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Sumit Singhal
Sumit Singhal
Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.

Fort York National Historic Site Visitor Centre in Toronto, Canada by Patkau Architects Inc.

June 14th, 2011 by Sumit Singhal

Article source: Patkau Architects Inc.

Fort York Heritage

Fort York, considered the birthplace of Toronto, is a National Historic Site. It represents the single most important cultural heritage link to British military and social history remaining in the City of Toronto. The Fort’s layered historical themes and associations with a rich archaeological past re-enforces the need for a sensitivity in design to both the existing above-ground cultural heritage resources and the below-ground archaeological resources. The larger challenge of this project is not only to present cultural heritage and preserve archaeological resources but also to contribute in making the social, military and intangible histories of this site more present and palpable.

Interior View

  • Architect: Patkau Architects Inc.
  • Name of Project: Fort York National Historic Site Visitor Centre
  • Location: Toronto, Canada
  • Software used: AutoCAD, Sketchup, Maxwell Render

Lines and Liquid Landscapes

The delicacy of Fort York as a defensive site suggests an architecture of subtle lines. Existing lines of fort walls and sharpened logs are the source of new lines in the project; lines of weatheringsteel walls, lines of docks, bridges and light. On Garrison Common, the grassed defensive moat in front of the fort and the surprisingly low bermed rampart are both quiet and subtle. They are experienced as a liquid rolling of the land, a delicate ‘wave’ but one with severe consequences. Below the Common, the foreground of the fort, seen from Fort York Boulevard, is that of a rolling grassy escarpment capped by the long horizontal line at the top of the fort wall. That escarpment is presently cut off where the Gardiner Expressway intersects the site.

Museum of Large Objects

The land west of the Armoury is proposed as an outdoor Museum of Large Objects, a museum that might include the large-scale artifacts of conflict (tanks, trucks, etc). The Parking Pier to the north of the museum has large steel doors under Strachan Avenue that close off the Old Railway Cut from the lands beyond. This door can be opened to allow a train to enter the site, joining the rail history of the site to the Museum of Large Objects. Armoury The Armoury Building offers a significant history and beautiful interior space to the City of Toronto. This proposal assumes that the Armoury (no matter what its future reuse) and Fort York will form a synergistic site of history in Toronto. Together they act as a destination precinct, enhancing each other’s offerings and attracting wider audiences than either would attract individual.

Fort York National Historic Site Visitor Centre

Urban Plaza

Between the Parking Pier and the Amoury, an Urban Plaza slopes slowly up from Fort York Boulevard. The fill currently in this location is removed. This hard surfaced space receives visitors to both the Armoury and Fort York. Buses drop off children and groups here. The Urban Plaza is on axis with the western approach of vehicles and pedestrians along Fort York Boulevard. It is a place of reception and a signifier of identity, joining the Fort York Visitor Centre with the Armoury. A new entrance to the Armoury is established on the building’s northern façade, opposite the existing south entrance, providing access directly to the Urban Plaza. At times the plaza can be closed for events, adding to the capacity of this site to host huge city-wide group events.


The site hosts a set of new ‘piers’ in the Liquid Landscape: a large Parking Pier in the Old Railway Cut, a Bike Pier, an Entrance Pier and an Events and Community Pier. All piers are raised slightly over the plane of the landscape beneath. Steel Escarpment Caught in a maze of giant infrastructure, the Visitor Centre participates in the architecture of lines and liquid landscapes of Fort York. Below the Common, the Centre constructs an escarpment of weathering-steel, an extended wall to the site, one capable of joining with the scale of the Gardiner Freeway above to form wall and roof of a new urban space for Toronto. The Steel Escarpment re-establishes the original sense of a defensive site, stretching across to meet the grassed escarpment directly below the Fort.

Fort York National Historic Site Visitor Centre

Liquid Landscape

In front of the escarpment is a landscape of liquid ‘foreshore’, a field of tall grasses and loose bushes that move with the wind. This landscape recalls Lake Ontario’s historical edge. It flows amongst a series of piers and bridges where people congregate, walk, and enjoy the facilities of the Visitor Centre. Illuminated boat-like seating float on the field of grasses providing intimate occasion. The Liquid Landscape is also a Cleansing Landscape. The run-off from the Gardiner is captured, channeled and cleaned by plants before being released as ground water. Both building and site are quiet so that they do not detract from the fort on the hill. Both gain presence by extent. They run horizontally addressing the scale of both landscape and giant infrastructure.

Wavy Mounds / Children’s Terrace

A Children’s Terrace edges the Wavy Mounds. This area introduces children to the physical delight of the Liquid Landscape. Hiding behind and between mounds children experience the protective aspects of the land as defense. The essential childhood pleasure derived from rolling down things, hiding amongst things or lying on things in various ways, adds to the delight of play. Small illuminated boat-like objects float in the Liquid Lawn forming territories for a few children to claim. Clusters of children float on the waves, greeting cyclists and visitors crossing the Entrance Bridge. The children’s play area links directly to the indoor Activity Room.

Fort York National Historic Site Visitor Centre

Entrance Bridge

A weathering-steel Entrance Bridge stretches from the doors of the Visitor Centre to the street, reaching out to the city and the distant sparkle of Lake Ontario beyond. Along one edge an illuminated bench forms both signal of entrance and seating (for people to gather, eat lunch, sit in the sun, chat).

Cafe Terrace

The Cafe Terrace overlooks the Liquid Landscape. Small piers edged with illuminated benches connect the terrace directly to the street. Pedestrians can enter the cafe across the piers. Small tables placed along pier benches augment cafe seating on the terrace.


Ghost Terraces

The outlines of former structures on the Common are projected down onto the urban site. These terraces trace footprints of an archeology that is no longer present on the site due to the construction of the Gardiner Expressway. Traces differ in surface from contemporary terraces and are inscribed with text about the ghosts of the site. Poetry, literature and ‘voices’ from the past will form parts of the text. One of the traces invades the adjacent Cafe.

Events Dock

The large Events Dock links to the Ghost Terraces and the Cafe/Orientation Room. It reaches out into the Liquid Landscape stretching from the Cafe to the Watertable Art Bay under the Gardiner. This is the dock where large-scale public events are hosted. Illuminated boat-like objects float in the liquid lawn, tethered to the dock. Party and event goers lounge in intimate groups in the floats, edging crowds on the dock.


Solid Lake

At the line of the old lakeshore, a Solid Lake emits light and reflection. The ground here has rounded reflective glass, movement-activated lighting and small mirrors embedded in it, both a surface of quiet delight and a re-enactment of the mesmerizing animation of water.

Archaeolgical Site

At the point that the land disturbed by the construction of the Gardiner ends, the lower Fort York Archaeological Site begins. Access to this site is carefully controlled. Visitors walk only on raised boardwalks to view the activities of the dig. The fascination people have with the actual work of ‘uncovering’ history adds to an understanding and appreciation of the national and local historic significance of Fort York.

Site Plan

Ghost Screen

Forming a backdrop to both urban and Common’s events, a large softly luminous screen receives ghosts. Projectors attached to the Gardiner construct large-scale images. These images will be suggestive only, shadow-like constructions: of watery landscapes, of dense flocks of migratory birds, of explosions, of hand to hand combat, of moonlight, cannons, fighting and death.

Viewing Platform

The Ghost Screen is also a topography of ramps and stairs. On exiting the Centre, visitors can choose to ascend into the Ghost Screen to a Viewing Platform. At this height, an overview stretches between Fort York and the small cemetery to the west. The viewing platform is a prime location for watching reenactment events on the Common.

Community Site

Neighbours will continue to use the flatness of the Common for play, dog walking and general recreation. The new pedestrian and bike bridge over the rail lines to the north connects across the Common, down the cut between the Steel Escarpment and the old concrete retaining wall toward the Armoury. Other bike routes connect along the north edge of the fort, under Bathurst Street to eastern neighbourhoods and the new library, and through the cemetery to the west. Neighbours approaching from the June Calwood Park crosswalk pass over the Solid Lake, up the path to the Common or along Fort York Boulevard, over the piers to the Cafe Terrace, the Children’s Terrace or events on the Events Plaza. Both the Activity Room and the Orientation Room/Cafe have their own adjacent outdoor terraces that can be sectioned-off for private use and rental. Birthdays, weddings, and other events occur alongside historical narrative. At night, the softly illuminated site and Ghost Screen encourage community events, signaling a new, safe, active, and unique urban place to reconnect with history and play-out the occasions of modern lives.

Archaeological Reversals: Oldest Site Up, Newest Site Down

The new Visitor Centre is sited below the Common. It connects directly to the city. Inside the Centre the connection from New/Down to Old/Up is central to the visitor’s experience. After being received in the Lobby, visiting the Orientation Room and the Changing Features Gallery, visitors begin to ascend. A sequence of ramps and displays link the Centre below to the Common above. Passing along the Treasury Wall visitors approach the Time Tunnel where projected images in the walls, floor and ceiling surround visitors with simulated experiences of fort life and history. Visitors exit the Centre slightly below the level of the Common in the Archaeological Viewing Trench. The northern edge of the Viewing Trench marks the point of undisturbed soil. Views of recent digs are seen at a raised ground level, presented as displays. Slightly raised boardwalks invite visitors to explore the archaeological digs. Crossing the boardwalks and exiting the field of the digs, visitors approach the defensive moat and the entrance to Fort York along the old Garrison Road.

Above, the city is partially edited out, flatness recalls purpose, structures reorient to allow for ghosts, reenactments of a past reality; evidence of time and history is presented. Below, engagement with the city is lively. Events happen. Kids hang out. Lunch is served.

Changing Features Gallery

The Changing Features Gallery is a primary reason for returning time after time to the Visitor Centre. A lively program of changing exhibits broadens the Centre’s capacity to connect Fort York to the larger histories of Canada and the world. It provides a contextualizing vehicle from which to view the significance of this site. The Gallery is generous but neutral as a setting and critically situated at the beginning of the ascending exhibition sequence to the Common and Fort York.

Time Tunnel

The Time Tunnel makes the passage from present day to ‘Fort time’. Via narration and dramatization, using audio and video, it surrounds and immerses visitors in the projected space of the past. It presents the activities and histories of Fort York. It recalls a very different time and place and readies the visitor for an authentic experience of the fort.

Special Places / Special Events

The Visitor Centre can host events at many scales. The largest event possible could occupy the whole main level with the exception of Staff Areas, the Resource Room and the Changing Features Gallery. (The bookstore is planned like compact library storage and can be compacted to secure it during large or rental events. The Activity/Multi- Purpose Room can be closed off with an acoustic curtain). Groups of spaces can be assembled at multiple scales for a variety of special occasions. The Orientation Room, Cafe, Meeting Room, Kitchen, Activity Room, Terraces and associated services can be linked or delinked as needs be.

Interior Lighting

Exhibits glow. The glass display walls of the Treasury structure public space; greeting visitors upon entrance, lining the Cafe and the Orientation Room and leading visitors up a ramp to the Time Tunnel. General lighting from slots in the concrete ceiling softly warms the space. Projections in the Orientation Room flicker through the darkened cases of the Treasury. Tracks in the slotted ceiling provide flexible, focused lighting in the Changing Features Gallery. The Time Tunnel itself is a luminous projection tube telling the stories of Fort York.

Urban Landscape Lighting

Evenings, lighting in the Liquid Landscape will be low to the ground so that there is no spillage onto the Common above. Luminous objects that are lines or points will provide seating, floating on the liquid foreshore or stretching from Steel Escarpment to city sidewalk. Focused lights attached to the north columns of the Gardiner will cause the weathering-steel wall to glow at night forming a welcoming surface for vening visitors and a backdrop for events. Low, shielded walkway lights provide dark-night illumination to all paths. The Watertable Art Bay provides a gently moving ceiling to events spaces.

Garrison Common Lighting

“Darkness is an historical condition of the fort.” On a bright moonlit night,  the lighting on the Common would be sufficient for walking to evening events in Fort York. On other less luminous evenings, the Ghost Screen can provide quiet artificial moonlight shimmering on water (recalling how much more present the lake, and the moon, would have been in the 1800’s). Low, dark-night walkway lights provide late night illumination to all paths, quiet lines of light crossing the Common and low pools of light in the archaeological digs.

Contact Patkau Architects Inc. and Patkau Architects Inc.

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Categories: Autocad, Historic Site, Maxwell, SketchUp

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