Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
When it needed a new city hall in 1958, Toronto received more than 500 submissions from all over the globe. The winning design still endures today.
The election of Nathan Phillips as mayor in 1955 marked a symbolic shift for Toronto. Phillips would leave a lasting legacy through his insistence on having an international design competition for a new city hall.
“Part of the reason for the competition was a real desire to assert a new identity for the city,” says George Kapelos, associate professor of architecture and planning at Ryerson University and author of Competing Modernisms: Toronto's New City Hall and Square. Phillips was the city’s first Jewish mayor. “Up until then, Toronto had been a very Protestant city ruled by an Anglo-Irish elite,” he adds.
Before the mayor had his way, a 1955 plan for a new city hall had been denounced by University of Toronto architecture students as a “funeral home of vast dimensions.” What Phillips and many in his competition jury wanted instead was a “new kind of modernity,” says Kapelos, “one that was more humanistic and established places of meaning in the country.”
A little more than a year after the international design competition for a new Sydney Opera House, Toronto’s competition in 1958 brought in over 500 entires from all over the world. The proposals were often bold and modern—exactly what Phillips had hoped for in a time, Kapelos tells CityLab, of “growing concern over an Americanization of Canada and the corporatization of modernity.”
With the submissions eventually narrowed down to a final eight, Finland’s Viljo Revell won the jury over, submitting a design that has endured as a progressive symbol of Toronto to this day.
The curved, two-towered complex—known as Nathan Phillips Square—was completed in 1965. It was an instant hit and showered with praise from the Canadian press. “People were caught up in the spirit of the time, the sense that ‘wow, we’re now on an international stage and we have a building that will be iconic for the city,’” says Kapelos, who is still looking to track down some of the living contestants for a larger work on the 509 submissions.
Revell, however, never got to see his model brought to life. One year before its grand opening, the 54-year-old died after suffering a heart attack. Since then, its public square has been the de-facto gathering place for local protests and celebrations. Internationally, the city’s emergence as a go-to filming site has given city hall more TV and movie cameos than anyone would have expected in 1958.
Its success, however, is not only a credit to Revell, but the process that led to his selection. A changing city seized an opportunity, building a civic monument that questioned the traditional and opened itself up to the world for new answers. Half a century later, Toronto is still reaping the benefits of its own curiosity.