Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization Designs (Part 1?)

I just got back from viewing the four proposed designs for revitalizing Nathan Phillips Square. I only saw the designs and models — I didn’t go see the oral presentations by each team — so what I will write here is purely a gut reaction. I am calling this “Part 1” because other Spacing Wire contributors are going to look at the designs, and they may have very different reactions, and may want to post their own analysis rather than just making comments on this one. I think that this is an important enough subject — the redesign of Toronto’s civic square — that it’s worthy of multiple posts.

There were four designs by different architectural teams, labelled A-D, spread out around the rotunda of city hall. I started with A, and as I worked my way through B and C, I started to feel a sense of despair. They all seemed rather dull. All of them perpetuated the isolation of the west side of the square, leaving it separated from the main square one way or another. All of them got rid of moved the Peace Garden (one moved it), but did not find any way to replace its function of softening the main body of the square. Each was only livened up with rather precious architectural flourishes that didn’t really relate to what the Square is or does (light features, flat fountains like Dundas Square, odd undulating green roofs). None of them found a convincing way to re-integrate the colonnade into the public realm, so leaving it almost as isolated as it is today. “C”, by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, was particularly problematic, isolating the square even more from Queen Street with chunky new structures and an additional water feature where the skate rental building is, so that you need to cross a kind of drawbridge to get to city hall. To me, that’s not really the message a civic square should convey. Overall, I didn’t feel any of the first three designs would make the square significantly better than it is today, and in some ways it would be worse — I didn’t feel they’d be worth the effort.

So I was hugely relieved, and then excited, when I saw design “D” by Rogers Marvel Architects. My first reaction was that it was beautiful — making the square a place where I would really want to be. As I looked at it more closely, I realized that this design also thought about and addressed all of the issues that made a redesign desirable, while still appreciating — indeed enhancing — its best features.

Basically, rather than perpetuating the boxy line of features on the west side of the square, the proposal creates an undulating green park along the entire west side. This opens up the square to the west, and brilliantly makes Henry Moore’s Archer central to the square, rather than a bit off to the side as it is today. It also balances the Peace Garden on the east side, so that rather than being an accretion to the square, the Peace Garden is transformed into something that belongs there and relates to the rest of the square. Further, the new park integrates the rather isolated north-west passage of the square into the overall shape. The Square becomes bigger, but also nicely defined.

As well as undulating horizontally, the western park undulates upwards, so that it meets the colonnade/raised walkway (which is cut back on the west side so that it stops roughly at the level of the fountain/skating rink). This means that the raised walkway becomes part of the overall design, a place you can get to naturally without having to climb stairs. It also means there is a space at ground level, underneath the park and integrated into it, lined with a curtain of curving glass, where there is an interior public space for the skate rentals, a cafe, and practical spaces to support performances. In other words, many different problems are solved by one solution, which to me is a sign of really good design. The undulating park reflects the curves of City Hall itself, while balancing the boxiness of the colonnade. On the east side, the colonnade is cut off before it reaches the level of city hall itself, ending with a new set of stairs, which opens up the east side of the square as well while making the colonnade more accessible. So the square becomes larger, softened and yet defined at the edges, usable in a wider variety of ways, and more open and better integrated with its surroundings.

There is one last thing I particularly like — the enclosed space under the park will become an interior public space for the winter, warm and yet open, which is something I have always thought Toronto needs. The design also really focuses on making the square feel Canadian, with the use of native species of trees. In this, it echoes the emphasis of the successful design for the Waterfront.

There are some issues, of course (the south-west entrance to the square needs to be more open), but it’s rare for me to be actually enthused about a design, and it’s exciting to think that Nathan Phillips could become even better and achieve its full potential as a civic square. The Rogers Marvel design faces some serious challenges, however. It violates some basic general opinions among architects (that the Peace Garden should go, that the colonnade should not be messed with), which may count against it. We will see.

Note – the designs will be on display in the City Hall rotunda until Monday, February 26. Check them out!


  1. They’re not available yet, it seems – hopefully the City website will have them up tomorrow.

  2. Having attended the presentations, a couple of factual comments: designs A, B, and C all relocated the Peace Garden to the western green space, though the design obviously differed. Designs B, C, and D (I think, they did blur together) all had hilly green space on the west side that provided a direct connection to the walkway, though the layout of the walkway differed.

    I liked design A (Plant) because the new buildings seemed to integrate very well into the structure and aesthetic of the square; it also seemed to be the greenest with a claimed LEED Gold rating. I liked design D (Rogers Marvel) but don’t think the Peace Garden works as-is — even though I’m not an architect. And I felt design B (Zeidler) was the most problematic: as presented, it seemed to focus on transforming the square into an outdoor art gallery, and the result struck me as pretty cluttered.

  3. In my mind, the Rogers Marvel scheme came off as a bit of a patronizing/populist view of Canadian landscape (a la the giant floating maple leaf proposed for the water front). The forested hill along the west, complete with camp fire, is simply not compatible with an urban setting.

    At its core, the square is an empty space, and this is something that was fundamentally expressed by the PLANT proposal. The proposed placement of native tree species amongst a hard surface along the south edge seems to strike the correct balance between natural and man-made elements. (How well the trees do remains to be seen.) This scheme was probably the most restrained. Stylistically, the rectilinear buildings don’t compete with the City Hall for attention. while the changes to the walkways are surgically precise; wood decking was added to the top, with new lighting underneath, and the concrete replaced with glass guards at a few key locations.

    The Zeidler scheme included the clever idea of moving the tourist bus parking to the east side which serves the dual purpose of freeing up the Queen Street side, and adding some pedestrian activity along Bay Street. The Baird Sampson scheme had a well thought-out system for plugging in all the various lights, signs, tents, etc… used for various events.

    Unfortunately, none of the schemes really addressed the bigger picture. The Bay/Queen intersection was left as is, and connections to Chesnut Street to the north seem an afterthought.

    Lets hope they get this right.

  4. The fourth sounds promising, and the enclosed public space sounds a bit like Robson Square if I am imagining it correctly?

    Damn, I wish I were an architect. I am bad at math, though.

  5. I am partial to the PLANT proposal for their acknowledgement of the urban nature of the site and restrained design. However none of the finalists seem to see the potential in strengthening the east west flow of foot traffic that flows from Dundas Square to University Avenue via NPS.

  6. The first three (A,B, and C) bored me with their architectural vocabulary puke. Two of the designs did the same move on the western green with wavy undulating rectilinear forms. Whose going to pay $40M to light Team B’s proposal. The only one in my mind that transformed the square was D, while respecting and understanding the original intent and history of entire project, not just NPS.

    Oh yeah, the only critique worth reading is spacingwire. The Globe and Star were worthless.

  7. Tear down the Sheraton – or massively redesign it’s facade. the only best way to revitalize the square.

    Ugly. concrete. monstrosity.

  8. ^”dismal civic space” as you write is more than a tad hyperbolic and sounds like you’ve only been in the square on a damp winter’s eve. It’s probably one of the most vibrant places in Toronto, so if it’s dismal, all Toronto is dismal.

    I also think the raised walkway is a scapegoat for people who just don’t like modernism or concrete.

    Thankfully, these designs all recognized this is an update/fix-up, not a re-do of the square.

  9. I’m a fan of modernism, and sometimes even brutalism, but the square is dismal because it’s been both neglected and jury-rigged to accomodate events. The people in the square can be vibrant while the square remains dark and dumpy. The concert stage, skate rental block and southeast railings are just excruciating.

    The bland colonnade doesn’t make much sense as-built since it was supposed to surround the entire property, allowing pedestrians to walk around all the way around the square. Now, it’s about as attractive as a highway overpass, and the design isn’t particularly welcoming. The fact that it’s closed much of the time doesn’t help.

    Revell’s original drawings didn’t even feature a colonnade, and despite how much of a fan I am of his City Hall and NPS design, I think it was an ugly mistake, especially at grade from Queen Street and looking north (that doesn’t include the swooping eastern ramp and prow, which I think is brilliant). On the other side of the coin, I think a lot of people are romanticizing the colonnade solely because it’s part of an otherwise brilliant design.

    I’m glad that stupid moose is gone from its plank high above the reflecting pool. Revell must have been spinning in his grave.

  10. That moose was taking an eternal shit on NPS the entire time it was up there.

    I still think it’s hyperbolic to say the totality of the square itself is dismal. It’s got some bad elements (skate rental) and hasn’t been taken care of, but the core-wonderfulness of the square is still there.

  11. Re massively redesigning the Sheraton: if you want to imagine an even uglier monstrosity, imagine that the classicizing makeover of the porte-cochere entrance was applied to the whole building.


  12. I am in agreement with Dylan – the Rogers Marvel was the best of the four, I would have to put PLANT’s proposal as my second choice.

    I did find the campfire and the muskoka chairs a bit hokey, but the general treatment of the Churchill statue, the Peace Garden and the east side to be excellent attributes.

    I checked out the displays today on my lunch, and was pleased to see large crowds reviewing each of the plans (even Zanta showed up). I also recommend (if you have not seen them yet) taking a stroll towards the library/Cafe on the Square, where there are some striking photos of the construction of City Hall.

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