Shaping Canadian Modernity

George Kapelos on 'Indian Architects and the 1958 Competition for Toronto’s New City Hall and Square'; part of the FA Lecture Series
by Vidhi Bansal
22 January 2018

George Thomas Kapelos is an architect and planner, and teaches architecture and planning at Ryerson University in Toronto. As Professor in Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science, he is an accomplished educator and researcher. His teaching has been recognized nationally. In 2013 he received an Award of Merit presented jointly by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and the Canadian Institute of Planners, for An Architecture of Civility, a school-wide charrette in Architectural Science, that proposed the creation of public places across the city to offer Torontonians civic places of light and repose during their busy lives. 

His research focuses on the interrelationship between humans and their environments, through critical investigations of architecture, landscape, and urbanism in the modern and post-modern period. Themes of phenomenology, health and environment, architectural education and Canadian modernity are explored.  

He has curated a number of exhibitions on themes of architecture, urbanism and landscape. He curated the exhibition Course Studies Tracking Ontario’s Thames mounted at Museum London Canada that explored the interrelationship of the river and people in southwestern Ontario. Research on the 1958 Toronto City Hall and Square Competition led to an exhibition, Shaping Canadian Modernity, and a book Competing Modernisms, published in 2015 by Dalhousie Architectural Press.

He was Chair of the Ryerson University Department of Architectural Science from 2002 – 2007, during which time he oversaw revisions to the undergraduate curriculum and introduced two new graduate programs. He is past president of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada and became a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 2007. Currently he is the Chair of Toronto Public Health’s Ultraviolet Radiation Working Group, where he is organizing an international conference on UV and environmental health to take place in May 2018.

He is continuing his research into the participants in Toronto’s City Hall and Square Competition, of which his visit to India is a part. His lecture and travel are supported by Ryerson University and the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute.

George Thomas Kapelos brought with him an extremely riveting topic of discussion; the Architecture competition conducted in 1958 for the New City Hall and Square in Toronto, Canada. His talk focused on the 7 efficient Indian designs for the same competition, and finally that of the winner, whose design still speaks wonders, standing strong at the centre of the city’s scape. 

He had received an award by the Royal Academy of Architecture for his research on human and environment interrelations and also on the competition of 1958.

He, in his discussion, aimed to answer three simple questions-

WHY was the final design chosen?

WHICH were the seven Indian architect entries?

and, HOW did it shape Canadian architecture of the past and the present?

The competition was an effort to design a building at the city’s heart, which would also win the people’s hearts. Bearing this in mind, Kapelos’ discussion comprised of three major themes, the CONTEXT, the COMPETITION, and its significance as the heart of the city; and the IMPACT that it would have on the people, so as to become a building for the people. It would have to accommodate offices for the government, provide public access to certain services, include a central square on the southern side and a library. There wasn’t a height restriction or a budget to the design. The schemes had to be submitted anonymously, and 8 finalists would be selected. Finally it was stated that the person to win the competition would also get  the job.

A major part of Kapelos’ research was credited to a 60 year old TV footage, “Explorations”, hosted by Jacqueline Turet, professor of town planning at Harvard, who had also entered the competition. They broadcast the different stages of the competition as well as the Jury. Kapelos played us a part of the footage which showed the winner of the design discussing his model with the city planner. The winner, Viljo Revell, in the video, nonchalantly stated in broken english that he was quite pleased with the outcome and he had arrived to Canada for the first time, from North America last year.

“There are a few things in life with the romantic possibilities of an Architectural competition.”

This was quoted by Eric Arthur, who was the competition’s advisor. He continuously stated that the architecture at the heart of the city should not only be expressive, but also a symbol of the nation’s democratic values.

“Our town halls are dreary, where people wouldn’t go unless they have to pay taxes”

This point by Arthur brings about another extremely pivotal aspect of the competition; the need for a  building which is for the people and their aspirations. The city hall and square would be a most important element in the life of the city; a symbol of Toronto, a source of pride and pleasure to the citizens and to be used and enjoyed by the citizens.

The jury comprised of architects Ned Pratt, Gordon Stephensen, Eero Saarinen, Ernesto Rogers and William Holford. Eero Saarinen was the winner of the competition for the National Gallery 

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“There are a few things in life with the romantic possibilities of an Architectural competition.”

Gallery Of Canada back in 1953. He had travelled from America just for the competition.

They were on the mandate for CIAM- The International Congress for Modern Architecture.

Architecture grew in Canada with the proliferation of a new magazine, “The Canadian Architect”, which gave out novel architecture ideas.

THE INDIAN VIEWPOINT

The Indian architecture was expected to be of ambitious nature, one that would speak of its spirituality post independence. However there were hardly seven Indian entries for the competition.

 The requirements of the competition were, a 1:500 scaled model, elevations, sections and plans and some views and drawings of the imagined architecture.

The TV show, “Explorations”, showcased some models for the viewers, out of which the last one belonged to our Sir B.V. Doshi.  The common observation seemed to be that there were no cultural advances in the approach toward design- modernity was the common key. The seven Indian entries were by:

1)    V.J. Mistry- His design comprised of a stand up tower with an asymmetrical form alongside. It featured a wonderful garden adorned with a reflecting pool upfront. He had included two magnificently rendered views; one of the chamber and the other of the exteriors.

 

2) V.H. Karandikar- His arrangement was symmetrical and axial with an axial, but the plan was quite traditional with a neoclassical building for the council chamber.3) P.M. Thacker- His model fell apart during shipment. However his plan was quite awkward, with the Council chamber buried in some lost corner.

4) A.P. Kanvinde- This design was a sleek and effective design, with the council chamber as the podium. This scheme was highly appreciated by Kapelos and the jury as well. However it did not make it to the final stages. It was not very successful for the Canadian winter.

5) B.V. Doshi- This design was also progressive with a small council chamber approached by a ramp and a tower placed behind it.

6) B.D. Kshirsagar-This scheme had a ‘Z’ shaped plan, and was described as a beautiful scheme by Kapelos. This scheme ha beautiful elevations, harmonious to the vertical and horizontal elements of the plan.

7) J. Narwekar’s scheme was traditional and imperial. He had buried the chamber library on the wrong side thus leading to the downfall of the neoclassical scheme. His design featured an extremely grandiose dome which you entered into, and the council chamber and office buildings were to its right.

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“The traditionally apologetic feeling of Torontonians about their city has been noticeably changed after this generous work at their hearts.”

THE FINALISTS

The biggest worry faced by the jury was that the City Hall would end up looking like a normal office building. The second worry was the visibility of the Council Chamber Block building, and what the people thought of that building.

John Andrews’ (the first finalist’s) design was extremely creative in its concept; he had positioned the council chamber right at the entrance for the common people as a reminder to the government officials that these were the officials who had elected them and each decision of theirs was to bear in mind the people and their needs in first priority.

Finally, the winner, Viljo Revell. The simplicity in his design had everyone floored from the very beginning. It was a symbol of democracy and continuity, while being dynamic and emotionally transcendental. His drawings were simple and clear. His staunch approach attested to the statement, “Less is more.”

His initial design comprised of a central council chamber which is the centre of two curved buildings placed on its circumference around it. Ernesto Rogers exclaimed that this design was really well established in its purpose, with a great central plaza and curves that flew from there.

IMPACT

“The traditionally apologetic feeling of Torontonians about their city has been noticeably changed after this generous work at their hearts.”

The public’s opinion was heartwarming. They swooned over Revell’s design and thought of it to be efficient, futuristic and wonderful.

The symbolism of democracy in Viljo’s design was so fundamental yet so strong- by leaving the chambers at the same level as the surrounding ground, leaving no sign of superiority for the council chambers. His first model was a simple wire mesh model which was highly representative, yet strong in conveyance of purpose.

People of Toronto regard the centre of the square as an extension of their own space. Diwali celebrations are much the craze here and the place is one with the people. This is the pivotal aspect of its design, to align with the peoples’ ideals.

This competition was a trail blazer for many competitions to come; for other important buildings and city halls. It paved the path for a new generation of architectural practitioners and many new public spaces were created, that spoke of simple and broad minded architecture.

NOTE: The sketches seen here are only students’ impressions, created while attending the lecture.