The changing face of heritage: The International Style – Toronto’s Toronto-Dominion Centre

Toronto-Dominion Centre (Photo: The Cadillac Fairview Corporation Ltd.)

"The Toronto-Dominion Centre was designated by the City of Toronto in 2003."


Moiz Behar

Buildings and architecture

Published Date:19 May 2005

Photo: Toronto-Dominion Centre (Photo: The Cadillac Fairview Corporation Ltd.)

In the second quarter of the 20th century following the First World War, Europe saw the emergence of a significant movement in architecture. This “modern” movement initiated a radical departure from the traditional approach of designing buildings in a historical context.

The International Style – often used synonymously with modern architecture – was named for its applicability to different cultural and climatic conditions, thus representing a universal design approach and esthetic that could be valid anywhere in the world. This name was first used in conjunction with the 1932 Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition in New York City titled “The International Style: Architecture since 1922.” The Bauhaus School in Germany provided a solid foundation for the movement in the 1920s under the direction of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. The International Style emphasized volume instead of mass, favoured modern materials and standard modular parts for ease of fabrication and erection, and abandoned surface decoration.

Modernism reached Canada in the 1930s. It did not become firmly entrenched, however, until the 1950s. Fuelled by the post-Second World War economic boom, this movement changed the appearance and function of Canadian cities in the span of three decades.

Toronto assumed a leading role in spreading the International Style in central and eastern Canada commencing in the 1950s. Architects such as Henry Fliess, James A. Murray, Jerome Markson and planners like Macklin Hancock contributed to shaping Toronto in a new, bold and modern way. Some of the most significant architectural work done with the modernist vocabulary during the 1950s and early sixties included two leading Toronto architectural firms: Page and Steele (Peter Dickinson, lead design architect) and John B. Parkin Associates (John C. Parkin, lead design architect).

Toronto-Dominion Centre (Photo: Ron Vickers)

One of the most celebrated architects of the International Style was the German-born architect Mies van der Rohe. One of Mies’ masterpieces in North America is the TD Centre – a prominent example in Toronto of the International Style. As famed American architect Philip Johnson is reputed to have said, “The TD Centre is the biggest Mies in the world.”

Many Mies buildings took rectilinear shapes with symmetrical façades. His notable high rise buildings prior to the TD Centre include two 26-storey Lakeshore Drive apartment buildings in Chicago – designed and built between 1949 and 1951 – which are organized at right angles to each other and are composed of pure, simplified forms and dark-coloured, exposed metal members that carefully modulate the façade compositions. His famous 39-storey Seagram Building in New York City was completed in 1958. The Seagram Building transformed corporate architecture in North America. Seagram’s owners were the Montreal-based Bronfman family, who also controlled the property developers – Fairview Corporation, now known as Cadillac Fairview.

The TD Centre was commissioned by Allan Lambert, chairman of the Toronto-Dominion Bank in partnership with Fairview Corporation. To build the TD Centre, most of the city block surrounded by York, King, Bay and Wellington was assembled – the largest land assembly in Toronto until that time. As an internationally known designer of office towers, Mies van der Rohe was brought from Chicago to be the design consultant to John B. Parkin Associates and Bregman and Hamann, two architectural firms based in Toronto. The TD Centre became the last major work of Mies van der Rohe.

As originally conceived, TD Centre was comprised of: the 56-storey TD Tower located at 66 Wellington Street West and built in 1967; the 46- storey Royal Trust Tower located at 77 King Street West and built in 1969; and a one-storey Banking Pavilion. The original program for the Centre called for 288,000m2 of office space, banking space, 14,300m2 of retailing at a below-grade concourse and underground parking for 700 vehicles. Several buildings have been added to the complex.

The TD Centre is an exemplary manifestation of modern architecture and the International Style in Toronto and Ontario. At the time of their completion in 1969, TD Centre buildings dominated the skyline and permanently altered the Toronto cityscape. This landmark three-building complex made Modernism especially visible and acceptable in Toronto by providing very tall towers in a prominent location in the city, in a new design vocabulary, and with the involvement of one of the master architects alive at the time. Thus, this commercial banking complex fuelled both the appetite for the Modern style of architecture and the post-war construction boom in the city.