Architecture for Learning: a fond tour of the University of Toronto

Author Robert Fisher carried out most of the research for his linguistics PhD from UCLA at the libraries of the University of Toronto. He continued with additional research at U of T in the late 70s, and taught various courses there, including linguistics, from the late 80s up until 2002. He has taught in almost every building on the U of T campus, including the engineering and science buildings. 

Path into U of T.

What’s in the Circle?

University of Toronto coat of arms.The University of Toronto’s motto, Velut arbor aevo (as a tree through the ages) is especially appropriate because the campus has grown like the annual rings of a tree, the oldest rings in the center and the later ones added to the ever-expanding periphery. Where I sit now, on a bench just beside the entrance to what was the Sigmund Samuel Undergraduate Library – once the University library – is King’s College Circle, a road that circumnavigates the historic center, like the medieval heart of a European city, with the original colleges surrounding it. Straight ahead is Knox College, built in 1915 and dedicated to Presbyterianism, in a beautiful Gothic style with cloistered corridors and lovely courtyards. Then there is University College, founded in the 1850s as a secular college, with its peaceful cloistered walkways and small but botanically rich courtyard. To the left of Knox is ivy-covered Simcoe Hall (1924), named for the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, and to its left the graceful swell of Convocation Hall (1907).

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King’s College Circle itself is bordered by flowering crab and Kwanzan cherry trees, whose gorgeous pink and red blossoms sweep away each spring the memory of the long dreary winter. In May I used to sit on this very bench and read Chinese poems about spring, looking up from the moving phrases to take in the delicate and ever-so-fleeting reality of our brief spring.

University College arch.University College looks like a building designed by a committee, which is indeed just what happened: everyone had a hand in the plans, and what emerged was a hodge-podge of Romanesque Revival, Gothic and Norman architecture. The walls are several feet thick, and at the east corner is a tower strong enough to withstand the onslaught of Vikings and Visigoths. Its true gem is the main entrance with its concentric arches, each one intricately carved.

On the west corner of University College is a round, squat, one-storey tower surmounted by a small turret with windows. This the Croft Chapter House, originally used as the laboratory for the chemistry department, but now a spacious meeting room aglow with natural light.
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Standing in for Yale and Harvard

University College and Hart House have often served as locations for films that take place in old northeastern American universities such as Yale and Harvard. The most dramatic and extensive use of the buildings, including several mysterious nighttime scenes, was in the film The Skulls (2000). The brooding Gothic and Norman towers and ivy-covered stone walls lent themselves perfectly to the atmosphere of an old elite university with dark secrets.

Ironwood trees reflected in windows of University College, U of T.I used to give visitors a ‘tree tour’ of the campus, for it does indeed have a rich variety of ornamental and native trees. In the latter category is a stand of ironwood trees, indigenous to Ontario, in one corner of the charming University College courtyard. In the opposite corner, which is often bathed in sunlight, is an almond tree, whose blossoms in spring are as bright as electric lights. Next to the ironwoods is a tiny room packed with donated books and staffed by volunteers. It was always a joy to squeeze into that space and see the shelves with books from an era when books were prized possessions and thought was given to their layout and illustration. The treasures in that little room came from the libraries of scholars, and I always hoped they would find good homes and be appreciated.
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Hart House – evoking the Empire

Hart House cornerstone, U of T.Off to my right, set back on its own small circle, is Hart House (1919), one of my favorite campus buildings, as much for its Gothic exterior as for its interior that evokes the British Empire. I imagine that Mycroft Holmes’s Diogenes Club must have looked like this. The library used to have racks of newspapers on wooden rods, but still has a selection of books. As you walk to your red easy chair the broad floorboards creak. Upstairs is the Music Room with its grand piano and arched ceiling of timbers, like the moat house in The Black Arrow. Everywhere you walk is the texture of stone blocks and massive beams of wood touched with light from the high windows.

The Great Hall with its escutcheons and portraits covering the high walls is used as a dining room, but it has also been the venue for famous guest speakers. Alan Dershowitz from Harvard Law School once delivered a lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After his talk students lined up for the microphone to ask questions, many of them very emotional and strident, but he was more than a match for them, answering from a great fund of knowledge and with a lawyer’s counterarguments.
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A somber memorial to those fallen in the two World Wars is the Soldiers’ Tower at the west corner of Hart House. Inside are a small war museum and an impressive series of stained glass windows illustrating McRae’s In Flanders Fields and people in various walks of life. At the very top is the famous carillon that can be heard on convocation days and Remembrance Day. At the foot of the tower is a wall inscribed with the names of University of Toronto staff, students, alumni and professors who died in the Great War. The list of names is very long, and one feels the immense loss to every city, town and village in Ontario, the shock of the first total war. The names are almost exclusively those of the British Isles, reflecting a very different, more homogeneous population than today’s multiethnic Ontario.

An observatory, Convocation Hall and Sig Sam

U of T student union.On a knoll between Hart House and Sig Sam is the old Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, built in 1857, and now the student union.

Convocation Hall, besides its graduation ceremonies, has also hosted a number of famous speakers, among them the neurologist Oliver Sacks and Sir John Eccles, the Nobel laureate, who presented his argument that there was the possibility for a soul that could guide decisions at brain synapses because the uncertainty principle applied to quantum-size neurotransmitters. This led to a lively debate from the atheists in the audience.

Actually, the Sigmund Samuel Building, just behind my bench, was a much needed extension, built in the mid-1950s, to the original University of Toronto Library dating from the 1890s – both buildings now incorporated into the Gerstein Science Information Center. The original library is again a formidable building with tower and turret in heavy stone, giving one the feeling that it is as much church as fortress. Inside is a fine reading room, recently renovated, with an impressive ceiling of heavy wooden beams high above the heads of students and light pouring in from tall windows with rounded arches lining the wall just below the ceiling.
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Modern medicine and Deep Throat

Immediately next to the Gerstein is the Medical Sciences Building, the administrative center of the Faculty of Medicine. This is the one modern building, constructed in 1969, on King’s College Circle. In the corner is a wonderful auditorium where many avant-garde films have been shown and famous guest speakers have appeared. In the former category was the screening of Linda Lovelace’s controversial Deep Throat (1972), which was interrupted when Toronto police raided the auditorium and chased everyone out. Other films were by new-wave directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. In the latter category was an important lecture by the great naturalist Edward O. Wilson, who spoke about the biological and social evolution of humans.

Time zones and postage stampsSanford Fleming memorial sundial.

The last of the old edifices on the periphery of King’s College Circle is the Sanford Fleming Building, the heart of the social life of engineering students. It was built in 1907 and named for the great engineer who invented the division of the world into 24 time zones. He also made the first Canadian postage stamp (a beaver). A small plaque in front of the building memorializes his achievements. This elegant building in light brick and columns was almost totally destroyed by a fire in 1977, leaving only the shell of the exterior intact. It was not until 1982 that the building re-opened.

The overall impression of King’s College Circle is one of venerable Ivy League architecture, but at the same time one of oppression, perhaps because the buildings are dark, Gothic and have the feel of old-fashioned Puritanical Protestantism, even University College, which has always been secular. They seem to champion humane learning and science, yet theology and the British Empire are never far away.

Form and function

This heart of the University of Toronto grows more precious with each passing year: it is the only place in Toronto, or indeed Ontario, where such a number of buildings over a century old have been preserved and lovingly cared for, protected from developers and neglect. All these buildings are in active use as classrooms and meeting halls and offices. Thousands of people traipse through daily, giving them life and preventing them from becoming museum pieces. To all of us, but particularly the young, these structures teach us that there was a time when buildings embodied the view that important buildings should be beautiful and inspiring and should reflect the values of society. They are living proof of a time when buildings were not carefully ‘costed’ out by accountants to the last cent as they are nowadays. Lofty ornate ceilings were not thought of in terms of heating bills, but in terms of the effect of beauty and serenity on encouraging one’s dedication to the tradition of learning and the elevation of one’s spirit.
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‘Brutalism’ and rare books

To cross St. George Street is to enter a vastly different world of modern buildings – functional but lacking in charm. If University College is the epitome of intricate, ornate styles from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, its diametric opposite in its simplicity, efficiency, frugality and modular construction is undoubtedly the Robarts Library at St. George and Hoskins. I remember when it was opened in 1973, the interior of the building still smelling of concrete. The style is called, aptly enough, ‘brutalism’, or as the French say, béton brut, raw concrete. Such buildings have the look of fortresses – it was nicknamed ‘Fort Book’ at the time – and must reassure politicians that not one penny has been wasted on ornament. The exterior is triangular, again reminiscent of the star-shaped fortresses of the 17th century, a theme repeated in the interior of the building in bay windows and isosceles reading rooms and light fixtures. It was an immense improvement over the stuffy overcrowding of the old Sig Sam library. Here everything was spaciousness and light. Robarts has 14 storeys and contains about 4.5 million books, plus an annex that is home to the Fisher Rare Book Library, reached by a special elevator. You may only bring pencils into the library, no pens. Another parallel annex contains the East Asian Library, one of the best in North America.

I loved Robarts and spent years exploring its stacks, rarely disappointed when searching for even the most obscure journals and books. At that time many of the books on the shelves were printed in the 18th century or earlier. I asked the librarians about the wisdom of permitting such books to be on the shelves available to anyone (a distressing number of books were underlined and highlighted), but was told that they were not considered rare books, just old books. One day I held in my hands a beautifully printed and illustrated 17th century edition of Mlle de Scudéry’s Clélie (five volumes, 1654 – 1660), with, as a fold-out, its famous carte de Tendre, an early attempt to map the human psychology of love. It was not a facsimile, but the real thing. (It is now in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, according to the library catalogue.)

But times have changed. Here we have a 14-storey library with millions of books and journals, but in the last ten years the methods of retrieving information have evolved at a dizzying rate. Now a great deal of material is available on the Internet and one can do much research from home and access libraries around the globe. This is indicated by the University of Toronto’s circulation statistics. For example, in the period 2002-2012, the number of books and other material borrowed from Robarts Library is down just under 46% (from 2.9 million to 1.6 million). The irony is that no one could have foreseen in the late 60s when Robarts was being planned and built that technology would so alter the reader’s relation to information retrieval. There is indeed no substitute for having before you on the desk the actual printed article or book to peruse, given the often shoddy nature of electronic copies, and the absence of new material that is covered by copyright. We should be proud and delighted that Robarts Library is an important element in making Toronto a hub for scholarship and research in the humanities and social sciences.
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Gothic Revival and Amelia Earhart

Before we take our leave of the historic campus of the University of Toronto, two remarkable buildings deserve mention: One Spadina Crescent, and just across the street from it, the Borden Building.

One Spadina Crescent only became part of the University in 1972, almost exactly one century after it was built. This is the most Gothic-looking of the Gothic Revival buildings on campus, reminding me of Edward Gorey’s country estates where sinister events happen just out of sight. One can easily picture Dr. Frankenstein raising the monster toward the lightning. In fact, it housed pharmaceutical laboratories (and still does), was once the Canadian Eye Bank, and is now home of the Department of Art. During the Great War it was a military hospital, where the young Amelia Earhart treated influenza patients; later it was a barracks. Adding to its Gothic aura are two gruesome events, the stabbing death of an art professor in 2001, still unsolved, and the fatal fall from the roof in 2009 of a young woman who was ‘ghost-hunting’ with a friend.

The building was meant, like today’s Ontario Legislature Building, to occupy a dramatic situation at the end of a broad avenue. Its original purpose was as a school of theology for the Presbyterian Knox College, before it was affiliated with the University.

Just across Spadina Crescent, on the east side, is the Borden Building (1910), once the headquarters of the famous milk company (now defunct). I have always liked the color of its brick and the ivy-covered columns and stone balconies. There is something strange about the building, quite at variance with its innocent past as administrative offices for a dairy company. If someone told me it was a power station, I would be inclined to believe them. It seems to hum with a hidden energy.

The university of the future

MaRS building, U to T.Once upon a time universities made available their scientific discoveries to the public, their main concern being to advance knowledge in all fields. Those days seem quaint in our contemporary era of university-corporate deals that involve universities taking part in entrepreneurship, licensing and commercialization of inventions and partnerships with pharmaceutical companies. As a result, across North America ultra-modern laboratory facilities and state-of-the-art science buildings are mushrooming on many campuses.

MaRS (Medical and Related Sciences), at College and University Avenues, is a Discovery District where a public-private partnership has been established to commercialize medical research and technology.

The lines between government, the university and private enterprise have become blurred. The danger is that, once huge sums of money are involved, the university may lose its independence and its ability to make discoveries available to everyone instead of just those who can afford them.

Movies, Marshall McLuhan, Northrup Frye

In the summers, the sidewalk in front of the St. Michael’s College Library used to turn purple from the trod-on mulberries that had fallen from the trees that line St. Joseph St. One day I saw a priest who was a well-known scholar at St. Michael’s giving the last rites to a man on the purple sidewalk. He was surrounded by bright lights, cameras and microphone booms. It was only a scene in a movie being shot on that picturesque street and the professor had agreed to play the role.

Just around the corner from this scene is the Coach House, where Marshall McLuhan had his office in the newly established Center for Culture and Technology and where he held his Monday night seminars, famous for their intellectual energy and flow of ideas. And just next door was a rival genius, Northrup Frye, the great literary critic and commentator on the importance of the Bible to Western culture. Frye in his own lifetime had the honour of having a building named after him. And down Queen’s Park Crescent East, in one of the lovely old houses below St. Joseph Street, I remember the long conversations I used to have with an old professor about his youth in a China as equally faded in the mists of time as the University of Toronto of my youth.Building deconstruction at University of Toronto.

– Robert Fisher
Photos by Schuster Gindin

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