It has become such an accustomed trope to view Viljo Revell's Toronto City Hall and vast, open civic square (1958–65) not only as the symbolic image by which Toronto is recognized but also as representative of its most cherished values that it is possible to forget how remarkable an accomplishment this is for any building and how unlikely an achievement it must have seemed for Toronto in 1958. Like a pair of long pants that a youth may wear upon maturity, Revell designed a city hall that the city might grow into. That Toronto would live up to the promise of its city hall was understood by the competition jurors, who envisioned that the building would mold the city around it even as future surrounding construction would serve as a rectilinear foil for its dynamic, curving forms.
Today, Toronto is one of the world's most vibrant, multicultural cities. But in 1955, “without hardly a ripple on the surface of public opinion, about half of Chinatown died” to make way for the proposed civic square over which a new city hall would preside.1 When the open and anonymous competition was first announced, objection arose on many fronts, from protectionist Canadian architectural associations defending the rights of Canadian architects (who later derided Revell's winning design as “European junk,” “plain crazy,” and “not typical of sane, solid, dignified people”) to citizens concerned that the jury might select as winner an architect from Soviet Russia or a Chinese Communist. Even Mayor Nathan Philips, for whom the public square was subsequently named, described Toronto as “just a big overgrown village.”2
Two new books about Toronto City Hall, one by George Kapelos and the other by Christopher Armstrong, go far toward raising the profile of this work, interrogating and reinterpreting it for contemporary readers.3 These authors collaborated as cocurators of the exhibition under review. Given the presence of their two publications and in view of the limited space available to them at the Paul H. Cocker Architecture Gallery at Ryerson University, the curators wisely chose to limit their focus to the competition itself, its context, content, and legacy.
More than five hundred architects from forty-two countries submitted entries, so many that Eero Saarinen, one of the jury members, asked for wheelchairs so that jurors might take rest breaks as they hiked past the more than two miles of drawings mounted for their review. Kapelos's students re-created models of the designs submitted by the eight finalists, who included I. M. Pei and John Andrews, and these formed the centerpiece of the exhibition and one of its pleasures. The Andrews project, done while he was still a student at Harvard, is stunning, its hovering, woven roof casting latticed shadows over a vast open courtyard (Figure 1). The models were surrounded by reproduced drawings, photographs, and text affixed to the walls. This display constituted the body of the exhibition, which examined three broad areas labeled “Modernity” (the then-current architectural climate in Toronto, across Canada, and abroad), “The Competition” (a look at the submissions of fifty entrants and the eight finalists), and “Impact and Legacy” (both of the building and square on Toronto and of the competition itself and the competition process on architecture internationally). Mounted iPads provided extended documentation of the competition while a projected clip from the CBC television program Explorations transported visitors back to 1958 to savor actual discourse of the time, with Jacqueline Tyrwhitt hosting interviews with Revell, Eric Arthur, and jury members.
The exhibition succeeded in its goal of deepening visitors’ appreciation of the architectural moment in which Toronto City Hall was born, raised intriguing questions, and proposed a broader field of influence for both the competition and the building. For instance, we know that Eric Arthur, professor of architecture at the University of Toronto, was professional adviser to the competition, in which role he selected the jury, including Italian architect Ernesto Rogers and British architect and town planner William Holford. Yet the selection of Revell's modernist proposal did not guarantee its construction. In 1959 Canadian Architect feared that “so much that has been gained may still be lost in the grotesque squabbling that is now occupying the city's press and politicians.”4 As the exhibition demonstrated, it was Arthur's continuing involvement, picking John B. Parkin's firm as consulting local architect, that helped smooth the way to completion. And Arthur subsequently advised Boston's mayor, persuading him to announce an open competition for Boston's new city hall. That Toronto's civic square continues to serve as a rallying site for celebration and protest—“a stage where people could act out their beliefs and understand themselves as citizens rather than consumers and workers”5—testifies to its democratic underpinnings. The curators wanted exhibition visitors to understand that the impact and legacy of this competition and building reached far beyond Toronto and the historical moment in which it was completed.6