A Great City and Its Institutions
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 18 Feb 1988, p. 249-258
Myers, Barton, Speaker
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Four ideas or beliefs that have affected the speaker and shaped the way he thinks about cities. They are: the city as a work of art; the measure of the greatness of the city is the character of its institutions; great institutions provide focus and make place in their communities; and that time is visible in the cities. A discussion follws. Then, an "immodest discussion of four projects which we have currently underway, … and they include the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Phoenix Municipal Government Center, the Protland Center for Performing Arts … the Ballet Opera House of Toronto."
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18 Feb 1988
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Full Text
Barton Myers, Architect
February 18, 1988
Chairman: Ronald Goodall, President

Ronald Goodall

Over the past five months or so, l have made several personal confessions to this audience. Today, I must confess to a misspent youth. Instead of spending hours buried in books, I wandered. True, I hiked hill and dale, climbed mountains but f was fascinated by and wandered around old, historic buildings.

Having been raised across the pond (a fact I seem unable to disguise), I had no great problem finding old buildings to wander about and admire. King Edward 111 and Sir Christopher Wren were names familiar to me, although I recognize that they represent but small phases in the long history of architecture. I spent days wandering around Roman ruins; I spent hours climbing up and down the narrow twisting staircases of cathedrals and castle towers, always admiring the view at the top; I spent many minutes in St. Paul's Cathedral listening in the Whispering Gallery.

This fascination has stayed with me over the years. On my trips around Canada, I have headed, so many times with wife and children in tow, for the provincial legislatures. I enjoy wandering around these large buildings and sometimes I learn a little provincial history. Today f marvel at the sparkling, tall office towers but I enjoy still the creaking wooden floors of the older, smaller office buildings.

In the 1620s, Sir Henry Wotton wrote in The Elements of Architecture that architecture must possess "commoditie, firmness and delight." Our speaker today has ensured that those qualities exist in today's architecture.

Barton Myers was born in Norfolk, Virginia. He established his architectural practice in Toronto in 1968 and in 1980 he opened an office in Los Angeles. Barton Myers is considered by many authorities as "Canada's best architect." In 1986, he received the Governor General's Medal, Canada's highest award for architecture, and the Toronto Arts Council Award, the highest award the City of Toronto can give to an artist.

On the international scale, Barton Myers was one of 10 architects named by Progressive Architecture as "cutting edge" designers. Japan Architect identified him as one of the top architects in the world, Nas Dom of Yugoslavia named him among the top 50 world architects.

Barton Myers is a fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy, and a frequent guest speaker at major universities across North America and Europe.

Recent successes of Barton Myers include being winner of a limited design competition for the Art Gallery of Ontario, phase three expansion; winner of the Phoenix Municipal Government Center competition; winner of the Portland Performing Arts Center competition; designer of the recently opened show room for Hasbro Industries, the world's largest toy manufacturer; and master planner for the new CBC headquarters in Toronto.

Our speaker is involved at present with a master plan for Los Angeles County's First Street properties and the Santa Monica Civic Center improvements; a new outdoor theatre for Metropolitan Toronto; and an addition and renovations to Woodsworth College at the University of Toronto.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Barton Myers, renowned architect, who will address us on 'A Great City and Its Institutions."

Barton Myers

Well, it's a great honour to address The Empire Club of Canada and it's nice to see so many friends in the theatre business. It's called wallpapering the theatre. And it's sort of fitting; this is a nice award for me because it marks my 20th anniversary as a Toronto architect.

I am going to divide my address into two parts which are, as mentioned, the city and its institutions. The first part deals with four ideas or beliefs that have affected me and shaped the way I think about cities. I have a great passion for cities; they are the context for our work. And those four ideas in brief are the city as a work of art; the measure of the greatness of the city is the character of its institutions; great institutions provide focus and make place in their communities; and that time is visible in the cities.

The second part is an immodest discussion of four projects which we have currently underway, which I have the honour to say are all great institutional projects, and they include the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Phoenix Municipal Government Center, the Portland Center for Performing Arts which just opened in August, and one that I hope to be able to announce in about two weeks, winners of the Ballet Opera House of Toronto-and I will have a few things to say about that.

As architects, we were told that architecture is the "mother of the arts." That stems from the days of the Gothic cathedral when the architect made the great shell in which artists, decorators, and craftsmen contributed to the big idea of the cathedral and we have always considered ourselves to be the superior art and have always looked forward to the wonderful spirit of collaboration of artists and ourselves. But in truth, I think that the city is the mother of the arts and that really the city is the supreme expression of an art form which is the collective art form. It's something that no one person makes-no developer, no politician, no architect, no artist-and probably nothing that we do so tells people what kind of people we are. I think that in many ways the city we live in is beginning to experience that kind of renaissance. I want to quote from Lewis Mumford from The Culture of Cities (1938-this is its 50th anniversary-because I think it sums up the kind of spirit I'm looking for. It says, "The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant heap, but is also a cautious work of art and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mine takes form in the city and in turn, urban forms condition the mind. For space, no less than time, is artfully reorganized in cities-in boundary lines, silhouettes, in the fixing of horizontal planes, in vertical peaks and utilizing or denying the natural site, the city records the attitude of a culture in an epic to the fundamental facts of its existence-the dome, the spire or the open avenue, the closed court tells a story not merely of different physical accommodations, but essentially different conceptions of man's destiny. With language itself, it remains man's greatest work of art."

The second point is the one of institutions; what separates simply structures that provide settlement is man's agreement, his desire, his ambition, to produce something in common. We have the institution of government, the institution of commerce, the institution of learning that is our great universities, and so forth. I think that the measure of a great city is the measure of its institutions and I think we are at a very exciting and wonderful time in Toronto when those institutions are beginning to be realized in pace with the extraordinary physical development we've had.

I don't think you can talk about London, Paris, Rome, New York without thinking about what those institutions are that make up the city. We have the honour of being involved with the Art Gallery. And there's the CBC which I think is an institution of tremendous importance to the country and one that should be located downtown and should be approved and move ahead-and I no longer have a vested interest, so I can say that with genuine enthusiasm. I will talk about some of those institutions when I show some slides.

The third point is that those institutions have an obligation, and generally they're successful, to find a way to provide focus and make place in the city. And I think, again, when you go to those great cities and you visit those institutions, you see the tremendous role those institutions play in those communities and those societies and, obviously, as architects, the search to find out how you make that happen is very much part of what we're trying to do.

The fourth point is one that I think Torontonians have become aware of, certainly in the last 10 years, and that is the idea of time. Cities are one of the few places where one can actually experience time as a visible product and an appreciation of that is very important to the way that we make cities. I want to use one other quotation which, to me, summarizes the kind of spirit about how you make cities and is an attitude that I'd like to see here. This is a quote from a historian named Wolfgang Lutz from a wonderful book called Studies in Italian Renaissance Architecture: "The architects (and he's talking about some pretty good superstars-Michelangelo and Leonardo and a few of those guys)-rarely found it necessary to destroy existing buildings. They preferred to reconcile the new with old, to preserve whatever could be preserved and the urge to create new forms was always tempered by respect for what already existed. Roaming about in the squares of Venice, Bologna, Rome, one feels that, figuratively speaking, they have continued to grow. They provide the setting for the past history as well as the living present. Now, this paradox has been beautifully expressed by T.S. Eliot: "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past:"

If I could have the slides on and the lights down, I'd like to run through four projects with you which include the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Phoenix Municipal Government Center, the Portland Performing Arts Center, and the Ballet Opera House.

This is an interesting picture because, as most of you here probably remember, this is what Toronto looked like in 1958 when the tallest building in the British Commonwealth was the Bank of Commerce. Everything you see in the next slide, and this is a dated slide since I don't have an up-to-date one, but everything you see really has been created in this very short span of 30 years. Anything over six floors was within five minutes of one of the most extraordinary public transportation systems in the world for a city of this size. And I think this tremendous insurgence of growth and enthusiasm that's occurred here is now being matched by the search and the definition and the expansion and the growth of its institutions.

One of the most critical aspects of cities has been that of government. Democracy goes back in the West to Greece where we began with a city room which the Greeks call the agora. From the city room, you found your meeting halls and your performing arts, theatres, and so forth. That idea is translated into northern Europe, into Italy, in the continuation of the great public spaces and squares, obviously the most famous being the great piazza of San Marco in which the ducal palace, the Venetian city hall, co-exist with the great cathedral of San Marco.

One of the turning points, to me, in this city has been the role that the institution of city government has played, the building of the great new City Hall and the salvation of the Old City Hall where they co-exist side by side. Somehow this building has caught the spirit of the new city and has played a very critical role with the whole morality of the way we deal with growth and development, and the way we treat one another, the humanity of it. Toronto has developed as a place to live. This plaza, this great city room, is probably the most successful one that I know. This institution has really fulfilled that objective of mine, that an institution becomes a place of focus and a place that is generally shared by its city and its community.

We are new to the institutional business of culture. The first museums come out of Paris and the French Revolution. We are working with Seagrams to do what we call the Museum of the Spirits in Waterloo, Ontario, and we now have the opportunity, being the winners of a limited competition, to expand the Art Gallery of Ontario. This is a fascinating project, because it's very much like the project I mentioned from the quotation of Wolfgang Lutz. It's one of blending new and old and of respecting what has gone ahead. Three major architects have contributed: you have the Grange, you then have the second addition of the Art Gallery, and then we have the parking additions, and so we're fourth in line in an evolution of generations adding to this marvelous kind of institution. The blue areas are those where additions occur plus the kind of open-heart surgery that occurs inside in the reconditioning and reusing of existing facilities and reworking the circulation plans and giving a new kind of organizational idea to the gallery.

Now, in the competition entry, the Dundas Street front with the new entrance halls connects the original Grange and the 1930s Darling/Pearson addition. Inside, we have resolved circulation problems, giving organization so as you move through the complex gallery you can find your way around.

The sensitivity to Dundas Street, the reinterpretation of institutional ideas such as towers and hallways and gates are very much a part of the spirit of the reinterpretation and the new birth of this institution. Here's a wonderful water-colour rendering of what the entrance hall and a theme tower at the gallery might be like ... and the arrival hall with a nice fireplace to view in the winter.

The second competition (we've been very lucky on invited competitions. I think we've won five of our last eight) was an international competition in which 60 architects from around the world applied. Ten were invited for round one. We survived that and went ahead to defeat the Japanese architect Arata Izosaki, Michael Graves of Princeton, Ricardo Legorreta from Mexico, and for one year, we had big T-shirts saying World's Champions and it was a lot of fun for us. It was a new experience. Someone said, "I see, Barton, you learned so much about working in the `ice box'; what's it like to work in the `hot box'?" And the ability to shift ground and move to the desert, where for four months of the year it doesn't get below 100 degrees, and for two to three weeks you can get temperatures of over 125, reminds me of my experiences of working in Edmonton, Alberta, where it's just the reverse.

There's a problem dealing with cities that have not been so fortunate as Toronto. You found that Phoenix really has no soul. It doesn't have an idea about growth. It's a very sprawling, typical suburban new city and this project plays a very similar role that, I think, the City Hall here and the one in Boston both played and that is establishing a focal point and showing the commitment of public money in an urban renewal area. It's a 12-block competition, so we developed the land uses for 12 blocks, but the focus basically is a series of buildings that make a great city room, about the size of Bedford Square, in which you have accessibility to all the functions of the city, including a new council chamber and a city hall tower, mayor's courts and meeting rooms. The space is designed so you can drive through it since most people drive automobiles and don't walk in Phoenix, but at times it can be closed off and you can do the kinds of things we do here. At City Hall when the circus comes to town, you can entertain the circus or art shows. Here's a rendering of what that square and plaza would be like. It's about the size of the Toronto City Hall square. This project is now in the final design. We'll start construction probably in the fall.

The next and last project is the Portland Performing Arts Center. This was another competition and one of our first real successes in the United States. And we were lucky again-we defeated Philip Johnson for this one. We thought he had it for sure, because the main donor was a Harvard graduate from his class and we were really the outsiders. Essentially, this is interesting because Portland is not only a fascinating city-small blocks, great streets-but we sit between two historical, nationally registered buildings: the old Rapp and Rapp movie palace (the Paramount) which we converted to a concert hall, and behind is a church-it was a copy of Old South Church in Boston, a very beautiful church on a square which is also gorgeous-and we had to do a kind of in-fill scheme of two new theatres, one of 900 seats, and a 360-seat flexible theatre and then a rehearsal hall on top. The project is very much about Portland and its use of materials and bricks and small blocks combines a lot of historical ideas about how theatres are made, but also has a lot of the come-on and pizzazz of what I think theatres are about.

This is the main street which acts as an outdoor stage and we use the metaphor of a concert hall as the lobby. So if you look in the centre of the picture, there's a great glass wall in which, symbolically, you fly and everybody arrives on stage and is an actor for a moment or two. You walk in and you face the lobby, which is a concert hall, the same way an actor experiences seeing someone from the stage and it's been very, very effective. So this is the view into the opera house lobby-two glass stairs that bring you the upper floors. And as you look back to the Opera House, you see the set onstage which is the old movie palace, now converted to a 2,750-seat concert hall. At the ceiling, there's a gorgeous glass dome created by the artist James Carpenter who won that in a competition and worked very closely with us. One gets a dazzling reinterpretation of a kind of beautiful, stained glass ceiling. The hall itself is intimate. It's probably closest to the Royal Alex in feeling. It's an Edwardian hall. We're back to the ideas of being tighter and closer, getting people closer to the stage.

We worked with a marvelous theatre consulting group called Theatre Projects. We were involved with the Ballet Opera Company here and their excellent choice for that and I think we have a real success as an intimate lively hall of about 900 seats and a lot of reinterpretation in a contemporary way of the things that made Victorian theatres work.

And then, of course, at night, the theatre works as a stage. The theatre was choreographed with 65 dancers moving up and down the stair towers, in and out of the back of these and so forth and it was very exciting for me because I hadn't really perceived that the building would work so well as a stage set and it was a marvelous kind of show.

And the last one is a blank site at the moment. In fact, we're not even sure it's a site-I hope it will be a site. And this is the Ballet Opera House competition. There's been a lot of press on that and I obviously have a vested interest in this one, but I would say that the competition technique chosen is a very interesting one. What they have done is borrowed a bit on the Portland competition and instead of having the architects take a brief or program and disappear for six weeks, they have developed a competition in which the three surviving architects-James Stirling and Moshe Safdie and ourselves-actually work the three weeks with the users. It's a little bit like a trial marriage. You can find out whether after three weeks you can live with these people or not. And then we have 21/z weeks to put together what's called an architect's sketchbook. Now, the idea behind this is that the selection of an architect is difficult in that if you do a conventional competition where the architect is remote from the user, you lose that incredibly important aspect of an intelligent client and an intelligent architect working together. I'm a great supporter, and believe that great architecture does not come from Moses and the Ten Commandments from the hills, but it really comes from intelligent clients and intelligent architects rolling up their sleeves and working together. So this competition tries to bridge that gap in some ways in that it allows the users to have an input and talk about their aspirations and ideas and reduces a little bit of that aspect that the architect is off by himself and has no one to talk to.

As you know, the block that's being contemplated is a block south of Wellesley between Bay and Yonge. I have not thought a lot about this block until the competition began and having worked on it in the last six weeks am convinced that it's a fabulous site to produce a cultural institution for ballet and opera-south of Bloor Street, next to the provincial government, closely associated with the University of Toronto, and just north of the business district to the south and to the east, wonderful mixed-use neighbourhoods that have developed in the Jarvis area, an almost ideal place.

The program is complex. It's highly ambitious and I am delighted with that and I think the Ballet Opera House's position is very much in my talk on cities and institutions. Name a great city that does not have a great ballet opera house. And the task for us is to try to live up to this tremendous aspiration to produce one of the first class facilities that's been conceived to date in the world. Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Nona Macdonald, Past President of The Club.

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A Great City and Its Institutions

Four ideas or beliefs that have affected the speaker and shaped the way he thinks about cities. They are: the city as a work of art; the measure of the greatness of the city is the character of its institutions; great institutions provide focus and make place in their communities; and that time is visible in the cities. A discussion follws. Then, an "immodest discussion of four projects which we have currently underway, … and they include the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Phoenix Municipal Government Center, the Protland Center for Performing Arts … the Ballet Opera House of Toronto."