Photos from Toronto’s 1950’s design competition unveils the city’s alternate universe

There could have been no skating rink

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In 1956, the space now occupied by Nathan Phillips Square was a parking lot. The city was still in its infancy, having only reached a population of one million four years earlier. The decisions made from the ’50s to the late ’70s would shape the city into the metropolis it is today. Among the earliest of these decisions was the creation of a new city hall. But the city council didn’t create the design internally; instead they allowed anyone in the world to submit models for an urban plaza.


The year-long competition brought in 510 entries from 42 countries, and according to Toronto Archives was “the biggest architectural competition ever staged” at the time.


After the huge success of the competition, the submissions were narrowed down to eight finalists, most of which “showed limited variety in appearance in spite of varied backgrounds.” On September 26, 1958 Viljo Revell was chosen as the winner. It’s not hard to see why the design was chosen over numerous others, it had a distinct style, which Mayor Nathan Phillips said was “breath-taking.”



The photos of the top submissions produce an otherworldly image of what Toronto could have been, and might be in another universe.

David E. Horne

Halldor Gunnlogsson and Jorn Nielsen

William Hayward and Associates

John H. Andrews and Macy Du Bois

Frank Mikutowski with Rafferty & Rafferty

I.M. Pei and Associates

Perkins & Will

It’s amusing to imagine what the city would be like if any other design were chosen. Buildings define a city. The people who travel from all over the world to see what a city has to offer affects how the city is ultimately perceived internationally. Their experience, which will most likely consist of touring the biggest landmarks on a double decker bus, has far more impact than we perceive. The CN Tower, the AGO, and the Distillery District are just a few of the attractions that come to mind when painting a picture of Toronto.


Toronto’s image is largely due to the creativity of the time period between the ’50s and ’70s, when the population increased to two million, surpassing Montreal in the ’80s and becoming Canada’s largest city. Currently the city is known internationally for Rob Ford, TIFF, Drake, multiculturalism and the CN Tower, most of which are great things. But what the population should be more concerned with is the destruction of historical areas in Toronto, which are being cleared out with little to no resistance for poorly built, generic condos. While I have nothing against the addition of new buildings, I wish the city would take an approach similar to Stockholm. Building beautiful, design-driven architecture with the intent to preserve the city’s history and symbolism.