An iconic battleground of the War of 1812 finally gets the museum it deserves. But Toronto’s Fort York Visitors Centre – and its stunning weathered steel facade – needs a little help to live up to its fighting spirit.
Just days before its official opening on September 19, Azure took a hardhat tour of the Fort York National Historic Site Visitors Centre, located discreetly beneath the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Construction crews were in full deadline mode working on every aspect of this new $25-million centre – designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver and Kearns Mancini Architects of Toronto – which will be the gateway to a preserved battlefield surrounded on all sides by condominium towers, raised freeways and train lines. The low-lying centre appears to dissolve into its surroundings like a berm, unintrusive within the dominating urbanscape.
Long and lean, comprising a single level over 150 metres from end to end, it contains a museum, a gift shop, administration offices and a time-tunnel walkway that leads visitors to their first view of the fort. Transversing the 100-metre-long tunnel, you arrive at a landscaped rooftop that overlooks 47 acres of grass and military barracks – where British soldiers and Canadian militiamen fought American naval squadrons arriving via Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. While the fort was overtaken and destroyed, it was rebuilt and able to finally repel the invaders in 1814, sparing Canada from being annexed to the United States.
One of the project’s most defining elements is its facade, artfully crafted from 49 sheets of weathering steel measuring 6.4 by 2.4 metres each and lined up in rank formation. Narrow gaps between the slightly leaning panels allow for natural light to enter the interior spaces, and a few of them appear as though flipped upward like trap doors, creating entryways into the building.
The panelled facade follows the original contours of Lake Ontario’s coastline at the juncture where the American ships arrived. It immediately contextualizes the building as the gateway to the historic site, which is all but hidden from view. The city’s encroaching sea of condo towers have disconnected the site from the lakeshore, which itself has shifted a few hundred metres to the south after decades of landfill development.
However, visitors to the centre on opening day will not experience it as the architects initially envisioned. Budget restrictions have made it impossible to install the facade’s remaining 37 panels, which would extend it past the base building, and demonstrate how the fort was strategically positioned. “It’s critical to the project,” principal Patricia Patkau says of the extension. “It is a reconstruction of the original escarpment, the primary defensive element of the site.” Without the panels, she notes, “it looks as though the invaders could run right into the fort!”
David O’Hara, manager of the Fort York visitors centre, says the museum is committed to installing the remaining panels. It’s just a question of when. Another $2-million is still needed to make that happen.