If you have been near Nathan Philips Square recently, you may have noticed a new tower that has risen behind City Hall. It is not the tallest nor the loudest building to have been constructed recently in Toronto, but it is perhaps one of the most significant new civic additions to the city in a generation. The Ontario Court of Justice is the second high-rise courthouse in the country, rising 17 storeys and containing a total of 63 courtrooms. It is designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) and NORR Architects, and will amalgamate justice services from three different locations in the city.

As the courthouse nears completion, a new exhibition on its architects offers a glimpse into the fascinating design process that led to the building that we see today. Presented by Harbourfront Centre in partnership with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Toronto, Piece by Piece: Inside the Renzo Piano Building Workshop offers a rare and intimate look at the design processes of one the world's most renowned Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firms.

View of the 'Piece by Piece' exhibition, image by Brian Medina courtesy of Harbourfront Centre.

The exhibition presents eleven of RPBW's more notable projects, arranged in an informal setting that allows visitors to closely inspect models and photographs and flip through presentation booklets, as if they were in RPBW's studios themselves. Each project is illustrated from initial concept to final construction, beginning with a simple sketch and tracing the evolution of this sketch through the detailing of materials and construction to the final product.

Beginning with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the project that catapulted both Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to architectural stardom in 1977, through to the Ontario Court of Justice, the projects presented cross a wide spectrum of scale, context, program, geography, and time. The diverse selection includes the landmark Shard tower in London, the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, and the more recently completed Genoa-Saint George Bridge in Italy, among others, and varies from towers to bridges to institutions and museums. UrbanToronto had the pleasure of touring the gallery with Amaury Greig, Associate at RPBW, who provided some insight on the exhibition and its contents. 

View of the 'Piece by Piece' exhibition, image by Brian Medina courtesy of Harbourfront Centre.

Greig explains that the intent of the exhibition is to not necessarily be a retrospective of the firm, but instead to "try and show over the history of the office, including ongoing projects, what ties those projects together, what are the main themes and ideas" to provide a glimpse into the design principles and processes of the firm. The eleven projects, selected from over 140 completed buildings throughout their history, are diverse in their scope and scale, but tie together several themes that have defined RPBW over the decades.

One of these common themes is that consideration is given to finishing materials very early on in the design process, and the details are developed in parallel to the overall massing and arrangement of program. As Greig explained, the materiality of the building is integral to its success, and it is important that constructability be considered as the design evolves to ensure that the initial concept is fully realized. In the exhibit, material samples can be seen alongside design models and sketches, including a full-scale sample of one option for the Ontario Court of Justice's unique curtain wall construction, which, according to Greig, was selected through a process of holding samples of varying depths and textures into the sunlight on the roof of the Centre Pompidou while team members at ground level examined their various effects.

The exhibit of the Ontario Court of Justice, image by Julian Mirabelli.

Another common theme through the featured projects is the attention given to integrating the building with the surrounding public realm. Ground floor plans for each project illustrate clear intent to open the buildings up to the public and to provide as much free and open space as possible. Greig explained that ultimately, buildings are for people, so it is important that each project gives back to the public to which it serves. This common theme can be seen throughout the exhibit, from the New York Times tower which includes through-block connections and a ground-floor auditorium while placing the newspaper's offices in the podium to be more closely connected to the city, to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens, which submerges an opera house and national library below a 17-hectare public park.

View of the 'Piece by Piece' exhibition, image by Brian Medina courtesy of Harbourfront Centre.

Standing next to the original competition-winning model for the Centre Pompidou, Greig explained that this proposal was chosen among hundreds of applicants because out of all of them, they were the only ones to propose occupying only half of the site, giving the other half over to an open public plaza which today is one of the most popular public spaces in Paris. Fifty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, RPBW and NORR's design for the Ontario Court of Justice pushes the bulk of the massing to the north side of the site, leaving a significant portion open for a new public plaza. Despite their vastly different program and massing, a clear line can be drawn connecting the design of these two projects together with their shared contributions to the public realm, and the exhibition serves to highlight many of these common threads through the history of RPBW.

The original competition-winning model of the Centre Pompidou, image by Julian Mirabelli.

Piece by Piece: Inside the Renzo Piano Building Workshop can be viewed in the Artport Gallery at Harbourfront Centre until September 11. The exhibit is free to the public, and is open Wednesday to Sunday from 12PM to 6PM.

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CORRECTION: The first version of this article claimed this was the first high-rise courthouse in Canada.

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