How Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the final director of the Bauhaus school, sparked an architectural arms race in downtown Toronto among Canada’s major banks.
No single development has transformed Toronto’s skyline quite like the Toronto-Dominion Centre.
The arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s twin office towers in the late 1960s signaled a dramatic and permanent change in the city’s prevailing architectural style: For the first time, a major commercial development took over almost an entire city block and a high-rise of steel and glass became the city’s tallest building.
It was also the first time a star international architect—in this case, a Chicago-based design titan and the last director of the Bauhaus—had turned an eye to Canada’s second city, which was perpetually overshadowed by Montreal, its bigger, more stylish cousin.
Since its formation in 1955, the Toronto-Dominion Bank had been based out of a grand old 1913 Beaux Arts building by New York architecture firm Carrère and Hastings (who designed the New York Public Library, among others). “Towards the latter years of the 1950s, it became apparent that every [company] in Toronto was badly housed,” said Allen Lambert, the former chairman of TD, in 2002. “Nearly every bank in particular… so there was a real need for a new building.”
As it happened one of TD’s neighbors on Bay Street was a small office for the Seagram Distillery, a company controlled by Montreal’s wealthy Bronfman family.
In November 1962, TD and the Bronfmans (via Fairview, the real estate arm of their investment firm, Cemp) announced they would start construction on a $60 million office complex on six-acres of land Fairview had quietly bought up around their combined properties. TD and Seagram would occupy a small portion of the new space, the rest would be leased out.
“This was the number one corner in Toronto, and nobody was doing a thing about it,” recalled Leo Kolber, president of Cemp (pronounced “Kemp”), in the book The Cadillac Fairview Story. In dollar value, Fairview’s assembly of downtown property was among the largest ever completed in Canada.
The Toronto firms of John B. Parkin Associates and Bregman and Hamann were announced as the architects in 1962. Neither had produced a work on the required scale before, so American architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was hired by TD to take the lead.
Architect Phyllis Lambert (who was born a Bronfman and is not related to Allen Lambert) wrote in a 1994 essay that Bunshaft proposal—a single 60-story tower with a banking hall located on the ground floor—was problematic almost from the start. “The building was indifferently placed on the site and Bunshaft was clearly more interested in designing a curving concrete structure, sweeping up without a break,” she wrote.
“All expansion of the continuous 800-foot-high concrete structure was to be resolved by hefty stainless steel piston-like slip joints placed at the top of the building—a daring and unproved solution, which the structural engineers in Toronto rejected.” Bunshaft was insistent his design could work, but TD and Fairview remained unconvinced. “We wired him: ‘You have to redesign it in steel because we know how to handle that in Canada. Your exposed concrete won’t work,’” recalled Leo Kolber in The Cadillac Fairview Story. “He wired back that we had to do it his way or no way. So we wired him back and said, ‘You’re fired.’”
With Bunshaft out, several other architects produced plans for TD Centre, including John B. Parkin Associates, whose design located the banking hall in a sunken moat area, a move deeply unpopular with Allen Lambert. “Mies was invited for an interview on my insistent recommendation,” wrote Phyllis Lambert. In 1954, she had hired and worked closely with Mies on the family’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York—a celebrated landmark in the development of International Style architecture that was kitty corner from Gordon Bunshaft’s own magnum opus, the Lever House.
“After Mies had asked Alan [sic] Lambert the question, ‘Do you want to have your bank in a basement?’—he was awarded the commission,” she recalled.
Mies’s TD Centre, produced with John B. Parkin Associates and Bregman and Hamann as the local architects of record, consisted of two towers: the 54-story Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower, the 44-story Royal Trust Tower, and a one-story banking pavilion at the corner of King and Bay Streets. The towers were set in a granite plaza above a 154,000 sq. ft. shopping concourse and two levels of underground parking.
“The lasting quality of this building is its great simplicity,” said John B. Parkin at the launch. “The architecture is quiet; people will provide the color,” said Sidney Bregman of Bregman and Hamann. It was immediately clear TD Centre would radically alter Toronto’s skyline. Unlike other major North American cities, Toronto had yet to acquire an International style office tower of more than 35 stories. Viewed from Lake Ontario, the stone-clad Royal York Hotel (1929) and Commerce Court (1931) were the city’s most conspicuous buildings, reflecting the timing of its last great building boom. Mies’s towers would rise like gigantic obsidian monoliths over this landscape, dwarfing it all.
As he had with the Seagram Building in New York City (1958) and the Federal Center in Chicago (1964), the architect paid careful attention to the proportions of the towers and their positioning in relationship to each other and the surrounding streetscape. Both towers were sited to avoid overshadowing the now-demolished Toronto Star building on the opposite side of King Street. The elegant banking pavilion, which has no internal support columns, was separated from the rest of the complex to emphasize its special function.
“The association of a pavilion with high-rise buildings had a special significance in Mies’s oeuvre,” wrote Phyllis Lambert. “The association of these two building types—skeletal tower and free-span pavilion—and their formal relationships at the [Toronto-Dominion Centre] constitutes a major synthesis of Mies’s work after 1939.” The 54-story Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower and the banking pavilion officially opened with the 44-story Royal Trust Tower still under construction in 1968, a year before Mies died in Chicago.
The towers were painted jet black (“because black is a noble color,” said Mies) and appeared to float just above the ground thanks to careful treatment of the ground floor. Copper-tinted glass colored the light from the windows at night. TD Centre’s underground shopping concourse became the first piece of what is now the PATH, a warren of interconnected subterranean streets that branch through the basements of dozens of buildings in Toronto’s core. Mies’s site plan also allowed for a third tower, which was added to the west side of site in 1974 in a matching style by Bregman and Hamann. However, the addition of two more in 1985 and 1991 have obscured Mies’s careful placing of the original towers.
TD Centre also triggered an arms race among Canada’s major banks: the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce hired I. M. Pei to build an International style tower just east of TD Centre in 1972, and the Bank of Montreal and Royal Bank of Canada followed suit in 1975 and 1976, further diminishing TD Centre’s dramatic impact on the skyline. Viewed from Lake Ontario today, TD Centre peeps out from a crowd of dozens of taller and bigger towers.
Critics of Mies’s original twin towers thought the design was already passé by the time it was built. “The Toronto-Dominion Centre is 20 years too late because the lessons it teaches were taught to us long ago,” wrote architect Macy DuBois in Canadian Architect in 1968. “As so often happens, what was once a fresh and vital method of attack, has now become a style codified and listless.”
Its defenders recognized that Mies purposefully avoided endlessly rewriting the rules of architecture, but instead focused on refining his own vision, playing with the proportions and arrangements of his buildings. “Mies’s Toronto-Dominion Centre—the last great work in which he took an active part—is a structural and architectural development of ideas which have matured over four decades,” wrote architect Mildred Schmertz in Architectural Record in 1971.
For Toronto, TD Centre marked the arrival of a new style it would heartily embrace for decades to come. It was also symbolic of a continuing shift in Toronto’s favor over its historically bigger and more stylish sibling, Montreal. Quebec’s biggest city has several Mies buildings, but none that approach it in size and scope.
“The Toronto-Dominion Centre is Toronto’s quintessential expression of Modernism in the International style,” wrote Toronto historians William Kilbourn and William Dendy in their 1986 book, Toronto Observed. “[It] shows—as few other large buildings in Toronto do—a modern architect’s superb control over his materials and architectural vocabulary.”