The iconic 299 Queen West at the corner of John Street, currently known as the Bell Media Building, has recently been awarded landmark designation by the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA). Chosen annually in conjunction with the OAA's Design Excellence Awards, the Association's landmark designation seeks to identify structures that have stood the test of time and have had a profound impact on the built environment, both through their architecture and through the relationship with their surroundings. Long having been one of Toronto's most recognizable facades, the imposing 299 Queen West stands out as a unique building not just in its appearance, but also in its instrumental role in shaping the Entertainment District and Canada's music and broadcasting scenes.

View of 299 Queen West, image by UrbanToronto Flickr Pool contributor Empty Quarter

Originally known as the Wesley Building, 299 Queen West was constructed in 1913 by architects Burke, Horwood, and White, and served as the headquarters of the Methodist Church of Canada until 1959, when it became home to the Ryerson Press. The building was purchased in 1985 by CHUM, and it was subsequently converted to television and studio use. The reinvigorated building has thrived ever since, first as the CHUM-City Building before undergoing a name change in 2007 when Bell Media purchased CHUM, and has remained a catalyst of urban life in the area. Remarkably, the striking Neo-Gothic facade made of white terracotta has changed little over its 103-year life span.

299 Queen West, formerly the Wesley Building, circa 1919, image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives

OAA President Toon Dreessen explains that, "This building stood out as having all the qualities we wanted to see in a landmark building. It contributes to an urban environment, to a good business sense, and really represents what excellence in architecture is for the long term".

The award is in direct relation to the retrofit of 299 Queen West by Quadrangle Architects, which began when CHUM first purchased the building in 1985, occupying the lower three floors, and which later became an ongoing 12-year renovation beginning in 1995 when CHUM expanded to occupy the entire building. The project is seen as a key economic driver of the revitalization of Queen Street West, and a successful intervention that engaged with the public realm and brought new life to the Entertainment District.

Aerial view of 299 Queen West, image by Jack Landau

There are many things unconventional about the design approach for the building. Ted Shore, principal at Quadrangle and project manager for 299 Queen West, explains that connectivity and flexibility were key drivers of the design process. "One of the reasons this building was successful in rejuvenating the neighbourhood was because the street was part of it", Shore said. With glass garage doors at the main corner of Queen and John, and initiatives such as Speakers' Corner, Electric Circus, and the MuchMusic Video Awards, the street became very much an extension of the building, engaging the public in a way that few broadcasting facilities had done before. Typically located in fenced-off suburban locales, CHUM broke the mould of broadcasting centres by moving into the heart of the city, and opening it up to the public in a new and innovative way.

The public interaction didn't stop at the exterior. Shore explains that the interior was designed to be as much a part of the public eye as the highly visible facade of the building itself. Moses Znaimer, founder of City and client for the project, wanted to expose the hidden elements of the television industry for all to see, encouraging a greater understanding for the public as to how things worked. This meant that workspaces and studio spaces were combined to create an intimate backdrop for programs such as MuchMusic and CityTV News, and technical equipment and utilities were left exposed so that, "everyone can see how you do television, where things go and where they get plugged in". This approach was highly unconventional at the time, but has since caught on internationally.

The result of this flexible and connective approach to the design of the building is its widespread exposure to the general public. Millions of people have seen the terracotta facade, the interior spaces, or the backdrop of people strolling down Queen or John Streets as they tuned in to watch the local news, listen to their favourite music, or catch a popular event. Instantly recognizable to many Canadians, the building has defined Canada's music and broadcasting scenes as much as they have defined the building itself. As Dreessen eloquently put it, "What would Queen West be like today, what would the Canadian music scene be like today, without 299 Queen West?"

Close-up of the highly recognizable Neo-Gothic terracotta facade, image by Chris Kotsy

Shore also noted that the building is worthy of landmark status due to its precedent-setting example of reusing a heritage structure. "The best heritage approach," Shore explains, "is to understand that buildings need to have new lives to prosper, and those new identities need to have their own expression, which needs to be done in conjunction with heritage elements to support them". Additions like the garage glass doors at street level, the exposed satellite dishes crowding the rooftop, and the iconic truck bursting through the east wall of the building all point to its new use, while still allowing the historic terracotta facade to shine brilliantly as the main image of the property. All interventions were done so as to preserve the key heritage elements of the structure, and some have even become heritage elements in themselves (the truck, in need of repairs after 25 years, was requested by the City to be preserved as a popular attraction).

The iconic truck bursting out of the east facade, image by Chris Kotsy

The landmark designation of 299 Queen West recognizes a building that has had lasting effects not just in the fields of architecture and urbanism, but also in everyday life. "Architecture matters," Dreessen states, "It matters to everyone, and this is something that we at the OAA are trying hard to make everyone realize and understand". Indeed, 299 Queen West stands as proof that architecture does matter, and that it has the power to positively transform our cities, our economy, our culture, and our daily lives.