The Official Opening of the Fort York Visitor Centre was held this afternoon. By most definitions, Toronto’s newest attraction, which is embedded into the ground, makes a bold statement whilst being minimally intrusive. The project is the result of a collaborative partnership between two design firms, Patkau Architects, an innovative studio based in Vancouver, and local associate architects Kearns Mancini.

Fort York makes its presences known, TorontoFort York makes its presences known, image by Marcus Mitanis

"Right from the beginning, my feeling was that it could not be a little building sitting here because it would just look trivial beneath the Gardiner,” says architect Patricia Patkau. “Somehow it had to take on a different persona, like a landscape.”

Fort York Visitor Centre below the Gardiner Expressway, TorontoFort York Visitor Centre below the Gardiner Expressway, image by Stephanie Calvet

Built in 1793, Fort York, now a National Historic Site, is known as the location where the Battle of York came to its violent climax in 1813 during the War of 1812. Today it is home to one of the oldest collection of fortifications in Canada, enclosing the country’s largest collection of 1812-era military structures within its defensive walls. Where the Fort is powerful in its history, it is not in its physical presence. Characterized by low-lying buildings, on a site landlocked between roadways and rail corridors, it has been almost invisible to passersby. Many Torontonians are not even familiar with its existence.

Fort York Visitor Centre, Patkau Architects, Kearns ManciniEntry to Fort York Visitor Centre, framed by a striking weathering steel panel façade. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The Visitor Centre now changes this balance. Located on Fort York Boulevard, almost immediately below and just north of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, it acts as both a gateway and an interpretative hub for the entire 43-acre Fort York National Historic Site, considered the birthplace of Toronto. The new building is itself a key component in the ongoing restoration and revitalization of the city’s founding site, which includes not only the seven acres within the Fort's walls but also the archaeological landscape, Garrison Common, Victoria Memorial Square, the Fort York Armoury and Garrison Creek parkland to the east. For the architects, the building was not simply seen as a Visitor Centre but an opportunity to provide a sense of connection both historically and physically with other parts of the site.

Architects Jonathan Kearns and John Patkau at the Fort York Visitor CentreArchitects Jonathan Kearns and John Patkau introduce the Fort York Visitor Centre, image by Stephanie Calvet

The 23,000 square-foot Visitor Centre provides Fort York's first secure exhibit space and enables the display of artifacts from the City’s collection that tells its 200-year story. Toronto exhibit designer Reich + Petch also had a hand in shaping the educational environment, which includes a vault designed to display iconic and light-sensitive artifacts; a 2900 sq. ft. exhibit gallery; and, an Orientation Theatre. In addition to permanent and changing exhibits, it also provides facilities for education, research, staff and community use.

Fort York Visitor Centre, Patkau Architects, Kearns ManciniFort York Visitor Centre Exhibit Gallery with 'The Vault' in the background. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The Visitor Centre snakes along the base of the monolithic structure that looms above. It aligns with the original shoreline of Lake Ontario, now set back some 500m, altered by two centuries of infill. Lined by a series of inclined Corten steel panels, its main facade recalls the original lake bluff, which contributed to the Fort’s natural defences. The modularity of those weathering steel panels, in considerable 8’x24’ proportions, is broken by sections of glass at building entry points.

The north edge of the Fort York Visitor Centre with the Gardiner ExpresswayThe north edge of the Fort York Visitor Centre with the Gardiner Expressway above and behind, image by Marcus Mitanis

The building’s workings are best illustrated in section. “This is sort of an ‘upside down’ landscape, in terms of its archaeology, where the visitor enters on a lower contemporary landscape and rises up into an archaeological landscape. It is an interesting inversion of how it usually happens. The history, then, is the upper landscape and the modern world is the lower landscape,” explains architect Johnathan Kearns.

Fort York Visitor Centre, Patkau Architects, Kearns ManciniCross-section through the Fort York Visitor Centre. Image courtesy of Patkau Architects.

The visitor’s procession through the building provides the visitor with the story. The immersive ‘time tunnel’, a multimedia exhibit along a gentle inclined plane that zigzags back, takes the visitor through a virtual re-enactment leading up to the Battle of York. When people emerge out of the end of the time tunnel, they are facing the Fort itself, with the backdrop of modern-day Toronto. Visitors can then explore the Fort, armed with a deeper understanding of its background and appreciation of its importance as a national historic site.

Fort York Visitor Centre, Patkau Architects, Kearns ManciniExisting Fort York site with Toronto's skyline beyond. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Hosted by The City of Toronto, The Fort York Foundation and The Friends of Fort York, the Opening Ceremonies began with fife and drum music by the Fort York Guard Drum Corps under the Gardiner Expressway. The space, sheltered by the elevated highway's concrete and steel roof, has surprisingly good acoustics, not unlike what one experiences in cathedrals, and not a hint of the traffic above.

The Fort York Guard Drum Corps perform in advance of the opening ceremonyThe Fort York Guard Drum Corps perform in advance of the opening ceremony, image by Marcus Mitanis

The musical prelude was followed by a welcoming and remarks by dignitaries, and then the ribbon cutting. Those on stage at the event included Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, Chief Bryan LaForme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Lieutenant Governor David C. Onley, Local MPP Han Dong, and several others.

Norm Kelly, Bryan LaForme, David C Onley, Han Dong, Fort York, TorontoNorm Kelly, Bryan LaForme, David C Onley, Han Dong, and other dignitaries cut the ribbon, image by Marcus Mitanis

Open—but not quite finished—visitors to the centre will find that several exhibits are still to be installed, and most of the landscaping around the centre remains to be started, let alone completed. There are remains a number of enhancements to the visitor centre which can be added as more funding becomes available. Still, there is much to see now, and celebrations continue. On Saturday and Sunday, from 12 to 7pm, at the On Common Ground Festival, the public is invited to experience a free weekend of performances and exhibitions with culturally diverse music, dance, theatre, craft-making, kidzone, community village and local food. For more information and a full schedule of events, please see link.

Stephanie Calvet is an architect and a writer specializing in architecture and design. She can be found at www.stephaniecalvet.com