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!