Photo by Roger Gillespie
Toronto Star interns crane their necks and snap pictures as Toronto Star columnist Chris Hume expounds on the evolution of bank buildings in Toronto. (Left to right) Radio roomer Dylan Roberston, one-year intern Alyshah Hasham, Chris Hume, Massey Fellow Elizabeth Bowie, one-year intern Stephanie Findlay, one-year intern Emily Jackson, one-year intern Niahm Scallan, one-year intern Josh Tapper and one-year intern Chantaie Allick.
By Vidya Kauri
Most people get a tour of their workplace when they land a new job. Toronto Star interns get to tour the city’s financial district with famed architecture critic and Star columnist Christopher Hume.
What’s to see in Toronto’s financial district? There are many tall buildings -- some quite unattractive -- with chilly wind tunnels, and bland, privately owned expanses of concrete sidewalk. Are they worth rolling out of bed to see and discuss on a chilly Saturday morning in October? With Hume for a tour guide, yes!
If you have seen Hume’s videos on thestar.com, you will be familiar with how animated he is as he talks about his five best and five ugliest buildings in Toronto. With the same level of passion, Hume delivered a fascinating history lesson that outlined the evolution of bank buildings since 1885. Bank buildings are interesting because financial institutions don’t actually create any products. The image they portray is an important part of how they sell themselves, said Hume.
With nine intrepid interns in tow and a Massey Journalism Fellow, Hume’s first stop for us was the former Bank of Montreal, now the Hockey Hall of Fame. The building, built in 1885, has an opulent façade with many hand-made ornate carvings and an inviting corner entrance. This kind of showiness was more important than creating tall buildings during that era, said Hume.
View Hume's tour in a larger map
We saw the Commerce Court North Tower built in 1930. Clearly, height was gaining prominence by this time, but the ornate carvings were also an important part of a bank’s image. The arched entrance is adorned with carved symbols of hard work like a bee and a beaver. For about three decades, this limestone-clad building, on King St. W., was the tallest in Toronto and had an observation deck which is now closed.
Another building we looked at in the Commerce Court was the West Tower designed by the famous Chinese-American architect, Ming Pei in 1972. The building is the headquarters for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
Hume said people have always been resistant to tall buildings. He said it’s irrelevant how tall a building is though -- it’s what happens at ground level that really matters.
He contrasted these two buildings with the Toronto Dominion Centre on the south-west corner of King and Bay sts. The pavilion was designed by modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe circa 1967. The opulence of the previous era was replaced with a very “formal” and consistent look. Three dark towers with bronze-tinted glass all look identical and there is nothing flashy about them – just tall rectangular towers. Moreover, the pavilion’s entrance is removed from the sidewalk by a considerable distance. This is unlike the entrances of the former Bank of Montreal and Commerce Court whose entrances spill out onto the sidewalk. The difference may be seen as an attempt by financial institutions to distance themselves from the community surrounding them. However, the nondescript exterior suggests that banks were trying to identify themselves with the common man who didn’t have the wealth indicated by gaudy facades, said Hume.
Another interesting highlight of the tour was the glittery Royal Bank towers at the south-west corner of Bay and Front sts. Hume said the gold buildings were a way of attracting attention especially because the Royal Bank missed out on being at the very heart of Toronto’s financial district at King and Bay. For the second time during the tour, Hume bemoaned the stretches of privately owned empty spaces that connect sidewalks to the bank entrances. He wished the open spaces could be put to better use, similar to how the Merrill Lynch building at 200 King St. W. houses a restaurant at sidewalk level.
When asked what his inspiration for giving us this tour was, Hume merely said that "Roger made me do it."
Roger Gillespie is AME visuals and also responsible for recruiting interns at the Star. He said he asked Hume to give the tour because Hume “can make anything sound good.” He added that Hume had been giving tours long before Gillespie joined the Star four years ago.
Gillespie, who took the tour, is right. Hume is a master story-teller who has changed the way I look at bank buildings. I can look at them with a more critical and appreciative eye knowing that their architectural evolution is an integral part of Toronto’s history, and I wonder if people working in the financial district know as much about the history of their buildings as we learned. Despite the ache from craning my neck up to see tall buildings for almost an hour, I highly recommend future interns go on Hume’s tour for his educational and insightful commentary.
The tour ended with a stop at the World Press Photo 2011 exhibit in Brookfield Place at 181 Bay St. What a treat!
Photo by Roger Gillespie
Interns (left to right) Alysha Hasham, Gustavo Vieira, Stephanie Findlay and Vidya Kauri listen attentively to Chris Hume's discourse on bank building architecture.
Vidya Kauri is a Toronto Star intern. She works in the radio room. You can find her on twitter.