York Urbanist

Archive for the ‘Iconic Buildings of York’ Category

Iconic Buildings of York Region – The Top Eight

December 30th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York


  • Direct association with the Town, City or Region
  • Timeless architecture
  • Sustainable – recognized by its age and projected use
  • Public access
  • Beauty
  • Within it lies a story
  • Street Presence

Here they are:

  1. Sharon Temple, East Gwillimbury
  2. York Region Administrative Offices, Newmarket
  3. McMichael Gallery, Kleinburg
  4. Markham Town Hall
  5. Vaughan City Hall
  6. Richmond Hill Library
  7. Dunlap Observatory, Richmond Hill
  8. Canada’s Wonderland and Colossus Theatre


1 SHARON TEMPLE – Iconic Buildings of York Region

December 30th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York

“The temple of the Children of Peace at Sharon is an architectural masterpiece expressing in dramatic form the ideas of David Willson, a charismatic religious leader in early 19th century Upper Canada. The architectural elements of the Temple combine to express a singular religious vision of the most striking beauty. Its three tiers, its four-fold symmetry, its lanterns, and its pinnacles all take their inspirations from the Bible. Jacob’s Ladder, a gently curved staircase, leads to the musicians’ gallery above. Its three stories represent the Trinity. The four central pillars even bear names: Faith, Hope, Love, and Charity. Known for their pageantry, the Children of Peace combined unique architecture with distinctive artistic works and unparalleled musical tradition.”

This starkly beautiful white structure is abound in history.  So precious is the building that it has been maintained and/or restored over its proud past and is now a National Historic Site.  Its purpose was served and today expresses a story that is Sharon, a village within East Gwillimbury.  East Gwillimbury is no household name, at least to Torontonians.  But the Sharon Temple will be well-known to those in the architectural, theological and historical communities. No other structure or land expresses the municipality as well. When attempts are made to direct an inquirer to East Gwillimbury, inevitably the Sharon Temple is part of the explanation.  This building uniquely defines the municipality more than any other in York Region.

Born at a time when the church was the prime mover of urban and architectural form, the edifice remains current and a landmark today.  It was so important that the municipal offices were built adjacent to it.  It was so iconic that a former mayor insisted that he must be able to see it from his office, so trees were removed to afford the view. The architects of the municipal offices honoured the Sharon Temple by understating their façade and setting the façade in line with that of the Sharon Temple.


Iconic Rating – 10 out of 10

Desirability – 10 out of 10


December 28th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York

Newmarket’s signature York Region Administrative Centre, a masonry-clad structure designed by Douglas Cardinal Architect Inc.  won a 2007 Masonry Masterpiece Award 15 years after its construction. The 245,000-square-foot building, completed at a cost of $60 million, demonstrated design innovations
contributing to sustainable development before it was trendy to do so.

Its large size and uniquely Cardinal-esque styling make it stand out from all other architecture within York Region.  Its only failing is that it has a sister in Hull, Quebec called the Museum of Civilization.  The curvy façades could be twins. The style mapping is a complaint made of another starchitect, Daniel Libeskind for his ROM Crystal’s mate Denver Art Museum.

Notwithstanding the replication of building style, the administrative centre is emblematic of York Region.  The interior first floor is like a street with doors to the offices and meeting rooms.  The command it presents on the exterior to Yonge Street gives Newmarket a bravura that belies its small town persona.  Twenty years after construction, it remains fresh amongst architectural styles.  Douglas Cardinal stuck to his design principles, as the client agonized over the budget excesses. The shadows it casts are purposeful and the absence of angles and corners is easy on the eye. This building is one of the finest examples of public offices built in Ontario during the past 25 years.

Iconic Rating – 9.5 out of 10

Desirability – 9.5 out of 10

3 McMICHAEL GALLERY – Iconic Buildings

December 26th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York

Globe and Mail

Its history has recently been checkered by some bickering over management of the facility and by board appointments, but the building in its setting is a treasure hidden from Islington Avenue, Kleinburg.  The building is one that brings an understanding to Canadian Art. An exterior of log construction and
interior temperature / humidity controlled, it was state of the art on completion.  Set amongst the woods that are reminiscent of the Group of Seven, the site has been further improved lately with the addition of a sculpture garden adjacent to the abundantly treed entrance drive. The exterior art is an extension of the story told by the façade of the building.

The building has been expanded on several occasions, but you would not know it until it is explained in the display on the interior.  The class of the edifice is epitomized by the number of photographs taken as part of ceremonies or just casual visits.

More so than the City Hall, McMichael is emblematic of things Vaughan.  It is second only to the notoriety of Canada’s Wonderland as a Vaughan landmark, but with sophistication (not pretentiousness) that is lacking at the collection of wood and metal seen from Highway 400.

Iconic Rating – 9 out of 10

Desirability – 9.5 out of 10

4 MARKHAM TOWN HALL – Iconic Buildings

December 22nd, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York

The brick and glass Civic Centre was designed by architect Arthur Erikson with Richard Stevens Architects Limited and opened in 1989. Entrances, except the great hall entrance, are named after communities in Markham (Unionville, Milliken, Thornhill), part of Erickson’s mall theme – 1986.  The theatre beside it lends content and balance within the site. Architect: CS+P Architects.

Together, the theatre, school and civic centre create a campus that brought together the individual villages that are Markham.  Although the Town Hall is set away from the street, it overlooks the intersection of Highway 7 and Warden in a stately fashion.  Once in the campus, the reflecting pool sets a tone of calmness that perhaps belies the events of Council.  Having said that the centre overlooks the street, it feels like we are entering the back door as you must drive to the back of the complex. Therefore the parking lot becomes a major feature of the site and insists that Markham is suburbia. The expanse of asphalt and concrete is a disappointing invitation to what is a uniquely laid out floor plan. Its ceremonial ‘front door’ is understated on the north end.

What caught my eye as a young design professional was the multicoloured glass panels of the school and theatre.  Subtedly the panels add character to an indistinct facade. But they are enough to draw the eye.  When the glassy hues of red and blue are seen in a photo, you know they represent Markham. 

The Town Hall may need greater floor space as the Town grows. The site’s large size lends future possibilities to enlarge on the persona of the Town’s civic precinct.    Hopefully, the next expansion will be respectful of Erikson’s original concept and that the site will become a physical, visual and social emblem of what is becoming a knitted community of villages.


Iconic Rating – 9 out of 10

Desirability – 9 out of 10

5 VAUGHAN CITY HALL – Iconic Buildings

December 20th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York


“Designed by the award-winning Canadian architectural firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna
and Blumberg (KPMB), Vaughan City Hall is expected to be one of the largest
civic buildings in Canada to achieve a Gold certification for Leadership in
Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) – an internationally accepted benchmark
for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings.” www.vaughan.ca

Like the Toronto city hall, then entrance hall is appropriately vacuous, but confusing upon first visit. I overheard comments from several persons in the lobby expounding that they felt that the atrium was a waste of dollars. This could be a reaction to the project exceeding budget.  The design is LEED certified giving it credibility, and the rest of the interior is expressive of the personalities of the originating Council.

Unlike the Toronto city hall, the siting and street presence is discomfitting. Some have expressed that Toronto’s is shaped like a toilet. But viewing Vaughan’s from a distance west of the site on Major Mackenzie, take a look.  There is a concern that the middle finger of the building’s fist appears above the horizon of the foreground Mackenzie House. 

The project became both famous and infamous as an icon of Vaughan for its stark realities.

The reality is that the front door has a presence on a parking lot, not the important Major Mackenzie frontage, which simply gets a side view.  The travelers on the GO train get the backside and its expanse of parking.  Where is the LEED point for reducing the need to drive to the site. (LEED does not acknowledge travel to a site in its calculations). KPMB must have struggled with the site location while expressing good design within the building. The building is visually distinctive by its tower but is unlikely to go into a coffee table book of architecture.

Iconic Rating – 8.5 out of 10

Desirability – 8 out of 10

6 RICHMOND HILL LIBRARY – Iconic Buildings

December 16th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York

The Central Library, with 60,000 square feet of public space was designed by A.J. Diamond, Donald Schmitt and Company and opened in 1993. The building subsequently won the Governor General’s Award for Architecture (1994), the Portland Cement Association Concrete Building Award (1994), and the Financial Post Design Effectiveness Award for Architectural Design (1995). The library houses a Local History Room that contains York Region’s largest repository of genealogical data as well as a fascinating collection of early photographs and historical documents.

A library is one of the key community resources of any community, with not only books but also a place to meet.  The location and context of this building is ideally situated at the geographic centre of Richmond Hill at Major Mackenzie and Yonge Street. It is set amongst other government owned buildings and open space in what is a Public Precinct west of Yonge.  The building glows at night, like a sentinel on the hill that oversees Yonge Street. The design does not reveal a date or era, giving us a sense that it will represent Richmond Hill for many years to come. Interestingly, it lacks the iconographic character that is the seventh on the list, Dunlap Observatory, but unlike the observatory, the library’s function should continue well into the future.

Iconic Rating – 8 out of 10

Desirability – 9 out of 10

7 DUNLAP OBSERVATORY – Iconic Buildings

December 14th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York

The David Dunlap Observatory opened in 1935, a gift to the University of Toronto by Jessie Donalda Dunlap as a memorial to her husband David Alexander Dunlap. The owners of the property have always made it clear that they consider the Observatory and the Administration building to be historic structures that will be preserved. The property is now owned by the Metrus Group, the function of the observatory long compromised by surrounding development.  For many years, the Town of Richmond Hill has had requirements to control ‘dark skies’ in the vicinity of the observatory.  Alas, the light streams have been difficult to control.  The building and lands remain iconic of what has been Richmond Hill.  Its longevity is testament to the sustainability of its architecture, maintenance and the importance of its history to the Town of Richmond Hill.

Iconic Rating – 9 out of 10

Desirability – 8 out of 10

York Region – Iconic Buildings no. 8

December 12th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York

Today starts the list of iconic buildings.  Icons of architecture are often created from design competitions, such as the Marilyn Monroe Towers of Mississauga.  They are also frequently publicly owned. There are exceptions.  I hope you find the list of eight to be intriguing insight to where urban design has come to York Region. Each will receive an Iconic Rating and Desirability Rating. Iconic rating is the ability for the building to identify its municipality.  The desirability is a subjective qualification based on sustainability and how the building has and will stand the test of time.

The first is actually two.  Colossus and Canada’s Wonderland are the first major built forms to introduce York Region to travelers upon entry from Toronto. You have read my condemning rants previously, but there is no denying that these buildings are the symbols of what is and was Vaughan.

8a    COLLOSSUS – Famous Players Theatre

One can hardly miss this ‘gateway to Vaughan’.  Lights blazing in the dark skies.  Space ship styling spoke to the future for the City above Toronto.  For all its failings, this is truly an indicator that you have arrived in … ah…. Vaughan.  It won a 1999 Urban Design Award from the City of Vaughan for Page + Steele Architects. In the day, the awards looked for any large expenditure on buildings to reward.  As suggested in Urban Places to Detest, the surroundings of this building are not positive, but as for getting noticed, this building did that.  The architects likely had fun designing this.

Iconic Rating – 9 out of 10

Desirability – 4 out of 10


Until Colossus arrived, CW was your first taste of Vaughan upon arriving via Highway 400 and it became a good reason to keep going to Toronto or Barrie. Each year a new structure pierces the skyline announcing the new season at cheap rates. Former Councillor Jim Cameron vehemently objected to the construction and planning of this some 28 years ago, giving Vaughan an identity that he logically resented. I was told by a police officer that the structures with their moving parts are the reason for multiple traffic mishaps over the years on Highway 400. This event place is iconic, but perhaps not in the manner that we all would wish. Paris’ Eiffel Tower was part of the World Exposition and it remains today as an emblem of Paris. Could Thunder Mountain live on as an icon of Vaughan?

Iconic Rating – 9 out of 10

Desirability – 4 out of 10

Urban Design – Iconic Buildings Define a City

December 7th, 2011
Iconic Buildings of York, Urban Design

Good urban design is that which gives identity to a place.

Having developed urban design guidelines for various cities, my fear was repetition of what is considered good urban design.  Such repetition in Vaughan and Markham has given us some pretty, but perhaps senseless results.  Let us look at the urban design concept of having the building “address the street”.  This is an excellent URBAN criteria. However, plunk it down in suburbia and you have a doorless front that creates a wall on the street.  The example is pictured at Weston and Rutherford. The featured architecture is really a sign.  Faux windows stand as “articulation of the frontage” but no real purpose.  The great lawn in front is not a welcome mat, and lacks only the sign “Do not walk on the grass”.

And this is no better than noise attenuation walls that seal off a neighbourhood from its community. The example is Thornhill’s noise wall south of Centre Street on the Markham side of Yonge.  This wall is much of the reason why Thornhill Village cannot take flight.  Instead potential patrons are sealed from the street or scared from the district by inactivity.

Thornhill Village - Lost

This missive on urban design introduces our next list of “Iconic Buildings” of York Region.  All the urban design guidelines cannot make an identifiable building.  The building must have unique qualities that sets it apart.  Paris has the Eiffel Tower, which some called a monstrosity upon completion.  Big Ben identifies the architectural culture of London. The Burj Dubai became the world’s tallest building when it opened in 2009.  All are iconic, and their uniqueness define their cities! Will the Marilyn Monroe, Absolute World, buildings define suburban Mississauga? If nothing else, they have brought notoriety to the city and the Chinese architect, Yansong Ma.  The answer is that buildings must be iconic to gain attention.  Attention to good building design can identify a city.