Toronto City Hall: How Finnish architecture rebranded a city
LISA ROCHON October 13, 2010
Made modern: That was what happened to Toronto when it launched a 1958 international design competition and landed an emerging star of Finnish modernism, Viljo Revell, to design its futuristic City Hall.
It was an alien thing: a building of sublime concrete instead of Victorian brick; a building mandated by the sophisticated Nathan Phillips, Toronto’s first Jewish mayor, in a city dominated by a Protestant ethos. New City Hall was architecture that imagined something wide open and worldly for a collective consciousness. When it opened in 1965, the city was instantly rebranded.
Conceived together with his Helsinki teammates, Bengt Lundsten, Seppo Valjus and Heikki Castren, Revell proposed two curved tall towers of asymmetric heights that seemed to cradle the council chamber in a powerful embrace. It was as if a massive column of concrete scored with vertical fluting had been cracked open to reveal a civic surprise: a mushroom, a space ship, possibly a white pearl.
This September, two birthdays are being celebrated – Revell’s centenary and the 45th anniversary of City Hall – with an exhibition and symposium, Revell/Toronto/Helsinki: Finnish Architecture and the Image of Modern Toronto. The exhibition, curated by Helsinki-based architect Tuula Revell, daughter of Viljo, kicked off at City Hall on Sept. 13 with impassioned tributes by Mayor David Miller, former mayor David Crombie and Ambassador of Finland H.E. Risto Piipponen.
Finland is a land of birch trees and jagged outcrops of rock that inspires epic pilgrimages among architects. Legendary Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, who spoke at the exhibition opening to an overflow audience in the council chambers, has travelled to the Nordic country seven times.
His first exposure to the Finnish aesthetic – one that privileges craft, innovation and the pleasure of pure graphic form – came during a public lecture in 1946 at the University of Toronto, when acclaimed architect Alvar Aalto displayed one of his early laminated plywood chairs, designed during the 1940s.
Three decades later, Gehry travelled for his first time to Helsinki to visit the Aalto office; Aalto was out of town, but his assistant allowed Gehry to simply sit in his office chair, soaking up the spirit of the man, his books, the art hanging on his walls
Gehry has returned often to tour the heroic but humanist architecture, make angels buck-naked in the snow after an intense sauna, and, more recently, to visit his good friend Esa-Pekka Salonen, the long-time Finnish conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The Revell City Hall scheme was one of 531 entries submitted by architects from around the world – the largest design competition ever attempted – but wait for it: The jury initially rejected Revell’s scheme.
We all know that’s hardly where the story ends. Revell’s Finnish colleague, modernist architect Eero Saarinen, turned up a day late to help judge the submissions and, alone in the attic of Old City Hall, pulled the Revell submission from the heaps of rejected submissions. Saarinen talked the other judges into his choice.
How did the image of modern Toronto come about? The critical thrust of the design didn't actually originate specifically with Revell, but with his associates. Bengt Lundsten – only now, at 82, considering retiring from architecture – describes this story with exquisite care when I call him at his Helsinki office.
In Helsinki, at night, Lundsten tells me: “The curved towers came up very quickly, extremely quickly. There were three of us together in the evening in the office, as we always worked in the evening. Viljo was away. We had an American architect in our office at the time and he read through the program as our English was very poor. That first evening we had the idea of the curved towers. And next morning we presented this idea to Viljo and he accepted it.”
Later on, one of the architects noticed the same kind of semi-circular shapes in the shadow of a curved lamp. “We made photographs of that,” says Lundsten.
The Revell submission jumped out at Saarinen. Yale University architecture professor Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, a guest speaker at next week’s symposium, says that Saarinen was compelled by the ability of architecture to communicate visually and powerfully to the public.
Saarinen’s Jefferson National Memorial, a monumental parabolic arch, still endures as the image of St. Louis, Mo. Revell, too, wanted to define his architecture as a series of pure forms. For the way it pops out of context and creates a powerful graphic, Toronto City Hall is a masterpiece of modern architecture. “Seldom does a colleague feel so happy over another’s victory,” is what Aalto wrote to Revell in his congratulatory note.
With the competition winner decided, a contract to work with Toronto architects John B. Parkin was signed. At that point, the vision and reality of the commission set in. A massive, and highly prescient, underground parking facility was dug into the ground. Concrete was treated with European grace, steel forms used to hold it as it was poured, to guarantee a silky-smooth finish.
While the scale of the building was monumental, there were myriad ways to heighten human contact: curved wooden railings of teak and mahogany, Carrara marble lining the flutes of the towers with off-cuts used as marble inlays for the interior floor.
“Perhaps,” says architect Andrew Frontini of Shore Tilbe Perkins + Will, design partner with Plant Architect Inc. of the Nathan Phillips Square revitalization, “this is a reminder that a democracy is made of individuals and that City Hall belongs to all of us.”
It was not always easy. The tight budget of $18-million (in the end it reportedly cost $25-million) forced some unfortunate cuts to the original scheme: a single mushroom stem replaced the three columns originally designed to hold up the council chambers and house winding staircases within each of them.
Lundsten recalls that when they moved to Toronto to work on the commission the three Finnish architects discovered a factory of architectural production at Parkin’s rather than the synergy of the studio they knew from Revell’s office in Helsinki.
“We were three young architects from Finland and we were quite shocked by the atmosphere in the Parkin office. It was very military, very strict and not at all creative. In Revell’s office, we worked all together, everybody discussing together. It was a very creative atmosphere and that’s very important for architecture. I was very surprised that we were not allowed to speak to the higher-up individuals in the Toronto office. We had never been scared of Viljo Revell.”
Had Revell lived, he would have turned 100 this year. Tragically, he died of a heart attack in Helsinki, mere months before the opening of City Hall in 1965. He had returned home the previous day after making a final site visit to his civic monument, a gift of the Finnish imagination that had already changed the face of Toronto.