Grand Designs: The Toronto City Hall and Square Competition 1958

September 1, 2015 | Katherine

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See the full website:
A Grand Design: the Toronto City Hall Design Competition
Modernist architectural drawings & models submitted from forty-two countries.


Revell City Hall model-aerial view

This is the second in a series commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Toronto's "New City Hall" designed by Finnish architect, Viljo Revell. Opened in 1965, the distinctive "clam shell" design and large public square is home to the municipal government of the City of Toronto. One of our country's most recognized landmarks, some call it an icon.

Unbuilt Toronto

Revell's unique design was chosen in an international competition held in 1958 that attracted over 500 entries from 42 countries and put Toronto at the centre of a major discussion on Modernist architecture. But it took years of public discussion, debate and at times acrimonious political maneuverings, to achieve the final result. 



Land began to be assembled as far back as the late 1940s, and in 1953 the city commissioned three Toronto architectural firms to plan the new hall. Their design and the $18 million cost caused a huge controversy. Architectural proponents in particular decried the plan that was described as "a funeral home" by architecture students at the University of Toronto and "a very poor pseudo-modern design" by none other than Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus movement. Toronto voters ultimately said "no" to the proposal in a 1955 referendum. But, in a second referendum in 1956, a budget was approved.(See Unbuilt Toronto : A History of the City That Might Have Been, Chapters 11 & 12).

The Competition

In January 1957, Eric Arthur, School of Architecture, University of Toronto, was invited by City Council to be the professional advisor to the process of selecting a design. By midsummer, Council approved his recommendations to hold a competition, and an international one at that.

Conditions of Competition


The detailed Conditions of the Competition were issued later that year. By the April 18, 1958 deadline, hundreds of drawings and models had been submitted. They were assembled at the Horticultural Building, Exhibition Place, for the judges to begin their whirlwind evaluation. 



City Hall architectual models at Horticultural Building

The judges were all architects and planners. Professor Arthur, Chairman of the Jury, took the photograph shown below of his fellow jury members standing on the future site for the hall. Pictured from left to right are Sir William Holford (London, England), Gordon Stephenson (Toronto), Ned Pratt (Vancouver), Eero Saarinen (Detroit) and Ernesto Rogers (Milan). They settled on eight finalists and ultimately chose Revell's striking Modernist design. 

Five of the judges for the Toronto City Hall Competition

The Toronto Public Library and This Piece of Toronto's History

Realizing the significance of the competition, Professor Arthur arranged for many of the architectural drawings to be microfilmed. The Toronto Public Library was the fortunate recipient of the film and the Library Board then directed its staff photographer, Wallace Bonner, to photograph over 300 of the corresponding architectural models. Some years later Arthur donated additional materials to the Library.

Today this record, including microfilmed drawings, photographic models, documents and archival papers, is preserved in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department and the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre at the Toronto Reference Library. It constitutes a unique perspective on Modernist architectural thought in the mid-twentieth century, from a wide range of practitioners in many countries.

To mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the "New City Hall", the Toronto Public Library, in collaboration with Christopher Armstrong, Professor Emeritus, York University, has created this website to showcase some of those materials for study and research, to make the knowledge of the competition more widely available, and to celebrate this landmark in Toronto's history. 

In a postscript to his article on the Toronto City Hall Competition in Canadian Architect, April 1959, Swiss architect and historian Sigfried Giedion championed the publication of the results of international competitions.

He gave three reasons:

To honor the sponsor and his intention.

To honor the tremendous amount of work freely undertaken by the competitors.

To give later periods a chance of detecting important schemes overlooked at the time.

We hope this website in some part helps to achieve his vision.

In addition, the Toronto Public Library, the City of Toronto and promotional partner Heritage Toronto, are co-sponsoring a series of three lectures to be held at the Toronto City Hall.  And don't miss the exhibitions at the Paul H. Cocker Gallery at Ryerson University (September 1 to October 9), and in the Rotunda of City Hall (September 3 to 13).