Tag Archives: Kearns Mancini Architects

Recalling Lake Ontario’s lost edge with steel and grass

A version of this post appeared in the October 10th edition of The Fort York Foundation’s website. For more information, see www.fortyorkfoundation.ca/.

The much-anticipated Fort York Visitor Centre is now open – to positive reviews.

The long, linear building recreates the lakefront bluff that defined the Fort’s 19th century geography and has taken root below the hulk of the elevated Gardiner Expressway. Its main exterior façade is composed of a sequence of monolithic weathered steel panels and a ”liquid landscape” of meadow plants, aligned with the contours of the original shoreline. The Visitor Centre inhabits the space behind this industrial escarpment, partially buried under the Commons. It is an ingenious approach to working with the landscape as a form of historical narrative.

Forecourt space will be planted in tall grasses with boardwalk circulation routes, recalling the original lakeshore landscape. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Forecourt space will be planted in tall grasses with boardwalk circulation routes, recalling the original lakeshore landscape. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The building is a joint project by Vancouver’s Patkau Architects and Toronto-based Kearns Mancini Architects – the result of an international competition held in 2009.

There is a remarkable similarity between the winning competition drawings and the final building. This is rare. Although the project underwent a comprehensive value engineering process, the original concept was not diminished nor was a more conventional approach to design taken.

Conceptual Sketch of the steel escarpment. Image courtesy of the project team.

Conceptual Sketch of the steel escarpment. Image courtesy of the project team.

The ‘fortified’ edge of the site is defined by steel panels. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The ‘fortified’ edge of the site is defined by steel panels. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Fort York Visitor Centre winning competition drawings - Perspective

Fort York Visitor Centre winning competition drawings – Perspective

The most significant change was in the superstructure –the “Ghost Screen”– a self-supporting layer that proved to be expensive and difficult to turn into an implementable piece of construction. Without compromising the essential imagery, the screen is (re)presented instead as a semi-translucent cast glass channel wall, which defines the building’s uppermost volume along its length. “We decided to get more pragmatic about it”, says Patricia Patkau. “I think in some ways the project may have benefitted from that.”

A very rich landscape idea was presented as part of the winning submission, reflecting the historic harbour and telling the story of the site. Budget constraints, however, made certain key features undeliverable. These enrichments can be added as more funding becomes available.

Fort York Visitor Centre –Transversal section through the building and site.

Fort York Visitor Centre winning competition drawings – Cross section

To complete the weathered steel façade, an additional 37 inclined panels need to be installed. This extension of the wall from the east end of the Visitor Centre would demonstrate how the natural escarpment contributed to the Fort’s defences. As part of the liquid landscape, expanses of softly moving grasses will continue all the way along this steel edge, creating the illusion of the lake that, until the 1850s, came right up to the Fort itself. A series of illuminated raft-like objects and boardwalk circulation routes will help recall the former presence of the lake.

The full master plan also calls for a large terrace –”Events Dock”– reaching out into the liquid landscape. This will be the site for a slew of activities and here, at its highest elevation 20m up, the massive concrete and steel overpass will act as a huge covered canopy. (Just this past weekend, it was the site for a video installation during Nuit Blanche.) Imagine art installations hanging from its underbelly, and space for theatre, for concerts, and for kids to play. This is where the Fort York National Historic Site welcomes the modern city with diverse large-scale public events.

The new urban plaza will transform the previously derelict and underused space into a bright, new, urban neighbourhood amenity. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The new urban plaza will transform the previously derelict and underused space into a bright, new, urban neighbourhood amenity. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Fort York Visitor Centre winning competition drawings - Perspective

Fort York Visitor Centre winning competition drawings – Perspective

“There is a long list of enhancements that are not essential to the scheme but will make it richer. We hope that, over time, they can be phased in,” says John Patkau. After all, these details are the elements that we interact with most closely – they are the parts we see and touch.

The main façade of the visitor centre recreates the original escarpment and presents a strong elevation along Fort York Boulevard. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The main façade of the visitor centre recreates the original escarpment and presents a strong elevation along Fort York Boulevard. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Fort York Visitor Centre winning competition drawings – South Elevation

Fort York Visitor Centre winning competition drawings – South Elevation

The building is the result of a collaborative partnership between two innovative firms. It is not always obvious how two design firms can act as a team. In this relationship, there was no ‘master sketcher’, no single person taking the lead. The idea of the architect as solitary genius is outdated. Instead, it was a discussion, a conversation at all stages. “It’s two complimentary, compatible design firms that are able to work together”, says Jonathan Kearns. “It’s almost like having a built-in peer review. We have a shared understanding and common goals.” Toronto-based landscape architecture firm Janet Rosenberg & Studio was also an important part of the discussion.

The Fort York Visitor Centre will help Torontonians engage in the history of this site and the city. The designers, City of Toronto Culture, and community partners are committed to seeing some of the important missing elements that were described in the competition come to fruition. It’s just a question of when. The Fort York Foundation will continue to campaign and will need your support to realize this vision.

The canopy of the Expressway produces a huge, covered urban space for community events and programming. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The canopy of the Expressway produces a huge, covered urban space for community events and programming. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The project's main façade is intimately interwoven in alternations of transparency and solidity. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The project’s main façade is intimately interwoven in alternations of transparency and solidity. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Stephanie Calvet is a Toronto-based architect and writer specializing in architecture and design. For over a decade she worked in architecture and planning firms in Boston, designing projects in the hospitality, multi-unit residential, education and healthcare sectors. In addition to consulting, she writes for the popular press, trade publications, corporate organizations, and academic journals.

Advertisements

Toronto’s Fort York Visitor Centre Opens

A version of this post appeared in the September 19th edition of UrbanToronto

Entry to Fort York Visitor Centre, framed by a weathering steel panel façade. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Entry to Fort York Visitor Centre, framed by a weathering steel panel façade. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The Official Opening of Toronto’s Fort York Visitor Centre was held today. By most definitions, the city’s newest attraction, which is embedded into the ground, makes a bold statement whilst being minimally intrusive. The project is the result of a collaborative partnership between two design firms, Patkau Architects, an innovative studio based in Vancouver, and local associate architects Kearns Mancini.

“Right from the beginning, my feeling was that it could not be a little building sitting here because it would just look trivial beneath the Gardiner,” says architect Patricia Patkau. “Somehow it had to take on a different persona, like a landscape. It needed to be something of great scale, but without the height.”

Fort York Visitor Centre below the Gardiner Expressway. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Fort York Visitor Centre below the Gardiner Expressway. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The north façade of the Fort York Visitor Centre with the Gardiner Expressway above and behind. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The north façade of the Fort York Visitor Centre with the Gardiner Expressway above and behind. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Built in 1793, Fort York, now a National Historic Site, is known as the location where the Battle of York came to its violent climax in 1813 during the War of 1812. Today it is home to one of the oldest collection of fortifications in Canada, enclosing the country’s largest collection of 1812-era military structures within its defensive walls. Where the Fort is powerful in its history, it is not in its physical presence. Characterized by low-lying buildings, on a site landlocked between roadways and rail corridors, it has been almost invisible to passersby. Many Torontonians are not even familiar with its existence.

The Visitor Centre now changes this balance. Located on Fort York Boulevard, almost immediately below and just north of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, it acts as both a gateway and an interpretative hub for the entire 43-acre Fort York National Historic Site, considered the birthplace of Toronto. The new building is itself a key component in the ongoing restoration and revitalization of the city’s founding site, which includes not only the seven acres within the Fort’s walls but also the archaeological landscape, Garrison Common, Victoria Memorial Square, the Fort York Armoury and Garrison Creek parkland to the east. For the architects, the building was not simply seen as a Visitor Centre but an opportunity to provide a sense of connection both historically and physically with other parts of the site.

The Visitor Centre's interpretive function is a key part of a plan to revitalize the entire 43-acre historical site.

The Visitor Centre’s interpretive function is a key part of a plan to revitalize the entire 43-acre historical site.

The 27,000 square-foot Visitor Centre provides Fort York’s first secure exhibit space and enables the display of artifacts from the City’s collection that tells its 200-year story. Its green roof is an extension of the Common. Ground-embedding the building made it sustainable from an energy perspective and easier to develop as a Class A museum-quality interior: well insulated and unaffected by daylight. Toronto exhibit designer Reich + Petch also had a hand in shaping the environment, which includes a 2900 sq. ft. exhibit gallery; a climate-controlled vault designed to display iconic and light-sensitive artifacts; and, an Orientation Theatre. In addition to permanent and changing exhibits, it also provides facilities for education, research, staff and community use.

Fort York Visitor Centre Exhibit Gallery with 'The Vault' in the background. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Fort York Visitor Centre Exhibit Gallery with ‘The Vault’ in the background. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Architects Jonathan Kearns and John Patkau introduce the Fort York Visitor Centre. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Architects Jonathan Kearns and John Patkau introduce the Fort York Visitor Centre. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The Visitor Centre snakes along the base of the monolithic structure that looms above. It aligns with the original shoreline of Lake Ontario, now set back some 500m, altered by two centuries of infill. Lined by a series of inclined Corten steel panels, its main façade recalls the original lake bluff, which contributed to the Fort’s natural defences. The modularity of those weathering steel panels, in considerable 8’x24’ proportions, is broken by sections of glass at building entry points. An array of glazed slits between the panels, along the length of the building, allow thin segments of natural light to permeate the main reception area and sunken exhibition gallery.

The new Fort York Visitor Centre. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The new Fort York Visitor Centre. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Entrance points to the new Fort York Visitor Centre. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Entrance points to the new Fort York Visitor Centre. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The building’s workings are best illustrated in section. “This is sort of an ‘upside down’ landscape, in terms of its archaeology, where the visitor enters on a lower contemporary landscape and rises up into an archaeological landscape. It is an interesting inversion of how it usually happens. The history, then, is the upper landscape and the modern world is the lower landscape,” explains architect Johnathan Kearns.

Cross-section through the Visitor Centre. Image courtesy of Patkau Architects.

Cross-section through the Visitor Centre. Image courtesy of Patkau Architects.

Longitudinal sections through the Fort York Visitor Centre. Image by Patkau Architects.

Longitudinal sections through the Fort York Visitor Centre. Image by Patkau Architects.

The procession through the building tells the story. The immersive “time tunnel”, a digital media space along a gentle inclined plane that zigzags back, takes the visitor through a virtual re-enactment leading up to the Battle of York. When emerging out of the end of it, the visitor is directly facing the Fort itself, with the backdrop of modern-day Toronto. Visitors can then go forth and explore the Fort, armed with a deeper understanding of its background and an appreciation of its importance as a national historic site.

Existing Fort York site with Toronto's skyline beyond. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Existing Fort York site with Toronto’s skyline beyond. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Hosted by The City of Toronto, The Fort York Foundation and The Friends of Fort York, the Opening Ceremonies began with fife and drum music by the Fort York Guard Drum Corps under the Gardiner Expressway. The musical prelude was followed by a welcoming and remarks by dignitaries, and then the ribbon cutting. On Saturday and Sunday, from 12 to 7pm, at the On Common Ground Festival, the public is invited to experience a free weekend of performances and exhibitions with culturally diverse music, dance, theatre, craft-making, kidzone, community village and local food. For a full schedule of events, please see link.

The Centre is open but not quite finished; visitors will find that several exhibits have yet to be installed, and most of the landscaping remains to be started, let alone completed. A number of enhancements will be added as more funding becomes available. In particular, the full master plan calls for the placement of an additional 37 steel panels to recreate the escarpment, and expanses of softly moving grasses recalling the waters of the lake. And the project team envisions the extension of a large terrace under the Gardiner that, here, at its highest elevation, will act as a covered canopy for a great diversity of public events. Still, there is much to see now, and celebrations continue.

The Gardiner shelters a huge covered event space. Image by Patkau Architects.

The Gardiner shelters a huge public event space. Image by Patkau Architects.

South elevation of the Visitor Centre, below the Gardiner Expressway. Image by Patkau Architects.

South elevation of the Visitor Centre, below the Gardiner Expressway. Image by Patkau Architects.

Stephanie Calvet is an architect and a writer specializing in architecture and design. She can be found at www.stephaniecalvet.com