Fort York dates from the late 1700s and is considered the birthplace of Toronto. It is the single most important visual and cultural heritage link to British military and social history remaining in the City of Toronto. The original location, on the shore of Lake Ontario protecting the harbour of York, now Toronto, has been altered by two centuries of infill so that it is now 500 metres from the shoreline of the Lake and located almost immediately below the elevated Gardiner Expressway. Our project is to construct a visitor centre to introduce and reposition the Fort within a context which has changed radically from when the Fort was constructed and in use.
The site has long been isolated within the urban fabric by the processes of development – waterfront land reclamation and infrastructural corridors of rail and elevated highway. The concrete curtain of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, Bathurst St Bridge and no man’s land of the rail lines have brutalized the geographic context and marginalized the Fort. Recent residential development nearby presented an opportunity to make the Fort the focal point of these new neighbourhoods – both as urban amenity and cultural anchor. The new Visitor Centre is intended to re-establish the site as part of Toronto’s identity and as a cultural touchstone for Canada.
Lines and Liquid Landscapes suggest the architecture of this project. The delicacy of Fort York as a defensive site produces an architecture than is mostly about lines. Existing lines such as the lines of Fort walls and the lines of sharpened logs are our source of new lines - lines of weathering steel walls, lines of docks and bridges, lines of light. The grassed defensive moat in front of the Fort and the surprisingly low berm rampart are both quiet and subtle. These earthworks are experienced from Garrison Commons, the battlefield which fronts them, as a liquid rolling of the land, a delicate move but one with severe consequences.
We redefine the lost south boundary of the Commons with a new escarpment of weathering steel. As this wall is not the original line of the defensive landscape, its materiality is decidedly new. It is a major new infrastructural and landscape-scaled dashed line: an extended wall capable of joining with the scale of the elevated Gardiner above to form a great new urban space for Toronto.
In front of the steel escarpment a field of softly moving grasses and loose bushes and flowers, another liquid landscape, recalls the former presence of the Lake. An ‘events dock’ will reach out into this liquid landscape, stretching from the entry bridge to an existing ‘liquid light’ art installation under the Gardiner. This is where Fort York welcomes the modern city with large-scale events. Illuminated boat-like objects float in the liquid lawn, tethered to the dock. Party and event goers lounge in intimate groups in the floats, edging crowds on the dock.
The Visitor’s Centre inhabits the space behind the weathering steel escarpment. The entrance is below the Expressway, across a bridge which spans the liquid foreshore below. Inside are lobby areas, permanent and temporary exhibition spaces illustrating the history of the Fort, an informal dining area, meeting rooms and administration offices.
A multi-media immersive ‘time-tunnel’ portraying the dramatic events of the War of 1812/14 rises from the entrance level to emerge on the Commons, connecting the modern city below to the Fort above. The time tunnel is a threshold, a passage in time from present day to the founding of the city. Walking up the gentle switchback slope, visitors are invited to undertake a pilgrimage through the site’s history, arriving at a site virtually unchanged in two centuries. Behind, the building emerges from the ground at the level of Garrison Common as an illuminated wedge, clad in backlit cast glass channels. The roof of this wedge is paved, offering elevated views of the entire Fort and the Toronto skyline beyond.
Architect: Patkau Architects Inc. / Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. Associated Architects for the Fort York Visitor Centre
Canadian Architect Award of Excellence, 2011
Ontario Association of Architects Awards of Excellence Honourable Mention, 2015
Toronto Urban Design Award of Excellence, 2015