Submissions for the competition to design Toronto City Hall circa 1958. Photo: Panda Collection, Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary

What do pyramids, cheese graters and donuts have in common? Toronto City Hall could have ended up looking like any one of those things if Viljo Revell, a Finnish architect, hadn’t won a design competition more than half a century ago.

With what’s now known as Old City Hall becoming overcrowded, Toronto put out an open call to architects in the autumn of 1957. The city invited them to send in design proposals for the aging building’s successor, and the response was overwhelming.

In styles as varied as the 42 countries they came from, more than 500 submissions poured in. It was an unprecedented response at the time, and competition at home was especially fierce: some 75 Canadian entries are on record.

Today, as the 50th anniversary of City Hall’s opening approaches on September 13th, George Kapelos, a Ryerson architecture professor, and Chris Armstrong, a historian, have gathered some of these would-be city hall designs in a new book.

“Competing Modernisms: Toronto’s New City Hall and Square,” and a related exhibition at Ryerson’s Paul H. Cocker Gallery called Shaping Canadian Modernity, tell the story of the competition: its origins, how it all played out and what that means today.

“The point that we’re making is that the competition had many outcomes,” said Kapelos. Beyond producing a “magnificent building,” Kapelos notes the contest “brought Toronto into the global stage as a modern, progressive, and dynamic city.”


Frank Mikutowski submitted a scheme with an intricate poured-concrete façade. Photo: Panda Collection, Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary

The two curators winnowed down hundreds of submissions to present 50, including Revell’s familiar winning design. “I wanted to show a spread, a range of types of buildings, and a range of architectural representations that were global,” Kapelos explained, noting architects from Japan, Australia, Haiti, Israel, and many others took a crack at designing Toronto’s next city hall.

Kapelos’ criteria included designs he and Armstrong found “visually interesting” and that were done by architects who went on to achieve some notoriety in the following years.

“It was an amazing array of types of building shapes and building forms,” said Kapelos of the entries. “There were a few neo classical buildings, there were lots of towers, there were some towers with really interesting basis, there were irregular shaped buildings, there were curving buildings, there were buildings that were circular in form.”

Among the designs on display are all eight finalists, which a panel of five judges and one advisor selected before announcing the ultimate winner on September 27th, 1958. “The finalists were all either young or somewhat mature architects who went on to further fame and prominence in their careers later on.”

In winning the competition, Revell beat out such talent as I.M. Pei, who submitted a square, top-heavy scheme and went on to design the pyramid at the Louvre, and John Andrews, who would later make his mark on Toronto’s skyline when he designed the CN Tower with local firm WZMH Architects.


John Andrews’ proposal for Toronto City Hall. Photo: Panda Collection, Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary

“This is an amazing kind of atrium space,” said Kapelos standing in the gallery near one of the miniature replicas that’s included in the exhibition alongside black-and-white photos and old CBC footage. He was referring to the hollowed-out centre in Andrews’ vision for City Hall that has this ornate, weaving cover spanning it.

Of the delicate, poured-concrete façade on Frank Mikutowski’s design, another of the finalists, Kapelos says “it sort of operates like a lampshade, in a way,” adding, “It’s really quite a sophisticated scheme.”

Even though there were plenty of strong designs to choose from, Kapelos believes the jury made the right call. “I think what (Revell) designed is the most outstanding,” said Kapelos. It has certain symbolic value for him as well. “You didn’t have to go up a monumental staircase to get into the building,” he says. “It represented… government that was accessible to the public.”

Shaping Canadian Modernity will be on display weekdays from 10am to 6pm at Ryerson’s Paul H. Cocker Gallery from September 1st to October 9th. Competing Modernisms: Toronto’s New City Hall and Square, out on Dalhousie Architectural Press, is available on Amazon or at the Ryerson bookstore.

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