The Fort York Visitor Center is a backlit glass structure that provides a captivating entrance to the historic site.
Fort York, located in downtown Toronto, is a 43-acre national historic site nestled near the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Since the early 1930s, it has remained relatively undisturbed, despite being surrounded by exponential urban growth. That changed with the recent completion of the Fort York Visitor Center with its advanced glass façade. The building uses a thoughtful, contemporary design to bolster visitor appreciation for the heritage and character of the fort.
Architects undertaking new-construction projects in historic settings typically adopt one of four strategies:
- literal replication
- invention with the same or a related style
- abstract reference
- intentional opposition.
The new visitor center is a contemporary structure that adopts the abstract-reference design strategy. The linearity and composition of the building is inspired by practical concerns, such as site orientation and access, as much as by symbolic factors such as the original lake shoreline the fort was built to protect.
Challenges & Solutions
Kearns Mancini Architects, Toronto (kmai.com), and Patkau Architects, Vancouver, British Columbia (patkau.ca), faced immense project challenges constructing a visitor center on a site steeped in cultural and archeological significance. Enhancing the appeal of the fort, while preserving its originality and historic foundation, posed a particular challenge. To respect the sensitivity of the site, the architects envisioned a long, linear building form, tucked underneath the massive nearby Gardiner Expressway. Submerging the new structure into the landscape would further align it with Fort York’s topography and history.
According to Dan McNeil, project architect with Kearns Mancini Architects, “The approach to the visitor center is underneath the Gardiner Expressway, which is a very large and powerful singular architectural statement, forming an almost cathedral space underneath. Rather than competing with this grandiose structure, we conceptualized a subdued yet distinct building, which metaphorically connects with the fortifications and historic tapestry of the fort. We also decided to construct a transitional zone within the proposed building, creating an ascending viewing platform.”
The Channel-Glass Choice
The original plan was to project battle-scene images on a projection/display cladding surface. That approach was not economically feasible, leading to the selection of Lamberts channel glass manufactured by Bendheim Wall Systems Inc., Wayne, NJ (bendheim.com). The material was selected for its structural capacity and light-diffusing properties and the resultant savings of more than $1 million.
McNeil remarked, “This illuminated structure seems to draw attention and activity to the site,” especially in conjunction with Toronto’s annual art festivities. An abstract form rising from the landscape became the inspiration for the glass-clad structure. The channel glass becomes a part of the architectural “ramp” that ascends from the common grounds to the upper level, creating a viewing platform to the fort. According to McNeil, “The selection of the glass was to give a sense of sculptural quality to the part of the building that emerges into the main plain of the site.”
Bendheim’s frame design removes the need for vertical metal supports, allowing walls of uninterrupted channel glass, including glass-to-glass corners in a variety of angles. Tempered safety channels, pocket-set into the frame system, create the backlit façade. High-wind-load specifications required strategically positioned mid-point wind clips to achieve continuous vertical spans as high as 20 ft. and eliminate the need for horizontal stack joints. The sloped terrace of the visitor center consists of two parallel single-glazed channel-glass systems, allowing one side of the glass wall to terminate at the terrace, while seamlessly bypassing it on the opposite side. Lighting fixtures, attached to the back of the glass system, illuminate the facade at night, producing a soft glow.
The glass also contributes to sustainability. It is made with more than 60% recycled material, including an estimated 40% post-consumer content. The material is manufactured using 100% renewable electricity and an oxygen and natural-gas-fired furnace that produces significantly less carbon dioxide than conventional architectural glass.
At Fort York, alliances were established, battles were fought, and cultures became united. The new visitor center serves as the fort’s new front door, welcoming and orienting visitors. The center contains artifacts that illustrate the history of the city, as well as educational and research facilities. Through the linear flow of the space and chronological organization of the exhibits, the building offers an immersive “time tunnel” experience that portrays the dramatic events of the War of 1812. Once through the tunnel, guests find themselves facing the fort, leaving the visitor center through two expansive, translucent channel-glass walls.