Asked to nominate the best and worst buildings in the city, Toronto Star social media followers nominated Robarts for both categories.
The massive concrete building occupies a city block northwest of Queen’s Park and is often referred to by students past and present as Fort Book, for its resemblance to a garrison.
“Unwelcoming, monstrous, cold, intimidating, ugly as heck,” wrote former student Peter Baugh.
Others suggested it looks like a snail, a turkey, a peacock, a neo-medieval fortress, a building only an architect could love.
As city council takes steps to improve urban design, including international competitions for major projects, we asked people to weigh in on what they think are Toronto’s most and least attractive landmarks.
The Robarts library, named after the 17th premier of Ontario, also has supporters — those who admire its brutalist architectural style, which was popular in the 1970s when the library was built, but has gone into decline amid criticism that the style is depressing and inhuman.
Internationally, many once-heralded brutalist buildings have been abandoned, some torn down.
“Oh it’s ugly,” said Olga Radchenko, referring to Robarts. “But it’s the kind of ugly that embraces its ugliness, which makes it much more interesting and endearing than the pretty, glossy, too-full-of-themselves structures elsewhere.”
Two older buildings were nominated as the city’s best: Queen’s Park, the seat of provincial parliament, which opened in 1893 in a style called Richardson Romanesque, and the Canada Life Building, in beaux arts style, which opened in 1931.
Among the newer buildings nominated for best in the city: Fort York Library; the Scarborough Civic Centre Library; the MaRS Discovery District for uniting the old with the new; the Picasso condos on Richmond Street West; 12 Degrees Lofts on Beverley Street; and Royal Bank Plaza — the gold-cladded building that greets everyone emerging from Union Station onto Front Street West.
Buildings that were nominated for being ugly included CampusOne, a University of Toronto student residence; the Sheraton Centre hotel on Queen Street, across from Finnish architect Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall; and the River City condos, which to Leah-Simone Bowen look like a bunch of drawers left open.
“The whole building is the visual equivalent to an itch you can’t scratch,” said Bowen.
While the rumour that Robarts Library is sinking from the weight of the books is an urban legend, the belief that the gold windows in Royal Bank Plaza were made with actual gold is true, according to one of the architects behind the project.
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In fact, over the course of construction, the price of gold tripled from the original $11 an ounce when the project was hatched. It was a cost that one of the suppliers had to swallow when the bank wouldn’t, said Bernard Himel, who was the partner in charge of Royal Bank Plaza for WZMH, the architects of the CN Tower.
Himel said he wanted the windows to be tinted, but he didn’t want them to be the same colour as every other highrise in the city, and he didn’t want to use copper to produce the gold colour because copper is reactive, turning green when it comes into contact with moisture.
“The only inert metal that I am aware of is gold,” said Himel.
The panes were manufactured in Belgium and shipped to Canada at great expense, which Himel does not regret.
“When the sun goes down, if you’re on the lake side of the building, it’s really, in my opinion, very gorgeous. I think it’s probably the best building in Toronto,” said Himel, 85.
As for Robarts, it too is regarded as beautiful these days, particularly among hipsters, said Jesse Carliner, communications and user services librarian for the University of Toronto libraries.
“I think, over time, brutalism has become a lot more fashionable. It’s like you’re in the know if you appreciate Robarts,” said Carliner, who said that the building made it into a Monocle guide as one of Toronto’s architectural highlights.
“If you’re cool, if you’re one of the Monocle readers and you’re into hip design, then Robarts is considered one of the must-sees.”
The building played the role of a zombie-infested prison in the movie “Resident Evil: Afterlife.”
The library sees up to 18,000 users a day, said Carliner. Over the years it has been renovated to make it more accessible and add more light. A new addition is expected to be complete in 2021 at the latest.
And for those who thought a discussion of architecture is frivolous at a time when there are so many other pressing issues in the city, built spaces have a direct impact on our well-being, according to Terri Peters, an architect and assistant professor in architectural science at Ryerson University.
Poorly designed urban spaces, for example, can contribute to social isolation and depression.
“The quality of our urban environment and urban housing directly impacts our health and well-being and productivity in cities,” said Peters.
“The spaces where we live and work have the power to impact our moods, make us feel inspired, happy and comfortable.”
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