Designed by UK-based WilkinsonEyre Architects in collaboration with Toronto’s Adamson Associates, CIBC SQUARE is the most significant office development in Downtown Toronto since the early 1990s. The 3 million ft² complex from Ivanhoé Cambridge and Hines extends the Financial District to the blocks south and east of Union Station. Straddling the rail corridor, its twin office towers will be connected via a one-acre elevated park over the rails. With the South Tower now ready for occupancy, work is underway on the second phase, the 50-storey North Tower at 141 Bay Street, which is targeting completion in late 2024.
At the intersection of Bay and Lake Shore, the first phase South Tower at 81 Bay is 49 storeys high and 1,500,000 ft² in area, mostly office space, with some retail and restaurant space on the lower floors. The new Union GO Bus Terminal takes up much of the podium, and opened in January. To grace the office tower lobbies, the project team commissioned esteemed Toronto-based painter Steve Driscoll to bring Canada's northern boreal forest into this tower of steel and glass in an unprecedented way.
The South Tower’s vast ground floor lobby impresses with a soaring 75' high ceiling. The rear wall is clad in slabs of vein-cut travertine fabricated to generate a super scaled three-dimensional relief, itself composed of a series of repeated triangulated elements. These triangular forms are part of the underlying geometric design language running through the building, from the striking 10-storey diamond patterns of the tower facades to the diamond shapes in the entrance canopy and elevator ceilings. “The travertine is cut with opposing faces having a honed and filled finish contrasting with an unfilled and mechanically worked face. This contrast in texture and light reflectance playing across the surface of the wall gives the pattern its legibility and distinctive dynamic appearance,” says Dominic Bettison, Director at WilkinsonEyre.
Everything in the lobby emphasizes the vertical –tall elevator surrounds in dark bronze, four-storey columns, the tree-like stonework– and draws the eye up. Fittingly, the artwork also reaches to the sky. Integrated into the recess of the six elevator bays or corridors—where the ceiling drops to a still impressive 36’—are 36’ high x 9’ wide softly backlit glass panels depicting tall trees in a watery setting. The saturated colours and animated brushstrokes are appreciated close-up. Glimpses of the artwork—as tall slivers of colour interrupted by stone—can also be appreciated by passers-by on the street.
The large-scale artwork was envisioned by Driscoll, whose work figures prominently in large public-facing spaces such as banks, hospitals, and is frequently featured at Angell Gallery in Toronto. “The lobby has a tree-like structure and there is this sense that the repetitive forms of these super tall trees are holding up the building,” says Driscoll. Echoing familiar Ontario forest scenes of red pine and cedars, are luminous panels of red, cyan, magenta, orange, wisps of green with dark deep shadows.
It was technically challenging to create and install these oversized works. The process, which could only be described as exploratory, has injected an element of magic into the space. After experimenting across media, sizes, scales, and collaborating with commercial photographers and printers, Driscoll came up with a technique that achieved the crisp colours, detail and immersive experience he was after. “It was like a giant brush was used,” he said. He painted the scenes onto large plastic panels with urethane tinged with oil paints. This was followed by a month-long digitization process: taking close-up images of every inch of the artwork and then stitching them together to create one incredibly large file. The final images were then printed onto extra clear (low iron) glass using a large format UV inkjet printer with extremely high resolution (up to 1,500 dpi). The glass was then laminated onto a second piece of glass, sandwiching the image between the two glass pieces. A hoist was used to lift the glass sections (6 lbs per ft²) into place and then backlit with LEDs.
In addition to the six pieces in the main lobby are six additional panels, each 16’ high x 9’ wide, on the 4th floor ‘sky lobby’. And here, the perspective changes. “It’s like being in a tree house” says Driscoll. “Rather than looking forward towards the horizon line, crank your head back and look up. It's a sort of whimsical and intimate view of inside of a forest canopy.”
To have public art integrated into the urban environment, our public realm, and in one of the highest trafficked areas in the country next to Union Station is a transformative thing. The main lobby is part of the public domain, and the fourth floor—which connects to all bridges—provides another opportunity for people to happen upon Driscoll’s art. While commuters, tourists and travellers find themselves navigating these spaces, the artwork is a thoughtful and necessary connection to our uniquely Canadian environment beyond the 401, which we’re all appreciating now more than ever.
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