In December 2009, Kearns Mancini Architects and Patkau Architects won a National Competition to design and construct a new Visitor Centre at the Fort York National Historic Site, located in downtown Toronto. Considered the ‘birthplace of Toronto,’ the Fort is home to one of the oldest collection of fortifications in Canada, dating back to the War of 1812. The winning design provides an opportunity for visitors to be immersed into the profound history of the site as they ascend to the Fort Commons to a final prospect overlooking the site and the city beyond.
Fort York, Toronto, ON
Gross Project Area
27,000 sq. ft.
City Of Toronto
Jonathan Kearns, Dan McNeil, Lucy O’Connor, Zhivka Hristova, Tony Mancini, Peter Ng
RAIC Governor General’s Medal in Architecture; Canadian Architect Award of Excellence; OAA Design Excellence, Honourable Mention; Toronto Urban Design Award of Excellence
In Association with
In Association with Patkau Architects- John Patkau, Patricia Patkau, Mike Green, Shane O'Neill, Michael Thorpe
Tom Arban & Shane O'Neil
The complex location chosen for the Visitor Centre is directly north of the Gardiner Expressway, which looms above, running along the edge of the site. The team was required to negotiate and engage with this monolithic structure, while still acknowledging the sensitive nature of the Fort and its Common beyond. The siting of the building was designed to fulfill a fundamental role in the interpretive function of the Visitor Centre.
Situated on a former rail line embankment, the building addresses the prescribed linearity of the Gardiner above though a similarly linear intervention that slowly rises toward the Fort, in order to provide a vantage to the interpretive function of the Visitor Centre. The building’s circulation and curation is centered on this act of rising up out of the site, which includes an accessible planted roof, ascending toward a belvedere on the roof’s uppermost point.
The Visitor Centre’s interpretive function is a key part of a plan to revitalize the entire 43 acre historical site. The public displays of exhibits and artifacts are shown in the Treasury portion of the building, where interactive audio-visual media will be incorporated into the spaces. Visitors can also engage with the story of the site, through the ‘time tunnel;’ a digital media space that brings the rich history of the Fort to life.
The project team was able to deliver the project without compromising the essential imagery – the expressive architectural content and spatial arrangement of the project – despite many budgetary, construction and timeline constraints.
These essential elements included the use of inclined, monolithic weathering steel panels, evoking memories of the original Lake Ontario shoreline, historical fortifications and the more-recent industrial and infrastructural underpinnings of the site.
In addition, a glass channel wall, which defines the uppermost reach of the building along its length, acts as a beacon to the site. This semi-translucent glass wall also serves to illuminate the length of the roof, which terminates at the belvedere, inviting visitors to a final prospect of the historic grounds on their journey through the history of the site. These broad gestures lead to finely detailed, but consistently minimal approaches to the interior of the building. An array of glazed slits between the steel panels, along the length of the building, allow thin segments of natural light to permeate the main reception area and sunken exhibition gallery.
“In effect, the building became like the edge of a mini escarpment, which exists in several paintings from the early 1800’s. People have expressed that we reinvented, in a contemporary manner, the original look of the edge of lake Ontario.”
East Access Stair
View looking West at Multiple Entries
The complex program and site had many restrictions, which the design team was able to resolve, providing a solution that satisfied the jury and public alike. Ultimately, the Visitor Centre has been designed and built to create a unique identity for the Fort and to further establish it as a significant cultural landmark in the city and beyond.
The project’s strategic situation along the edge of the site is noted by Jonathan Kearns: “In effect, the building became like the edge of a mini escarpment, which exists in several paintings from the early 1800’s. People have expressed that we reinvented, in a contemporary manner, the original look of the edge of Lake Ontario.”
The resulting ‘fortified’ edge of the site is defined by a series of monolithic weathering steel panel walls, which resonate with the design of the Fort just beyond, and which define the horizontal datum of the battlefield immediately to the north. Beyond the weathering steel wall, the building rises up toward the Fort, ultimately providing a prospect onto the entire historic site through a belvedere located on the uppermost rooftop.
Going beyond the traditional belvedere’s retinal emphasis, the Visitor Centre explores the idea of a ‘beautiful view’ as ‘deep understanding.’ The Visitor Center thus offers an intimate experience of the topographical history of the site, which vividly recounts the transformation of the grounds and the city through the decades.
The project’s main facade is intimately interwoven in alternations of transparency and solidity, which seek to evoke glimpses afforded from within the fortifications. The plan was devised to be sympathetic to both the linearity of the site and to the act of ’emerging’ from the history of the site. Thus, visitors to the building travel back and forth as they gradually rise to the final prospect of the Fort, beyond.
Along the way, visitors can learn about the history of the Fortifications through such corridors as the ‘time tunnel,’ which offers vivid insights into the period in which the Fort was built through digital media presentations and curated artifact displays and dioramas. In this way, visitors to the Fort are afforded a deep understanding of the history of the site in a relatively compact setting.
Going beyond the traditional belvedere’s retinal emphasis, the visitor centre explores the idea of a ‘beautiful view’ as ‘deep understanding.’
The project has had many challenges, both financial and programmatic. Throughout the process, the consultant team has maintained their compelling design, modifying it to accommodate new requirements as they came forward without diminishment of the original competition concept. They bring to bear a depth of experience and ‘hands-on’ attitude, especially during the construction phase.