My Canada, 109/150: The cathedrals of commerce

When I have appointments in Toronto’s Financial District, I try to ensure my walking route takes me through the Allen Lambert Galleria.

108 First Cdn Place look east
The Allen Lambert Galleria, looking east. Photo: Kelley Teahen

Truth be told, I didn’t know what it was actually called until doing my Teahen Tales due diligence research. Before now, I’ve thought of it as “that church-like arch-y beautiful thing at Brookfield Place.”

Brookfield Place comprises two office towers, one of which was the corporate headquarters for Canada Trust before its 2000 acquisition by Toronto Dominion Bank. But what makes it stand out is that wondrous connecting atrium, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, which runs parallel to Front Street linking Bay Street to Yonge. The light plays through the atrium, changing it every hour of the day. Sometimes there are events and art exhibitions held along its expanse. Film crews for advertisements and movies have shot it at every angle. When I have visitors to Toronto, especially ones arriving at the nearby Union Station, I drag them off for a walk through this atrium.

This is the human-scale heart of what’s dubbed Toronto’s Financial District, with its epicentre at King and Bay streets. Most of Canada’s big banks have headquarters or operational centres occupying imposing, branded office towers. There’s RBC (formerly the Royal Bank of Canada), the country’s largest bank, at Royal Bank Plaza and several other locations. Toronto Dominion / TD Canada Trust cover the former Canada Trust HQ plus the Mies van der Rohe-designed Toronto Dominion Centre; Scotiabank is at Scotia Plaza; BMO (formerly Bank of Montreal) has its place in the skyline at First Canadian Place (currently the tallest office building in Toronto), as does CIBC (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce) at Commerce Court.

The best-regarded of these bank towers are the austerely stern black-clad Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Toronto Dominion towers, the first two of which were constructed in 1967 and 1969 by Bregman + Hamann Architects and John B. Parkin Associates, in consultation with van der Rohe.  These are classic examples of van der Rohe’s “International Style,” first expressed in his 1957 Seagram Building in New York. Another four buildings were erected between 1974 and 1987 in a similar style.

The showiest of the towers has to be the Royal Bank Plaza, with two towers, the tallest of which is on the north side of Front Street. It has gold, shiny windows that reflect the sunlight in sheaths across the street. It inspired the title of journalist Walter Stewart’s 1982 book, Towers of Gold, Feet of Clay: The Canadian Banks. Walter, as an aside, was the interim director at the University of King’s College journalism school when I was a student, so that book was required reading. I remember thinking many years later, when American financial institutions were flaming out in Icarus-like disasters, that I was pretty happy Canadian banks had feet of clay.

The current financial district — which is also home to hotels, consultancy firms, and other business enterprises —  is now expanding, south toward Toronto’s waterfront. The area south of Front Street and Union Station, the rail and commuter train hub, has been dubbed South Core and has office towers for Telus, a telecommunications firm, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting and consulting firm, along with the Air Canada Centre, condos, and other buildings planned for the future.

As part of a proposed Downtown Secondary Plan to govern future development of Toronto’s downtown — defined as the waterfront to the south, Bathurst Street to the west, a curving northern boundary of Dupont/Rosedale Valley Road to the north, and the Don Valley to the east — Toronto city planners are recommending that the official Financial District expand with priority given to “non-residential development,” as the planners put it. (If you are a keener, zoom to pages 8 to 12 of the PDF you’ll reach by following that previous link.) Toronto’s downtown condo boom, the planners posit, needs to be balanced with providing space for businesses to keep developing in the core. I’ve been attending community consultation sessions for TOCore for the past year, representing the Cabbagetown Residents Association, and it’s been fascinating watching how these plans are developing.

But regardless of how much further the official Financial District expands, I doubt there will ever be a structure quite as soul-lifting as the Brookfield Place atrium. To one side is the Clarkson Gordon building, reconstruction of a Commercial Bank building from 1844. It also connects to another old Bank of Montreal building, now used for the Hockey Hall of Fame. I hope future developers will be inspired to match, or top, its aesthetic appeal.

Main image: The Allen Lambert Galleria, looking west (including the Clarkson Gordon building). Kelley Teahen.

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