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Architectural visit of Toronto with Marianne McKenna

As the architect of Toronto’s acclaimed Koerner Hall—the crowning glory of Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music—architect Marianne McKenna reveals the five structures she’s most impressed with.

Accolades have poured in for Marianne McKenna since the 2009 opening of Koerner Hall, Toronto’s instantly beloved performance hall. Lisa Rochon wrote in The Globe and Mail that with her redesign of the Royal Conservatory of Music, of which Koerner Hall is the crowning glory, McKenna had delivered ”the largest, most significant cultural institution ever attempted in Canada by a woman.”A large claim, and it’s indisputable. The hall won the Governor General’s Medal for Architecture, and McKenna was named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women by the Financial Post in 2010. Although Koerner Hall made her name outside the architectural world, McKenna has been a prominent architect since she became a founding partner of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB) in 1987. Raised in Montréal, educated in the US (Swarthmore College and Yale), she’s lived in Toronto for 32 years. CHIC asked Marianne McKenna to name her favourite Toronto buildings. Here are her top five…


A Toronto landmark for more than 40 years, the Toronto Dominion Centre is a younger cousin to Mies van der Rohe’s enormously influential Seagram Building in New York City. Montreal’s Phyllis Lambert struggled with her father Sam Bronfman over the choice of an architect for that building and luckily she prevailed with the architect commonly known simply as Mies. The world got a new kind of office tower, and Toronto got this elegant, still contemporary ensemble. Crafted in Mies’ trademark black exterior steel and dark curtain wall, the ensemble’s distinct arrangement of two towers and a lower banking pavilion is something McKenna calls handsome. “The lower pavilion offers a pedestrian scale and transparency into banking functions,” she says. ”The towers maximize the views and lease potential for offices on the site.” The three buildings at the northeast of what Torontonians commonly call ”the TD Centre” are the original buildings; the remaining two towers have been derived from the design of the first set.

55 King Street W
Mies van der Rohe, 1964-71


The factory precinct that produced Ontario’s drink—a Dickensian neighbourhood of cobbled lanes and 19th-century buildings ranging from the Plain-Jane to the moderately fanciful—has been reborn as a place to wander, shop, eat, go to the theatre, look at art. “This enlightened redevelopment of the original site of the Gooderham and Worts distillery offers a rich mélange of heritage buildings juxtaposed with new interventions,” says McKenna, calling it ”a marvelous and very distinctive contribution to Toronto.” With 44 buildings, the coexistence of old and new was coordinated by three firms, with individual contributions by many of Toronto’s finest architects. McKenna enjoys the “preservation of the patina of time” and “the synergies between old and new buildings.” Among her personal favourites: the Jane Corkin Gallery, the Young Centre theatre and the very sweet SOMA chocolate shop.

Intersections de Parliament, Mill, Cherry et Lakeshore
ERA Architects Inc., James Goad, Cityscape, ArchitectsAlliance 2003


Lucky pharmacy students at the University of Toronto, whose building was designed by the British starchitect Norman Foster. Behind the stylish exterior, a “lab box” suspended over a 20-metre-high glass-walled lobby, there’s a space-age surprise. ”I love the two silver-clad pods that float in the interior lobby,” McKenna says. “They house teaching spaces inside, and have upper-deck lounges—very cool.” These intelligent pods seat 60 and 24 people, respectively, and are accessible to visitors. McKenna also appreciates how “legible” the building is, “with clear views into the interior, particularly at night, and a clear separation of private labs above the public space” at the street level.

144 College Street
Norman Foster and Moffat Kinoshita Architects, 2006


The Terrence Donnelly Centre and the nearby Leslie Dan Pharmacy Building are part of a 21st-century renaissance at the University of Toronto that brought big-name architects and brilliant buildings to the campus. This wasp-waisted glass tower has more than good looks going for it. As McKenna points out, it’s neighbourly: ”Its setback from the street creates an interesting forecourt as part of the public realm of the city, while it defers to the historic building to the east.” McKenna also admires the path through the main floor (open to all), which is lined with a bamboo grove. Outside, walk the curving pathway at the east of the building, admiring the jolly, primary-coloured glass and the bombe red mosaic wall.

160 College Street
Behnisch Architects and ArchitectsAlliance, 2005


Koerner Hall at the TELUS Centre for Learning and Performance, Royal Conservatory?. How could McKenna not name the hall that has won plaudits from audiences and musicians alike? (Yo-Yo Ma made a point of asking to play there, and opened the 2011 season.) “I love Koerner Hall,” she says, “because it draws on all the senses.” That includes the marvelous sound and the good sight lines. McKenna likens “the sense of engagement between the musician and the audience” to touch, and “the hall even smells wonderful—a little bit spicy. It must be the wood but whatever it is, it evokes a full sensory experience that is quite uncommon in a concert hall.” With good reason, everyone loves the rippling wooden strips on the ceiling. McKenna thinks of them as the strings of an instrument, the result of what the architect calls “design intuition… and then very hard work by the project team to pull it off!” As for taste, McKenna recommends the café between the old and new buildings. “It’s a lovely spot to chill in the city with a decent espresso.”

273 Bloor Street W.
Marianne McKenna, KPMB, 2009

By Katherine Ashenburg. Published in CHIC par Germain magazine, issue 5. Katherine Ashenburg is the author of Going to Town: Architectural Walking Tours in Southern Ontario, and she has written about architecture and design for Toronto Life.

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Germain HôtelsMay 13th, 2015
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