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Every building tells a story-- it takes on meaning and reflects the activities that occur within its walls throughout the years. People shape its ‘story’, leaving their mark, giving a building its unique character and beginning to create the building’s personality. Physically, it evolves to meet needs and functions that change over time; repairs, upgrades and renovations shape and shift the original concept.
The history of a building is not only the physical, but it is entwined with the intention, energy and purpose of those who occupy and use the space over its lifetime. Buildings are more than glass and steel, they are living history. They become more interesting as time passes, the structure wears and often morphs while it simultaneously becomes a receptacle of memories and moments. People shape the history of a building through their experience and recollections. The OAA Headquarters building is no exception.
Recollecting the OAA HQ story
The OAA HQ is a captivating tale. It has all the elements of a great story: a strong cast of characters, intention, intrigue, conflict, purpose and growth. As the OAA undertakes its retrofit project after 25 years of use, we revisit the media coverage and speak to those who were involved to try and piece together a personal story about the original building.
The need that inspired the solution
In 1988, the Ontario Association of Architects had outgrown its space at 50 Park Road in Toronto. Designed in 1954 by John B. Parkin Associates, the Modernist building had lost many of its original features due to the additional office space required for the Indemnity Plan and expanding OAA programs.
Geoffrey Simmons speaks about the project in 1989 while writing the OAA’s centennial history book:
Since then the Headquarters building has become impossibly overcrowded. The ramp on whose flanking walls paintings once hung has been replaced by offices, as has the library. So has the dining room (combined with a lounge) where members once enjoyed lunch. Such steps were necessary in the light of the Association’s growing membership rolls and increased responsibility for such programs as the Certification Board and Indemnity Plan. Extra office space had to come from somewhere.
Simmons, Geoffrey, Ontario Association of Architects a Centennial History 1889-1989, p. 248-249
“I remember as a young, just-registered architect being taken to the OAA building on Park Road for the first time for lunch and being in that intimate space with the venerable heads of the major practices – a heady opportunity to talk however briefly with the then icons of practice … some thought the place exclusive in the negative sense, an otherwise unimaginable situation to think of now somehow.”
- Jamie Wright, Architect, OAA Past President
Changes were beginning to take place that impacted the club-like use of the Headquarters. Because of its location and inspiring mid-century design, members gathered at 50 Park to use the dining room and lounge, but these areas were quickly being repurposed to offices allow the OAA to function. Within 25 years the shift was already taking place and significantly impacting the original design.
Heading towards a move
That summer, OAA Council established the Headquarters Building Task Force to review the short and long-term space requirements of the Association. By late July the decision was becoming apparent when Irving Rayman, Chair of the Task Force, urged members to identify potential sites for a new Headquarters building.
There was also some thought, although eventually abandoned, to keeping Park Road as an architects’ club because of its scale and unique design.
Choosing a site
The site chosen was land donated by Crang + Boake Architects north-west of the intersection of Don Mills Road and York Mills Road. This was a generous offer that was supported by the site selection process that IBI Group had been engaged by the OAA to complete.
The 1.1 acre site was accessible to members throughout the province: near Highways 401, 404 and the Don Valley, and a direct route from Pearson Airport. This was the philosophy of the Task Force, to develop a facility that would be regionally accessible to all Ontario architects and less Toronto-centric.
The site was still located near the Toronto ravine system, but it was also noted the new site was a long way from the Yonge and Bloor, Rosedale location of Park Road with easy access to the subway and within walking distance for many members. The site was a divisive topic to many of the members and while the majority of members are still located in the Greater Toronto area (GTA), the ‘Toronto vs. the rest of the province’ and ‘Toronto downtown vs. the GTA” perspectives were taking hold. These points of view can still be heard occasionally as visitors are welcomed at OAA Reception.
The building program incorporated many of the design features that Park Road had originally addressed: meeting, dining and exhibit space. The Task Force was also excited about the possibilities that would result for this greenfields site.
To determine the new structure for the new site, an architectural design competition open to Ontario Architects was undertaken. The OAA’s newly-drafted design competition guidelines were put to use as a model with the hope it would be used throughout the province.
Everyone involved and connected to the Association were well aware that this process wasn’t going to be easy:
“There may be no greater challenge for architects than to design a building for their peers, a building not only to be used and paid for by them, but also to be their showpiece.”1
The jury included architects Patricia Patkau, Victor Marius Prus, Gustavo da Roza, in addition to the Executive Director Brian Parks and architecture critic for the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume. The professional advisor to the jury was James A. Murray.
Sixty-five anonymous submissions from across the province were received and reviewed by the Committee. This was more and of a better quality than the Committee had hoped for. In November 1989 the jury made its unanimous decision and awarded the competition to Ruth Cawker Architect.
The competition was well supported. The process, design and winning architect received favourable media exposure which was an added value to the entire exercise.
Cawker’s winning concept focused on restraint and simple elegance in expression.
The design prioritized five key points:
Initial Reactions to the design
As expected, the architectural community had a multitude of opinions and personal preferences in regard to the submissions and the chosen design.
The Committee was excited about a building that was presenting opportunities to be environmentally responsible. “It was particularly gratifying when the selected design incorporated various passive sustainable elements including natural light and solar gain protection,” said Jamie Wright.
“Once determined to move and use the Don Mills site, a located with endorsed car-city, the OAA should have developed a building which shows how to handle low-density, the arrival by car, parking, entry, internal space and response to energy and environment concerns. Although the winning design is an attempt by a sincere and committed architect as the controlled design attests, the solution falls short of being exemplary.”
-Macy DuBois, The DuBois Plumb Partnership Architects, Toronto, 1992.
Evolution of the Design
Ruth Cawker, now practising in Southern France, corresponded with the OAA last year and shared her thoughts and recollections about the project. She remembers the team and provided a personal context for the story of the building.
“Copies of Goran’s (Milosevic), Michael McColl’s and Willa Wong’s drawings are hanging in my office… in Nice, and I still regularly have to point out to people admiring the drawings here that in fact these were entirely hand drawn and hand lettered in the 1980s/90s by four people.”
Cawker specifically spoke to an aspect of the story that she says few people will remember. The decision to hire Bernard Gillespie, two and half years after winning the competition.
“I decided to hire Bernard Gillespie to take responsibility in my practice for administering the construction contract for the OAA building. He had been highly recommended by a number of talented architects in Toronto. Bernard had three decades of experience administering complex construction projects by the time he joined my practice.”
-Ruth Cawker, Architect, 2017.
Ruth explained her reliance on Gillespie following the unexpected death of her brother to whom she was very close and her concern that she would not be able to have the force required to carry the project through the construction phase. She attended her brother’s funeral only a couple of weeks prior to the ground breaking ceremony for the building.
Bernard passed away July 2017, just months before he could be interviewed to discuss the construction phase of the project. The OAA was hoping to include his recollections of the Headquarters project as well.
Cawker impressed upon the fact that PCL Construction and in particular the site supervisor Tom Erger and his administrative counterpart were extremely supportive of the design. “They called me evenings and weekends if necessary, when there were questions of interpretation that required a complete history of the project to make decisions, “said Cawker.
There were a number of Toronto architects, including Shirley Blumberg, Eb Zeidler, and Michael Kirkland, whom Cawker calls “extremely supportive” over the course of the four-year project by offering their encouragement and advice. She expressed that she valued their contribution enormously.
Ms. Cawker continued to ‘pass it forward’ by summarizing her comments and encouraging the development of the story, “I hope you will be able to piece together an accurate, if not a full story of the project, from the people who worked with me, who counselled me, and who taught me so much, 20 years ago.”
The Building Program…managing bumps along the way
In order to get a recollection of the program, we contacted Jamie Wright who served on the steering committee.
He recalled a conversation with then-Mayor Hazel McCallion of Mississauga in which she enquired, “Why do architects require contractors to prove that they’re prequalified to undertake a project of a certain size or complexity, and not require prequalification of (architects) during a design competition?” (The topic had come up in reference to the Mississauga City Hall Competition). Wright remarked that not only did he consider the comment particularly poignant at the time, but ‘perhaps prescient as it turned out’.
The process was far from easy and in response the OAA created a steering committee, used on-staff architects and hired an out-of-house architectural consultant to help it run more smoothly.
During the start of the design development phase, Ruth Cawker, was asked about her ability (as a small practitioner) to undertake the technical aspects of the project. The Committee asked if she would consider working with a larger firm to complete the project and the OAA offered to increase the percentage fee to accommodate that eventuality.
There was a protracted development process which included some value engineering to bring the cost in line with the budget as well as other aspects that negatively impacted the design. The process lead to realizing there were shortcomings in the technical aspects of the building.
The design underwent modifications including eliminating the louvres on the roof’s frame. The winged roof or ‘fifth elevation’ is left as a bare frame. A mesh screen addressing the detachment from grade and creating a stronger link to the ground is absent from the final design.
There were challenges, pressures, negative feedback and numerous volunteer hours given throughout the program. Irving Raymond resigned “in disgust” from the Building Committee prior to completion of the building.
Construction costs rose from the original competition budget of $3.2 M to $4.6 M plus substantial soft costs.
First Impressions of the building
April 8, 1992 the building officially opened.
“The OAA’s new Headquarters building in North York, is a vivid and positive example of this confident vision (a strong belief in the future of the profession). The building’s prominent location and its extensive public areas also demonstrate a commitment to increased public and community involvement. As we embark on a new era for architects in Ontario, our new building will serve as both a practical tool for achieving our goals, and as a shining example of our hopes and aspirations.”
-Robert J. McCrea, OAA President, 1992.
“The building gives us the space and the facilities to operate efficiently and it allows us to interact with the community much more effectively. The gallery and conference centre will provide a forum for the profession as we step up our efforts to communicate with the public.”
-David Hodgson, OAA Executive Director, 1992
“The OAA’s Headquarters is a bespoke building that isn’t capable of meeting our changing needs. It was poorly implemented, compromised the good features of the original concept and does not address the original larger purpose…as an architectural exchange venue.”
-Jamie Wright, Building Committee
Controversy years later
Building Committee members were asked to appear before Council years after the building was completed. The then-Council expressed concerns about the original process as well as building performance and felt it necessary to investigate. This only further exasperated those who had been involved and had volunteered their time and expertise to assist in creating the new Headquarters for the Association.
At the end of a road paved with the best of intentions, it is without a doubt…
”There may be no greater challenge for architects than to design a building for their peers, a building not only to be used and paid for by them, but also to be their showpiece.” 1
1 B. L. Wings over Don Mills – The Ontario Association of Architects Headquarters, The Canadian Architect.
Architect: Ruth Cawker Architect
Design team: Ruther Cawker, Michael McColl
Project team: Goran Milosevic, Willa Wong, Cheryl Kowaluk, Jonathon Crinion
Contract administration: Bernard Gillespie
Structural: Peter Sheffield & Assoc.
Mechanical: The Mitchell Partnership
Electrical: Carinci Burt Rogers Engineering
Building envelope: J.C. Perrault & Sons
Quantity Surveyor: Helyar & Assoc.
Contractor: PCL Constructors, Eastern Inc.
Do you have a memory about the competition and building of 111 Moatfield? Please share your comments to add to the reflections of our building’s past.