down making way for apartments and condos to develop into the Toronto we know today.
Image by Toronto Archives
Toronto continued to flourish in large part due to its harbours and factories along with the continuing population, it progressed into the commercial core of Canada. What followed with this development was the major banks creating towering structures that breached the established skyline. This area became known as the financial district. Built to create a competitive edge over other structures, overseeing the smaller buildings within the cityscape. It became the central location for the majority of the business core for the entire country.
The hotels of the city started off as small inns, but after the increase in population and the city’s wealth, they developed into cloud-breaching structures beginning in the early 20th century. The intention was to match the prominence of the skyscrapers that dominated the financial district. This can be seen in the historic Chateauesque Fairmont Royal York and the originally Art Deco Park Plaza Hotel, which is now the Park Hyatt Toronto. As the city became the business capital of the country, Toronto continued to flourish with massive hotels throughout.
The city began with mom-and-pop shops among the plethora of factories. As capitalism continued to rise throughout the city, vast shopping centres began to develop. Starting with the Yorkdale Shopping Centre in 1964, Toronto was in it’s initial phase to becoming the shopping capital of Canada. This structure was conceived through market research to make it as accessible as possible, which resulted in critics generally lambasting it’s mishmash of modernism. In 1977, the Eaton Centre followed suit with it’s red brick matching in line with the factories in nearby. Shopping continued to develop in wide prevalence with Fairview Mall and Sherway Gardens, among many others.
Image of Fairmont Royal York Hotel by fairmont.com
When settlements first began in the 1800’s, builders adopted the Georgian style even though it was falling out of favour in both Britain and the United States at that time. Early settlers realized the practicality of having structures known to have strong durability. These were first made of log, then eventually clapboard, brick or stone. This style is known for symmetry, minute ornamentation and a wide structure. In the early 19th century, Victorian architecture began to take over due to its popularity in England and France at that time. Characterized by its asymmetrical shape in its bays and wings, decorative trim and vibrant colours, his style had many different variations within it, including: Second Empire, Stick-Eastlake, Folk Victorian, Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque and Shingle. Nearing the end of the 19th century, Toronto saw its own unique take on this style with bay-and-gable. It’s noteworthy for its tall and narrow style and is often times semi-detached. This was to utilize smaller space with the constantly evolving rate of the population. These homes take influence of the Victorian style, but with tall windows and elongated depth. They were typically seen in The Annex area. This gave the middle-class more options to live in this budding city, while the typical Victorian homes were for the upper-class. The majority of homes utilized red bricks as that was the main product used to develop homes in Toronto. This was due to the type of clay that was utilized. Due to the prevalence of the bricks, it became common for households to adopt well after other construction options decades after other materials were readily available.
As development occurred, there was a strong incline in the growth of suburbs in the beginning of the 1950’s. This was in large part due to the popularization of automobiles. It was then that the Green Belt Legislation was initialized in order to permanently preserve a vast amount of green space in Southern Ontario. In the 60s and 70s, there was a rapid increase in apartments and condominiums due in large part to the baby boom. There was such a vast increase of lower to middle class families. Unfortunately, this resulted in the destruction of a wide amount of Victorian homes in their wake. Gentrification began to rise in parts of the downtown core. As population continued to increase, the buildings took on the “towers in the park” concept from the bustling New York City. This was their traditional cityscape with enough space from the sidewalk, landscaping and other greenery. As more and more people came into the city, it began to deindustrialize setting up increasing opportunities for people to move in. The 80s saw the initialization of the Ontario Condominium Act to regulate the booming market. The condo boom in the 1980s signified the rise of even more buildings, this increase in population continues to this day. As the population kept increasing, we continued to eliminate the industrial core and started developing properties near the financial district. We now have no option but to build up due to the Green Belt Legislation. In the 1990’s, the increasing condo market took inspiration from Southeast Asian models as their population was rapidly increasing at the time as well, they understood how to format the buildings of exploding populations. We mostly have architectsAlliance, a Toronto-based firm, to thank for their continuous significant contributions to the condos of our skyline.
Bay-and-gable homes image by Cabbagetown Heritage Conservation District Committee
As Toronto continued its prominence, it was determined that it would be the capital of Ontario. Between 1886 – 1892, the current Ontario Legislative Building was erected after the previous legislative assembly building had been destroyed back in 1813, during the Battle of York. During the time of the building’s inception the Romanesque Revival was becoming increasingly popular. This style is characterized by its big, bold and chunky structure, with rounded archways and elaborate stone carvings similar to that of the Gothic style.
The City Council of Toronto was constantly overcrowded, in order to curb this a larger city hall had been decided. Completed in 1899, what we now call Old City Hall was the largest municipal building at the time. This structure was also made in the Romanesque Revival style. In 1965, they wanted to make a drastically different building that would stand out from the city’s skyline, being the first significant modernist structure. These buildings are known for their sleek and minimalist designs, utilizing glass, concrete and steel. This design was chosen from a council of architects who chose from over 500 contenders, this design was decided upon as it was believed to represent civic government.
Our universities are prominent fixtures within the city, much of our character stems from these expansive campuses. The University of Toronto takes up a significant amount of space near the downtown core. Over the decades it has absorbed so many properties, therefore adopting a mishmash of architectural styles, mostly a blend of modernist, post-modernist and Victorian peppered throughout. York and Ryerson Universities are the other prominent post-secondary institutions in our city. They were both constructed over 60 years ago when Brutalist architecture was at peak popularity. The look is notable for its thick concrete with heavily muted colours and minimal detailing to appear uniform so they can house as many rooms possible. These solid structures still stand among the campuses, but as the universities flourish, new buildings are added with modernist designs breaking out of the traditional mould.
Among the skyline of downtown Toronto, we have the exceptionally unique Ontario College of Art and Design built in 2002. The rectangular black and white structure is decorated with coloured beams descending to the floor. This eccentric piece, known as the ‘’flying tabletop,” utilized for the main building was designed by William Alsop to portray how you can be unique and present your artistry when surrounded by uniformity.
OCAD University image by Bruce Mau Design
The Royal Ontario Museum is a unique display as it is the best example of evolving architecture within the city. The over 100 year old building was conceived as a Romanesque Revival piece. The structure continued to expand as popularity and new wings were built. To not only capture attention but to encapsulate what the popular or unique architecture at the time was, it has elements of Gothic, Art Deco, Neo-Byzantine, Second Empire and Georgian architecture. It stands out more so than ever with its newest addition, a Deconstructivist postmodern wing of prismatic prominence.
The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) was established in 1918 under the Beaux-Arts style, French for “fine arts.” This Paris developed style was similar to that of Gothic conception, but utilizing iron and glass. The architects wanted this to appear unique due to the subject matter within the building. The AGO was eventually determined by its owners to look inaccessible to the general public due to its artistic representation, in order to counter that a brick wing was added in the 1990s. This was met exceptionally poorly as locals felt it looked cheap and bland. In 2008, world famous Toronto-born Frank Gehry redesigned the entirety of the gallery to look like an overturned canoe in a postmodern style.
Toronto houses a vast array of churches from all different denominations, the majority of them being of Christian faith. Many still stand although attendance at them is dwindling due to changes of faith or others continuing to move along the Greater Toronto Area region. They originally began in the symmetrical Georgian style moving to the ornate Gothic Revival style that the city is accustomed to. Especially for the Protestant churches. The Catholic churches were also Gothic, but focused on Italianate and Baroque architecture to become more picturesque and give off a more “heavenly” air. As the world became more modern, so did the religious structures, adopting smoother and simpler designs.
We have a plethora of theatres and venues to hold events and concerts. Roy Thomson Hall and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts both take on a modernist approach even though they were made decades apart. Roy Thomson Hall was built with the future in mind, while the Four Seasons was designed to be with the times. Massey Hall was built in 1894, the Victorian structure was honoured as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1981. Of our performing arts theatres, the Royal Alexandra Theatre is the oldest. Established in 1907, the beaux-arts style adopted is typical to that of British theatres as popularity was increasing at the time.
Of its number of sporting venues, the Rogers Centre is the most impactful on the cityscape. Built in 1989, originally called the SkyDome, it was conceived as the headquarters for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Argonauts as the bustling city was due a sports team. This is notable as unlike the vast majority of stadiums it can close the ceiling in poor weather in order to continue the event. This like many other stadiums, utilizes a Brutalist approach to be uniform and allow a strong amount of space.
The sky-piercing CN Tower was erected in 1976 and is the 9th largest free-standing structure on Earth. The skyscraper was conceived to not only to serve as a telecommunications receiver, but also to portray the impressive scale of Canada. A Brutalist design was used so that the concrete would keep the massive structure stable, but so that visitors could enjoy the scope of the entire city with its wide use of tall windows.
Image by Shutterstock
The city of Toronto has an eclectic melting pot of architecture throughout. It’s wide use of concrete, but also ornately decorative structures provide a uniqueness that other cities don’t have. From it’s heavy use of Victorian architecture to it’s Brutalist landmarks, Toronto has a wholly unique blend of character.