Toronto – A Brutalist City

Toronto – A Brutalist City

By Jon Scott Blanthorn

The Birth of Brutalism

In his book Militant Modernism, author Owen Hatherley references philosopher and architectural critic Walter Benjamin’s view that the architects of the modern heroic age—specifically those at the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier—excelled at erasing traces, enabling hope for a new world that would survive its enemies. (1) Benjamin envisioned a future where society would require physical and mental rebuilding in a manner that would “blow open the historical continuum, to reveal the latent utopia in the covered glass walkways of the past.” (2) The Bauhaus explored concrete forms but the group disbanded during WWII, splitting modernism into two camps, each with different views on urbanism. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe followed one of plate glass and industrial steel, as evident in the Minimalist framework style of the Toronto Dominion Centre built in the late sixties. Le Corbusier, however, used raw concrete, the defining material of his later works. His housing developments in Marseille and Neuilly between 1947 and 1956 were built in brick and concrete. Neither were sleek or classically influenced but were instead fortress-like with, as critic Martin Filler described it, “monastic-gravity…provoking apt references to the Medieval.” (3) These buildings were known as “béton brut“ for their exposed finish and would have a powerful influence on the Brutalists who would bring the style to Canada and, in Toronto specifically, help redefine its urban legacy. (4)

The transfer of Brutalism from Europe to the “new world” was a natural one. Mid-century Toronto had close connections to Europe, especially Great Britain. A member of the Commonwealth and a key member of allied forces in the war, Canada took its political, social and planning cues from those already tested across the Atlantic. Toronto was seeking a new architectural landscape, one more suitable to a rapidly growing city both in population and contemporary thought.

Le Corbusier’s use of concrete was, in part, practical. Global access to fossil fuels meant that architects “were freed by unprecedented energy wealth from the age-old structural limitations of clumsy stone and brick, and weak, flammable wood.” (5) Cheap energy opened the door for rapid development and advancement of reinforced concrete as a preferred building material in cities in the West and larger cities in other parts of the world. Functionally, “for the first time in history the weight of very large structures did not need to travel down in vertical walls and columns, or follow the inflexible lines of arches and vaults.” (6) Concrete’s versatility meant architects were able to create any shape and size of room, gardens on roofs, open space underneath buildings, and pedestrian walkways above street level as “building(s) could fit round the functions rather than the functions having to accommodate themselves to the normal restrictions of buildings.” (7)

New architects saw an opportunity to improve people’s lived experience by exploring greater artistic expression through such improved technologies. Britain was the leading exponent of what would become known as the Brutalist movement, where structures were built in reinforced concrete and given no specific or formal finish. British architects “sought to inject much-needed energy into the waning conventions of High Modernism, as represented by carbon copy commercial hackwork that sucked the marrow out of Mies’ ‘skin and bones’ formula.” (8) By 1951, post-war rationing had officially ended and the Festival of Britain promised new lifestyle opportunities for the growing working and middle classes wanting to break free from the bombed-out buildings of the past. Architects were embracing a new political and social agenda, often working directly with local Labour and Communist Councils in England to help meet the needs and aspirations of people living in cities. (9)

Two of the most outspoken voices within this group were Alison and Peter Smithson. The Smithsons shared Le Corbusier’s view that architects had to rebel against the establishment, both the ancient classical tradition and the current state of modernism, and make the cities of the future more human. By coining the term “the New Brutalism,” (10) they acknowledged the past’s concrete modernist functionality but distinguished their work and that of their peers by how the structures fulfilled not just functional needs but emotional ones as well. Now known as Brutalist architecture, the term became a slogan of the “toughness and primitivism of their architectural expression,” (11) where the value of a building was judged by two measures: how well it communicated its intent or vision to those who occupied it, and the degree to which this vision was livable in the contemporary world. This young group of architects aimed to build in a manner that was more open, transparent, and connected with users emotionally. (12) They pulled from a variety of contemporary intellectual fields including art theory, mathematics, sociology, and geometry, upending the old idea of private architectural practices as the source for new architecture. They expressed and shared their ideas with one another while also working for local councils, ensuring the ideas filtered down to street level. (13) While the Smithsons’ beliefs might have seemed radical at the time, their practical translation by new architects across Canada was less rebellious or overtly political and more functionally palatable and hopeful.

Image: Administration Building, Meeting Place with skylights & second, third, fourth floor walkways. University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. Image from the University of Toronto Scarborough UTSC Library

Toronto the Brutal

Toronto’s modernist identity and Brutalist character developed from the 1950s through to the early 1980s. A period of relative prosperity, the city appealed for both public and private investment, allowing considerable growth in the built environment. Toronto was still “new,” however, and did not have a deep-rooted commitment to historicism—it wasn’t quite old enough to have been dedicated to a particular architectural style, and had not experienced the same financial and material ruination of WWII as its European counterparts. Toronto was experiencing a large influx of immigrants looking to start new lives, bringing with them ideas, education and a desire to experiment. This dramatic increase in population offered opportunity for architects, planners, politicians, and investors to trigger a change to the way the city looked, functioned, and was perceived. Architecture had the power to communicate this progressive new world, and the aforementioned conditions present in Toronto at the time were ideal for the development of Brutalism in Toronto

In Canada, it took time for concrete to be recognized as a ripe investment opportunity. It wasn’t until the 1930s that people believed it had a future. However, “it took another generation before city planners, engineers, and architects recognized that cement—in concrete, blocks, and bricks—was a building material with many more applications than they had ever imagined.” (14) By the late 1950s and early 1960s, concrete workers were able to take their place amongst the building craft traditions of masonry, carpentry, and plastering. (15) When Brutalist architects came to Canada, Toronto benefited from an influx of sophisticated, skilled designers and builders. While Canada certainly had tradespeople able to use concrete, the new techniques marked a transition from concrete as a material for bridges, tunnels, and culverts, to something that could convey an aesthetic expression through buildings. It would be impossible to imagine, for example, the carefully honed, finished concrete of Toronto-born architect Irving Grossman’s Beth David B’Nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue (1959)—specifically the sculptural beauty of its exterior reliefs—had he not worked in London with the MARS group (and later in California for Rudolf Schindler). (16)

Concrete was the catalyst for the increase in building and this distinctive style, but also the material that would help separate Canada from the U.S. in this modernist transfer. One critic in the 1960s wrote, “European engineers have had as marked a preference for reinforced concrete, as Americans for skeleton steel structures.” (17) While concrete was used in the U.S., there was largely a prejudice against reinforced concrete in a nation where steel had become a powerful homegrown industry, an American material. Importantly, this prejudice did not extend to Canada “where it [concrete] was more readily accepted…on account of its proportionally larger number of immigrant European architects and engineers [who brought] their skills and preferences with them.” (18)

Concrete became the medium of modernity and Toronto architects used it liberally. The large geometric shapes of the city’s new buildings wouldn’t have been achievable with other materials and given its varied environmental conditions; concrete was considered a near perfect solution. As per the European style, Toronto’s Brutalism mainly appeared as solid forms descending below ground level, distinguishing it from examples in places like South America where warmer climates allowed for the Carioca style, “a concrete box sitting on concrete legs”. (19)

For Toronto, large-scale government, education, and office buildings became the models that demonstrated the visionary potential of Brutalism. By their nature these buildings needed to symbolically maintain stability and steadiness, and dispel notions of chaos and uncertainty within the shifting social and political infrastructure of the city. They also had to represent the forward trajectory of knowledge and academic, public, and government involvement, which is never static. The modern city had to satisfy multiple users, functions, and patterns of behaviour and engage more actively with the public. The old prototypes were feeling the strain of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse and growing population and Brutalism’s egalitarian tendencies sat well with Toronto’s institutional and political priorities. New institutional buildings could embrace new cultures and classes while also maintaining institutional dignity.

Toronto’s New City Hall by Finish architect Viljo Revell could rightfully be considered the city’s Brutalist masterpiece or, to borrow a quote from Adrian Forty’s book Concrete and Culture, “the city as a single building.” (20) It is about the interplay of open and closed spatial contrasts and areas of light and dark; it seems to protect as well as provide freedom. Its entrance, set back from the street, requiring people to enter the embrace of the two curved buildings, is welcoming. However, the outer side of both buildings, behind which lie cupboards, storage, etc., is windowless and fortress-like. Building City Hall as a Brutalist icon in the centre of the downtown core—contrasting sharply with the old locale—exacerbated the contradiction between the old and the new, echoing the call by Antonio Sant’Elia’s 1914 “Manifesto of Futurist Architecture” for “constant renewal of the architectonic environment [for which] each generation will have to make its own.” (21)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Province of Ontario was dedicated to the expansion of higher education opportunities. By the early 1960s the University of Toronto was commissioning new buildings on campuses downtown, as well as in both the east and western suburbs. While all three campuses display excellent Brutalist examples today, it is Scarborough that is notable for its cast-in-place concrete design. Australian-born John Andrews led the large architectural planning team. They chose reinforced concrete because of the speed at which the building needed to be completed. (22) The plan envisioned a zig-zag building pattern through a large tree-lined plot of land with an adjoining ravine. Cascading levels, terraced outdoor spaces, and jagged, boxed lines dominate the silhouette, leaving very few open spaces between the building and the ground.

Anyone studying at the University of Toronto quickly becomes intimately familiar with Robarts Library—a prolific research institution housing a collection of 15 million books, located in the university’s downtown campus. It is also the campus’s biggest building and was built—for a cost of $42 million—to compete with central libraries at the most respected global universities. Toronto-based firm Mathers and Haldenby completed the building in 1973, firmly establishing themselves as a prominent force on Toronto’s architectural scene. A modern cathedral of angles and points, the main theme here is the triangle, both in the shape of the plot and the architectural elements and patterns. The fourteen stories are stacked in a manner that determines “much of the monolithic form, dictating the shape of the reinforced concrete structural frame and the waffle slab floors.” (23) The exterior concrete varies between both smooth and rough textures and directionality; it is an ideal example of Brutalism. And it fulfilled its purpose: well-constructed and finished (African mahogany is used on interior details), it offered myself and other students respite, even protection from manic city campus life. The world could have exploded outside and yet we would never have known while searching for books and writing essays inside.

Just east of Robarts Library, the Medical Sciences Building by Peter Goering is a robust example of the sculptural power of concrete buildings. Goering, an American, enlisted the help of artists Ted Bieler and Robert Downin to create a façade of pre-cast concrete slabs, each with a variation of six undulating, linear patterns. (24) The design, combined with the twisting, organically shaped concrete sculptures positioned outside, makes for an overall effect that is less imposing or weighted than many Brutalist buildings of similar scale (a heaviness for which Brutalism is often criticized).

Perhaps because of the confidence it communicated, the corporate world of Toronto also took up Brutalism, including the Yonge Eglinton Centre designed by Bregman + Hamann from Poland and Canada respectively and the Bata Shoe Headquarters, a cantilevered box balancing on tree-like columns designed by Toronto born, London trained John B. Parkin. One of the most notable is the massive Manulife Centre, built above the always-busy Bay St. subway station. It is a mixed-use, 51-storey giant marked by identical and rather stoic rectangular windows. The tower is made up of precast panels affixed to a concrete frame, the result of a collaboration between varied architects, mostly RIBA trained, from England, Scotland, and Canada. (25)


Brutalist Legacy

Criticism of Brutalism is well documented. In the U.K., the style became a symbol of a lost generation of architectural expression and purpose. Architects had experimented with a Corbusian legacy of urban planning consisting of large scale housing complexes and tower blocks that were intended to shape a new way of city living. Reduced building costs appealed to municipal governments less interested in the egalitarian vision. Cutbacks to social programming and economic support in the late seventies and early eighties left sites unkempt and people remained living in structures that were simply ignored or scheduled for demolition. In the social upheaval that accompanied workers strikes and civil rights, Brutalism became an easy target for the media. As writer Owen Hatherley says, “class and politics are inextricably bound up with how a Modernist building is perceived.” (26) By the 1980s, the British political and class system would not let the social engineering experiment continue or succeed.

While it often drew disdain for being so out of context in traditionally low rise, Victorian surroundings, Toronto’s version of Brutalism was never a symbol of poor-state iconography. This may be because residential architecture in Toronto was less about larger schemes and projects and more about the high rise itself. The Manulife Building, the Collonade, and Mount Pleasant Tower are excellent examples of the Brutalist style that don’t carry the added weight of the idyllic ethos. They work because they were never developed to explore theoretically optimal living arrangements. They are made well, people like living in them, and they have been well maintained.

Toronto experimented with elements of Brutalism that were economical and efficient without the baggage, expectation, or subsequent backlash of a promised solution to social ills. In fact, many of the structures built during the era remain intact, have experienced regular maintenance, and are highly functional. Robarts Library was upgraded in 2008, with renovations to the interior to create more informal social spaces. Most significant was the overhaul of the Sears Canada Building—one of the most sculpturally arresting structures in the city with its reverse tapering, each floor extending farther out over the sidewalk. The provincial government spent $100 million on remodelling the building to maximize environmental efficiency. It has since become a case study in how older buildings can meet contemporary standards without sacrificing their original design.

Of course, when living in a city, the architectural transitions and their political context happen around you, largely unrecognized until given an opportunity to reflect. Growing up in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, the city seemed like one big playground. I had no idea at the time that these were anything more than big, adventurous, and admittedly, sometimes scary places. Oversized, futuristic buildings and spaces resembled sci-fi movie sets: skating and playing tag in the wide open space outside of City Hall; school trips that took us under the smooth dome of the Planetarium or approaching the jagged edges of the Summerville Olympic Pool; the promise of new discoveries offered by the blocks and curves of the Ontario Science Centre; and, of course, multiple rides on the CN Tower’s glass elevators. Even my local library was made up of levels connected by smooth concrete ramps, much like something from a Kubrick film. Because I was experiencing them daily, these public or institutional concrete structures embedded a distinct visual language into my understanding of the city. Its architecture contributed to my narrative of what makes Toronto unique and the understanding of how this built fabric came to be informed my experience of being a Torontonian.

Travelling around the city, I often discover Brutalist buildings nestled between the Victorian houses and neo-classic details of the past, as well as the glass and metal towers that have since flooded its skyline. These sightings remind me that not only are the buildings aesthetically striking, they are now intrinsic to the city’s personality. The contribution of Brutalism speaks to Toronto’s topographical landscape, as diverse as its population, and has helped to create a distinctly Canadian experience. It is a reminder that Toronto has never been afraid of institutional progress, of adapting to shifts in social thought and growth. I now see these structures as a reminder that the city’s openness and acceptance of aesthetic and cultural expression is daring, thoughtful, equalizing, and purposeful. For the Brutalists, their architecture spoke to the people through materials and their buildings have since become icons. (27) Brutalism was “not merely progress, but an interruption, a rupture, a break with the continuum altogether, regardless of how much it would be slotted back into it later,”(28) and I—and my city—am better for it.


(1) Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Ropley: O Books, 2008), 4.

(2) Ibid

(3) Martin Filler, Makers of Modern Architecture (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2013), 36.

(4) Graeme Stewart et al, "Why Concrete Toronto?," Concrete Toronto (Toronto: Coach House Books and E.R.A. Architects, 2007), 12.

(5) Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (London: William Heinemann, 2016), 6.

(6) Ibid., 7.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Filler, Makers of Modern Architecture, 36.

(9) Hatherley, Militant Modernism, 11.

(10) Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, 11.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Hatherley, Militant Modernism, 69.

(13) Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, 12.

(14) Author Unknown. “Canadian Building Materials,”

(15) Ibid., 9.

(16) Graeme Stewart et al, "Why Concrete Toronto?”, 12.

(17) Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture: A Material History (London: Reakton Books Ltd., 2012), 107.

(18) Ibid., 107.

(19) Ibid., 127.

(20) Ibid., 282.

(21) Manifesto quoted in Hatherley, Militant Modernism, 5.

(22) George Baird, "On Concrete Toronto," in Concrete Toronto, 43.

(23) Mary Lou Lobsinger, “John P. Robarts Library,” in Concrete Toronto, 164.

(24) Scott Sorli, "Medical Sciences Building, Toronto’s Largest Modern Sculpture," in Concrete Toronto, 154.

(25) Michael Cliford, "The Manulife Centre: 1967 to Today," in Concrete Toronto, 198.

(26) Hatherley, Militant Modernism, 9.

(27) M. Christine Boyer, “Why Do Architects Write? The Case of Team 10 and Alison & Peter Smithson,” Alison & Peter Smithson: A Critical Anthology (Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, 2011), 43.

(28) Hatherley, Militant Modernism, 6.

With a degree in history of art and architecture from the University of Toronto, Jon Scott Blanthorn has been writing about architecture and design for over a decade. As a freelance writer he is a regular contributor to several global architecture publications and is the Canadian Correspondent for InDesign in Melbourne, Australia.  While he writes about Canadian based projects for international audiences, travel also provides inspiration on buildings and movements from modern and contemporary eras.