Toronto’s New Courthouse Reveals the Limits of What Architecture Can Do

PUBLISHED July 24, 2023

Toronto’s new courthouse announces itself with a splash of colour. As you walk West from Toronto City Hall, the atrium of the Ontario Court of Justice peeks out from across the street – and behind its skin of blue glass and structural cables stands the elevator bank in a strip of vivid yellow.

It’s the most colourful bit of building in this institutional precinct, a clear sign that something special but quiet is happening here.

The Ontario Court of Justice, which opened earlier this year, is an extraordinarily refined public building. This is the first built work in Canada by international firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), collaborating with Toronto firm Norr. The building displays all the exacting details and refined proportions that helped make Mr. Piano, the Italian architect, one of the world’s most highly respected designers.

Yet the courthouse reveals the limits of what architecture can do. Its spatial clarity and sedulous details don’t resolve some issues with where it is placed. This is a spectacular execution of a flawed recipe.

The structure is, simply, massive: 72,000 square metres of space on 17 levels, including 73 courtrooms. It combines the functions of six older buildings into one, including several specialized courthouses (one is for youth and drug crimes), and an Indigenous learning centre (co-designed with Indigenous-owned Two Row Architect).

“A courthouse is a very complex machine,” Mr. Piano, 85, said on a recent call from his Paris office. “It’s not an easy place. It’s a place of suspension, a place of drama and pathos and passion. So it’s important to work on the skin of the building, to make it luminous.”

Using light – bringing it in, modulating it, distributing it judiciously – is Mr. Piano’s forte. His manipulation of daylight in art museums, including the Menil in Houston and the Whitney in New York, is unsurpassed.

He is best known for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which he designed together with another future global star Richard Rogers. After that playful masterpiece, Mr. Piano launched his own firm.

RPBW now has studios in Paris and his hometown of Genoa, and has completed major cultural buildings, office buildings and airport terminals in Europe, Asia and the U.S., including the Shard skyscraper in London. In 2017, they completed a major courthouse for the Paris region.

As is usually the case with the firm’s work, the Toronto courthouse is calm and rational. As all that glass suggests, they brought a European attitude to justice, treating a courthouse as a place for civil discourse rather than as a fortress.

“We approached it as we would any other civic building, such as a museum,” said Amaury Greig, a Canadian-French partner at RPBW who worked on the project. “Civic buildings should have a presence in the city, and they should be of the city.”

Outside, a 90-metre ceremonial spire marks the end point of York Street, emphasizing the building’s position on an axis in Toronto’s street grid. This zone has a strong institutional character. The new court neighbours two judicial buildings to its west and south: the Superior Court of Justice, a handsome limestone box from the 1960s, and the historic Osgoode Hall, which dates back to 1832.

“Our building forms a conclusion to the sequence,” Mr. Greig said.

Visitors to the building arrive through doors at the southwest corner. After passing through a security screening, they move east into the 20-metre-tall lobby, enclosed in glass, at the southeast corner. Here, stairs and escalators rise to the second floor. Those yellow elevator banks carry visitors upward past art by Indigenous artists and relics of the neighbourhood’s past as the multicultural St. John’s Ward.

The elevator bank provides a visual beacon indoors, as well. You can see the yellow from almost anywhere within the building’s corridors. This allows people to orient themselves easily – an important job, as Mr. Piano points out, in a vertical public building.

But the bright colour also speaks to the good taste and creativity of the architects. They were asked to deliver stone walls, which are traditional in courthouses for their connotations of solidity and consequence. But RPBW subverted that mandate to design the yellow wall panels, which are made of recycled granules of marble. It’s stone, sort of, but friendlier.

Elsewhere in the building, the yellow gives way to white, interspersed with panels of beechwood. Inside the courtrooms, the beech takes over. “The building becomes progressively warmer and more humane as you move inside and enter the places where the most serious moments take place,” Mr. Greig said.

But even on the exterior, the architecture has a humane quality. What looks like an undifferentiated glass facade is actually more complex. It features two layers of glass, and the inner layer alternates clear rectangular sections with 2,200 opaque embossed metal panels. Only about one-third of the facade is actually transparent. This is an effective compromise between a typical curtain wall and the typical rhythm of punched windows in a masonry building.

It is, if you hold your gaze, beautiful.

Elsewhere, Mr. Piano’s practice can be very playful. Their 2015 building for the Whitney Museum in New York is an odd fusion of factory and ocean liner, and now beloved. The Toronto building, typically for a Toronto building, is (except for that stripe of yellow) very quiet. “Some people may say this building is boring,” Mr. Piano said. “But I think it will grow over time.”

He is right. And the architectural achievement seems grander, but also more limited, once you understand the context.

The building was designed and built through a “design/ build/ finance/ maintain” arrangement. The architects partnered with construction giant EllisDon Corp. and investors to win the contract, responding to a highly detailed “specification” document prepared by the government – essentially a giant list of requirements that must be decoded, interpreted and adhered to.

Many lawyers were involved. And such a process is generally toxic to good architecture. It distances the designers from the actual users of the building. It rewards experience, not excellence.

It is amazing that RPBW was involved in this project at all.

Yet the project has problems. According to accessibility advocate David Lepofsky of the AODA Alliance, who was a member of an advisory committee on the building, the designers of the project “specifications” did not consult any people with disabilities. And their requirements baked numerous physical accessibility problems into the design.

Some of these were resolved. But of the ones that remain, some –
including a lack of way-finding and a confusing elevator system – are inexcusable.

Then there is a larger question: Is a centralized courthouse a good idea in the first place?

The Liberal government that kicked off the project, and today’s Conservative government, make similar arguments about the benefits. They cite the relative convenience afforded by centralizing the courts and related services.

However, many in the legal system disagree. Dana Fisher, head of the union local representing legal aid lawyers within the Society of United Professionals, said the six predecessor courthouses are often more convenient for those who use them.

Centralization “has made the lives of our clients, as well as victims and witnesses more difficult,” she said, “and it serves no useful purpose that we can see.”

That stands in tension with Mr. Piano’s ambitions for the building. “This is a place where people do not want to be,” he said. “This is a place where you are worried. But you find yourself surrounded by civic life. You are reminded of the social contract, that we all owe something to each other.”

A beautiful lobby and a civilized corridor can, indeed, induce such feelings. But design can’t fix everything.

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