Here are the 10 ugliest buildings that blight the Toronto skyline -- and the architects who created them
So we live in this great city. We still use the subway, we’re achingly multi-cultural/sexual/devotional, we can breathe the air most days, and we’ve got Jane Jacobs. But just when you’re ready to chant “world class,” you stop and look around and say, god, we have a lot of butt-ugly buildings in this town. You say, hey, I live in a town without pretty.
Most of the time, though, we walk without wincing. Ugly starts to feel normal. It’s Paris that’s weird, not Toronto. Weirdly beautiful, but weird.
So this is your wake-up call. Ugly is the enemy. It is to spit upon.
But one quick caution — there is good ugly. Best example: the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. It is a much-despised building but, as writer John Bentley Mays notes, it will probably enter the history books as a superb example of a particular moment in brutalist architecture. It may be doing an ugly thing, but it is doing it extremely well. It is doing it grandly, confidently, without apology.
What we encourage you to spit upon, in this list of Toronto’s 10 worst buildings, is bad ugly (though we have left some of the worst offenders, like Mel Lastman Square and Metro Hall, off the list, mostly because they have already been roundly deplored).
Bad ugly is cheap (or expensive that ends up looking cheap), glibly trendy, ill proportioned, meanly detailed, anti-pedestrian — and if that sounds like a description of those perfectly hateful neighbours on your street, it’s because bad-ugly buildings also make dreadful neighbours. They don’t fit in. They’re land-hungry. They don’t “talk” to the locals. They make everyone else uncomfortable.
So here, courtesy of a panel of some 10 local architects, urban planners, critics, friends and me (all of whom had problems keeping this down to 10), is a list of this city’s most spit-worthy buildings.
THE HUDSON’S BAY CENTRE, Yonge and Bloor. Crang and Boake, architects, 1974.
Not just ugly — its prominent location means it’s virtually unavoidable. Variously described as “banal,” “a windowless lump” and “mean and nasty,” it presents a grimy, brown, featureless concrete mega-slab to the sidewalk (which nonetheless is wide enough at that point to encourage some interesting street life).
The underground concourse is claustrophobia-inducing — go-nowhere corridors with low ceilings. Brian Boake, a principal with Crang and Boake, says the firm did the best it could under restraints imposed by the “municipality, the client — and just about everyone.”
Then-current municipal height limitations on new buildings, for example, meant that the concourse had to be pushed half below grade to satisfy the client’s demand for maximum height.
He also takes the trouble to send along a rendering of his firm’s suggested improvements for the north-east corner, a design he says would “do justice to the public space that it’s trying to become” — more glass for much needed transparency, a cinema entrance, cafes looking down from above. The owners, apparently, were not interested.
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, apartment building at 77 Elm, architect Uno Prii (now retired), who says when I phone him, “I’m very happy with the results.”
“Gussied up Soviet,” in the words of one panel member. Almost comically, inventively bad — dreary concrete everywhere (including strange little “wings” that poke out randomly at various levels), an entrance tucked obscurely under bulging parking ramps, strange neo-Mayan concrete protuberances at ground level (for which we should probably be thankful, given that they are obviously there to hide even greater horrors).
BLOOR AND SHAW (NORTHEAST CORNER), an apartment building. Nice bricks — too bad about the building. A good example of our ugly provincial government at work — this was to be the site of a high density, imaginative and colourful social housing apartment building designed by architect Paul Reuber, but the Harris Tories pulled the plug on social housing in 1995, Reuber’s project was cancelled, and the site ended up in the hands of private-sector developers.
Their solution? Banal and cheaply built townhouses that stagger down Shaw in frightening symmetry. As Reuber puts it, “Some ugly buildings, like ugly people, can have a good personality, but this is just glib.”
1001 BAY,condominiums by architect Hershel Okun and others. Perhaps the worst on a very bad stretch of Bay. Acres of glass, some apparently random sections of it tinted pink — another attempt to redeem a colour whose use should not extend beyond hair colour and flowers.
Metal bits the colour of a bruise don’t help, either. Awkward joints and corners everywhere cheap detailing, particularly at street level. Big enough to break your heart.
Okun says the building we see is not what he had in mind. “The client elected to hire a consultant who is also an architect and made extensive changes to my original design.”
Asked whether he’s pleased with the changes, Okun will only say, “It’s not my design.”
ATRIUM ON BAY, a glass act, not a class act. When architects Page and Steele couldn’t think of anything else to do, they angled their ugly glass panels. And it doesn’t even feel like an atrium inside — it’s just too tall to give you a sense that there’s sky up there somewhere.
The interior appears to be extruded — rather than built — from a single unpleasant substance. Even though it is apparently one of the most energy-efficient buildings downtown, one panelist felt so vehement about this exercise in fun-house aesthetics that he vowed, when it was under construction, that he would never enter it.
Word on the street has it that Page and Steele’s original, much better design fell victim to the 80s recession, when the developer pulled every nickel it could out of the project.
FIRST CANADIAN PLACE, 100 King West, Bregman & Hamann, architects. Finished in 1975. As one panelist puts it, “Marble used like wallpaper does not cover up the clumsiness of the design. In this case, big and tall does not mean that the building soars.”
Far too opaque for its size — this is one case where more glass is needed. All that expensive marble just ends up looking grubby, and the approach at street level suggests you are about to enter the world’s biggest bathroom — and that you will meet Mussolini there.
Architects at Bregman and Hamann won’t discuss a building without the client’s permission, but do stress that it has always been popular with tenants.
METRO TORONTO CONVENTION CENTRE, 255 Front West, Crang and Boake, architects (first phase). Bills itself as “Canada’s largest convention facility — 2 million square feet to choose from.” The building is celebrating its 15th anniversary, has won awards (Best Canadian Meeting Facility, for example, from readers of the Globe and Mail), but it still strikes our panel as “a big, decorated shed that had a great opportunity for a good street face –with shops or restaurants — and didn’t use it.”
Says Brian Boake, “All those doors are exiting requirements under the Ontario Building Code, given that there are none at the back to speak of because the railway tracks are there. I don’t think we could have done it any differently and kept the same amount of space the client wanted.”
Its colour has been described as “baby-poo brown.” It is the kind of building that should have been a symbol of the city, that should appear on postcards. That won’t happen. Though it may work well enough as a space to contain people and exhibits, our convention centre is not the kind of place you want to write home about.
HOLIDAY INN, 370 King West, Stan Downey of Darling Downey, architect. “Jelly-mould Deco,” to quote a city planner quoting Adele Freedman. “This building has more panels than a federal government inquiry,” notes another, who adds that you could see it as “an organic, vertical toilet” or “a Henry Moore version of First Canadian Place.”
More mundanely “an uneasy combination of round and square aesthetics,” its aggressive whiteness doesn’t dazzle. It just hurts.
Downey admits that the building has been “very controversial. Some people love it. Some hate it. Architects tend to love it and I do get more compliments than not.”
THE THREE UGLY SISTERS, Harbourfront condominium development by Huang and Danczy at 260 Queens Quay West (though several panelists noted that poor developer-driven Harbourfront is a nest of embarrassingly ugly horrors).
There are marvellous views of the lake to the south and the city to the north, though you’d never know it from most of the units in these buildings. Their windows face east/west, allowing you to check out what your neighbours are up to, and not much else.
These buildings manage to look cheap even from a distance, and that is something of an accomplishment. They’re constructed of brick cleverly designed to read as pre-cast concrete, and have mean little windows.
City councillor Jack Layton remembers them “as ugly from the moment they went up. When we had protests about unchecked development, we would point to those buildings as something we didn’t need any more of.”
He also recalls the deal with the devil that produced them — federal money for Harbourfront was conditional upon a certain amount of private-sector development, and Huang and Danczy were able to persuade the Harbourfront board that buildings like these would be their financial salvation.
As one panelist noted, “they remind one how truly elegant St. James Town was when it first opened.”
SCARBOROUGH CITY HALL,an interesting case. A Moriyama building, but named by Jane Jacobs as topping her 10-worst list. In fact, it’s not dreadful — but what it does, oddly enough, is give the lie to the notion that Scarborough is a city. All the correct gestures are there — the size is appropriate, white panels cup round the glass front like a protecting, welcoming hand, and Albert Campbell Square is not uninviting.
Trouble is, there’s no one to answer the invitation. There’s no reason to have a there there — the area seems indistinguishable from any other part of suburbia. Albert Campbell Square ends up feeling like a rather generous gesture on the part of the surrounding corporate entities, and not at all like the city’s beating heart.
“I can understand the criticisms,” says Raymond Moriyama. “At the time, it made more sense than it does now. One of our intentions was to build a heart for the city, but that didn’t happen.”
FUN BONUS ITEM — check out 2323 Dundas West. Not significant enough to make the list, but it must ruin the day of anyone who lives in the neighbourhood. You’d swear it was the work of three different sleep-deprived architectural firms who never saw each other’s drawings. Yikes.
Research assistance by Geoffrey Chan and Tabassum Siddiqui