Old & New & Born Again

5 May 2014 – My walk past the McKinsey building on Charles St. West and into the Gardiner Museum on Queen’s Park — each an example of strong contemporary architecture amidst older buildings — got me thinking about old & new, and how well they do — or don’t — work together. Sometimes wonderfully, but sometimes it’s a fight to the death, with the heritage building done in by varying acts of visual & spatial disrespect.

That in turn got me thinking about even closer old/new combinations — where the new is not an adjacent structure, but fused with the old through expansion and repurposing. An old building, born again.

Three examples popped to mind, and on Saturday, I paid them a visit, starting on Queen St. East, near Parliament.

Berkeley Events, Queen E & Parliament

Looks adjacent, not fused, doesn’t it? And you’re right — the 1871 Berkeley Church on the left is a separate building from the colourful stack of cubes to the right. But… those cubes are the new skin of what used to be an old, multi-level hardware store. I have vivid memories of the very steep, very narrow, very rickety  staircase that took you all the way to the top. Also of the characters who ran the place, and the odd discoveries you could make, if you explored bins & shelves long enough.

Just look at it now. Transformed into Berkeley Events (space for events, you guessed it), not a hint of the hardware-store-that-was, but so what? The old structure had done its time, and I love the new look. Including the garden space you can glimpse through those horizontal wooden slats.

garden space, Berkeley Fieldhouse

Their website makes an even stronger old/new connection than I had realized: they also own the former church next door and run events there as well. (It hasn’t been a church for a while. Before this latest incarnation, it was a sound studio — decades ago, I did some radio or TV work in there.)

Next stop, a different look, mood and community purpose entirely. Also one of my favourite buildings in the entire city.

With that lead-in, you are not expecting me to announce it is a police station! But it is: 51 Division, Toronto Police Service, Parliament St. & Front. (Please turn on the PhotoShop in your brain, and delete all those wires…)

51 Division, Toronto Police Service, Parliament St

First thing I love here is the heritage core building, originally a purifying plant for Consumers’ Gas Company. Renaissance Revival style, completed c 1899, it’s a bravura approach to industrial architecture that lifts the heart, and aren’t we lucky to have a few more examples still scattered around town.

Next thing I love is the fit between that original building, with all its flourishes, and the austere lines of the additions/modifications. Above you see the new pedestrian approach & entrance on Parliament Street; below, the eastern end of the structure  down the Front St. side.

51 Division, along Front St.

I can’t explain why I think this works, why I feel the new respects the old and that, together, they create a born-again structure that fits its new purpose and speaks to the community in today’s language. I’m just really comfy with the result, and it makes me all the less forgiving of some other combinations in town that flaunt the new at the expense of the old. (Don’t get me started.)

I decide to go in, and round past the original front doors on my way to the new entrance.

original Parliament St front door

Those pillars are there for grim purpose (just try to smash a vehicle through this door!), but the defensive elements of the architecture are lightly expressed. I realize they have to be included, I appreciate they are handled this way.  As they should be, in a democracy.

The same light touch inside. The front-line officer is behind glass, but the glass meets a long, low counter with lots of pamphlets where you can browse for information. You can also read plaques and poster-size wall photos, and walk around free-standing displays of  artefacts that link us with the history of this building, this part of the city (Corktown, established in 1793 by Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe), and the police force, real & fictional.

“Ma’am?” I tell the inquiring officer I have no problem to report, I’m just here to visit the displays. He gives me a grin, two thumbs-up, & leaves me to it.

I start with a plaque about this renovation & expansion. Credit to the architects, the heritage architects (Dunlop and E.R.A. Architecture respectively), and big credit to their guiding philosophy: “The design concept envisions the historical building as an archaeological presence…”

Did you blink at my reference to “the police force, real & fictional“? That’s because the displays not only trace the history of the Toronto force and its stations, including the very real Station # 4, they also showcase the entirely fictional Det. William Murdoch. Now the eponymous hero of a long-running TV series as well as the original books by Maureen Jennings, Murdoch brings Station # 4 and Victorian Toronto to life not just for us, but for people all over the world.

front rotunda, display cases, 51 Division

A surprising number of people are here to look at the displays, just like me, not to get heavy with the police.

Soon I’m back on the street, and over to the heart of the financial district, Bay St. More specifically, Brookfield Place: two towers and their connecting atrium that now fill the 2-hectare site between Yonge & Bay, and Wellington & Front.

This complex is overwhelmingly new, with only a few older façades to connect with the past.  But they are deeply connected. The handful of old-building faces incorporated into the design at the Yonge-Wellington corner are all that remained after the Great Fire of 1904 gutted everything else. Other buildings came & went in the interim, but here those survivors still are, honoured and preserved. (And, it must be added, adding a killer element to the overall design.)

What really goggles the eye, what everyone photographs, is what you find inside.

Atrium of Light, Brookfield Place

There’s that 6-storey atrium, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s Atrium of Light, overarching the space. It provides a pedestrian walkway between Bay & Yonge, connections to restaurants, shops and the subway system, and — not incidentally — a dramatic venue for public art. Public art (both space and content) was  a redevelopment requirement laid down by the City.

But there also, you will have noticed, is an old building. Well, its façade. Originally the 1845 Toronto branch office of the Commercial Bank, later taken over by a succession of other financial institutions, finally disassembled stone by stone on its nearby original site and reassembled here, to serve the public once again as yet another financial institution.

I wait for a horde of excited schoolchildren to finish taking photos and move on, then take a few myself. I’ve always loved the golden globe, perched ‘way up top.

top of old Commercial Bank, inside Brookfield Place

One reason I enjoy this space is that for many years I did a lot of work for a company based in here, so returning brings back good memories. I also really like the place because… because it works.  It does what it is supposed to do — provide office/retail space, provide a walkway — and it does it with grace.

All around it (and inside its own towers), the pushing speed of 21st-c business life. Here in the Atrium, light and airy openness.. Sit by the fountain, take a photo, read your book, amble along if you wish. You can easily spend a serious ton of money in these shops, but you don’t need to.

Like those schoolkids, like me, you can just mooch along and be happy, for free. Thank you Bregmann + Hamann, architects; thank you City of Toronto (that public art requirement).

Thank you everyone, everywhere, who works to make the new enhance the old, not obliterate it.


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  1. Love the inside of the police building, and that atrium is just beautiful and actually does compliment the old buildings. What a great tour. Thank you!

  2. Rosa de los Vientos

     /  7 May 2014

    beautiful images! Especially the first two. Interesting.

    • They’ve done wonders with that old hardware store!! Very cheerful, like a happy stack of children’s building blocks.

  3. What a great post! Had no idea about the police station ( love Murdoch!) and agree completely about the Atrium area. I take the GO train past the old distillery district and have been disheartened to see how those monster condos have diminished a great repurposing of industrial space. Love your walks and especially your chat along the way.

    • I totally agree about the Distillery District — initially they honoured the old architecture, but no longer. What a shame.


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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

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