A new online exhibition is shining a spotlight on an often ignored part of Toronto's architectural heritage: its Modernist schools. In the decades following World War II, Toronto's school boards embarked on a massive building campaign to accommodate a huge influx of new residents to the city coupled with the Baby Boomer generation that created an urgent demand for new schools. The exhibition, entitled New School: Modern Architecture and Public Education in Toronto, 1943-1975, is presented by the Ryerson University Department of Architectural Science and is curated by the Globe and Mail's architecture critic, Alex Bozikovic.

Lord Lansdowne Public School (1961), image by Doublespace Photography

The exhibition argues that these schools are not just significant in their unique Modernist architecture, but also in how they reflect new pedagogies that emerged at the time. Architects were not just experimenting with form but also with function, creating new spatial relationships that reflected new approaches in education. That legacy is still visible today in the many schools that survive, many of them unique in both appearance and layout.

Grace Street Public School (1961, now École élémentaire Pierre-Elliott Trudeau), image by Doublespace Photography

Also notable is the fact that the Modernist schools are not just restricted to one specific area of the city, but rather they dot the landscape across all six former cities and boroughs of Toronto. While new Modernist schools were built in the inner city to replace or supplement existing older schools, the suburban explosion of the postwar period also saw unique schools popping up in the far reaches of Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York as the city's boundaries expanded.

John McCrae Public School (1969) by Raymond Moriyama, image by Doublespace Photography

Supplementing the photographs and detailed history, however, is a dire warning accompanying the exhibition. Many of these schools, now more than 50 years old, have fallen into various states of disrepair and neglect. The Toronto District School Board alone has a backlog of repairs amounting to upwards of $3.7-billion as of May, 2021, and deferred maintenance and band-aid repairs have jeopardized the integrity of the Modernist schools. Many of these buildings will face the threat of demolition if these costly repairs are not addressed, much like the unfortunate fate of Davisville Public School when it succumbed to the wrecking ball in 2018. The main purpose of this exhibition is to bring attention to these Modernist gems and highlight their architectural and historical importance before it is too late.

Demolition of Davisville Public School in 2018 (built 1962), image by Alex Bozikovic

The New School exhibition is entirely online and free to access for anyone with an internet connection. It can be viewed by following this link.

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