Home sweet deconstructivist home

I’ve always liked the look of the outside of the TBC. From the first moment I saw it. It’s distinctive. Also whimsical. I admire it nearly every day I come to work. It’s just cool.

More than one youngish employee has expressed the same sentiment to me, a real pride in this building, at least from the outside. But old-timers never seem all that impressed. They see it as a cenotaph for the old CBC. From there, so they say, all our troubles began.

It’s hard to believe, but before the building opened in 1992, CBC Toronto was split up into more than 20 locations. We had our own fleet of cars and on-staff drivers. Before fax machines, these guys were driving around pieces of paper.

There was no doubt that moving us all into one place was a good idea, but the plan took so long to implement, by the time the TBC was finished it was made for another era. By 1992, budget cuts had decimated the regions, and we were already doing less in-house production. Patrick Watson had failed us, the government was cutting us, and yet we had this brand-new state of the art production facility that no one seemed to be able to put a final price tag on and we couldn’t hope to fill.

I love the outside, but to live and work on the inside is a different matter. There’s something wrong with it. How come we have windows but no light? What’s with that atrium? And why are the hallways so hard to navigate?

Renowned accessibility expert Joe Clark passed me a great article from the March 1993 edition of Toronto Life, written by Robert “Wedgie” Fulford soon after the TBC opened, called “Bad news on John Street.” It’s not available online, and I found it very illuminating, so I reprint parts of it here.

The atrium is the first major interior space a visitor encounters in the Broadcasting Centre on John Street, and it’s a perfect introduction to the building. This remarkable work of architecture, the most important cultural building to go up in Toronto since Roy Thomson Hall opened in 1982, states its true nature at the start. A heavy-handed attempt to create charm with blatant toy-store colours (like the screaming green of the gigantic elevator shaft) announces the aesthetic failure at the core of the whole enterprise, and a visitor will later find little to soften this first impression. More important, the emptiness of the atrium symbolizes the disappointed hopes and misplaced priorities that have left Toronto and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation with an aggressively unlovely and in many ways impractical building.

Ouch. Wedgie continues:

The atrium turns out to be much larger than photographs or numbers (10,000 square feet, ten storeys high) can convey, and yet it has no reason to be there. Normally an office building atrium throws natural light onto interior offices (as in the Atrium on Bay), but in this case the offices are mostly hidden behind blank walls: the natural light falls pointlessly onto a vast terrazzo floor. In some buildings an atrium also provides attractive space for stores, cafes and exhibitions — but the Broadcasting Centre atrium has little of that sort, either. It spectacularly illustrates the central principle of modern design, but in reverse: plenty of form, no function.

The architects aren’t total idiots; they didn’t plan it this way. They designed interior windows, so that many employees who are not important enough to have outside offices would look onto the atrium- a nice second prize. But along the way, when the budget had to be cut, someone pointed out that windows cost more than walls. So most of the windows were eliminated and most of the atrium’s meaning disappeared.

When I first saw the Atrium, I assumed that this being the CBC, it was used for programming, like MuchMusic. But my first Christmas party there put that assumption to rest. It acts as an echo chamber, and without anything to absorb the sound, the cacophony is deafening.

The same scale that created the embarrassment of the atrium also produced, in the design of the interior, a nightmare of confusion. This whole structure is dedicated to the art of communications, but it can’t begin to communicate its own shape to the people who work there or visit it. It’s a cumbersome, helpless giant. When you examine the floor plans, you understand that at some point in all the years of planning meetings this project went wildly out of control.

The designers of the interior faced two major problems. Each floor covers three and half acres, a huge space to manage, and the structure (being built around the atrium) made it impossible to arrange the offices and studios in orderly streetlike patterns. So the designers instead divided each floor into nine lettered sections, with numbering inside each section: if an office’s address is 3C209, it’s on the third floor, in C section. Perhaps on paper the plan seemed comprehensible, but it created an ongoing comedy of mistakes. For weeks after moving in, people spent much of their time exchanging stories about trying to get from one office to another.

On a recent afternoon, walking the halls for a few hours, I overheard seven snatches of conversation; five of them were about the problem of finding directions. At one point I encountered a dazed young man who was talking to himself. “Now where am I going?” he asked. (A radio attached to his belt indicated he was a security guard.) A week or so after moving in, the host of As It Happens, Michael Enright, couldn’t find the way back to his office from the cafeteria. Every time he turned a promising corner he confronted a blank wall. Finally, he took the nearest elevator to the street door, pretended he was arriving for work, and started all over again.

Are Michael Enright and I the only ones to do this?

Though these annoyances demonstrate a distorted planning process, they are relatively minor when set beside the cultural problem that’s built into the centre. Broadcasters, particularly public broadcasters, intensely dislike uniformity and formality. They like variety and surprise. Many of them wear jeans and sweatshirts to work, and sometimes their offices are as messy as college dorms. On John Street the employees may appreciate the much improved studio facilities and the fact that all CBC departments are in one place (rather than scattered around the city, as they were for decades).

But the match between people and environment doesn’t work, and many who use the building appear to feel discomfort. It’s as if the entire University of Toronto faculty, with all its support staff, were moved into the TD Centre.

One evidence of uneasiness is the raging paranoia that appeared among the staff in early weeks, producing a wave of rumours: the lighting damages your eyes, the electronic security-check entrances secretly monitor attendance, there’s a weapons room in the basement in case of civil disturbance, and (my favourite) there’s one toilet in the building to be used only by the Queen.

I think I know that toilet. And the weapons room isn’t such a bad idea. Although, how could any terrorist hope to navigate these hallways?

In 1978 the CBC purchased 9.3 acres of downtown Toronto, facing John Street between Wellington and Front, for $19.3 million. In the next ten years, as development pushed westward, the value of the land sharply increased. By 1987 it was worth about $160 million. That gave the CBC a chance to save money through a lease back arrangement with a developer. Rather than spread out across its site, the CBC decided to use its land densely, letting the developer put up a couple of office towers and a hotel as well as a little park next door to the CBC building. (These are still in the future.)

And that future is now. I guess they were a lot more optimistic about Toronto real estate in 1993. I’m no real estate whiz, but I never understood why we sold the land so we could rent it back again. Someone please tell me it’s the cheaper way. (9/20 – commenter “SP” has more on this ~O)

The TBC was designed by Philip Johnson, an early proponent of the modernist style, who called his creation “deconstructivist.” His most controversial work is the Sony building in New York, for its goofy dresser-drawer top. At the time he called the TBC his “most daring” building to date. But at this point in history, it’s not on anyone’s list of favourite works, even their list of favourite works by Philip Johnson.

So did we get ripped off?

Here’s what his partner, John Burgee, had to say about how they came up with the design for the outside:

“We created a very bright red secondary grid as a fine line that penetrated behind the super grid to further break down the scale and mass of the building, thus making it more human.” Burgee and Johnson didn’t choose that colour all by themselves. They brought in a consultant, Donald Kaufman, of Kaufman Colour, who explains: “The red on the secondary grid strikes an important note. Red is the colour of very high intensity.”

Maybe a little. Here’s what Wedgie said:

The peculiar style of the facades amounts to no more than a banal elaboration on familiar modernist grids: a lot of grey lines and red crosses drawn for no apparent reason on the sides of a warehouse built to ungainly proportions. Watching the building come together over about two years, I kept wondering when the actual finish would be applied and some sort of aesthetic sense would emerge. Nothing like that ever happened.

Bah, what does he know? I still think it looks cool.

8 comments:

  1. Dwight again...
    Posted September 25, 2006 at 2:58 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    The more I think about it, the more that atrium at the TBC reminds me of a certain comics logo…and I can’t believe I’m the only one who’s noticed this. Combine that with the colour scheme on the building exterior…

  2. P
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 8:46 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Too bad the entire interior is flat gloss latex beige eggshell off-white taupe…

  3. Joe Clark
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 1:00 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    OK, I guess I have now been outed as someone who slides old articles under the transom to the Tea Makers. Articles unrelated to captioning, that is.

    En tout cas, there is a way to interpret the red stripes on the exterior and the candy-coloured walls and columns inside. They’re not just modernist; they’re making use of the qualities of an extremely durable material, enamelled steel. (Note -ll- spelling preferred by Canadian Oxford.) It’s used as a signage material in super-high-end installations, or where there’s a lot of money, or where the signage has to last essentially forever. The Toronto PATH signage uses enamelled steel.

    [I was mentioning it to an esteemed colleague at CBC several years ago, saying it will last a thousand years. He pointed to a big dent in one of the green rectangles in the atrium. I didnt say you could drive a cart into it.]

    Anyway, the enamelled colours, which will be familiar to anyone who’s had to repaint an iron fence using Tremclad, are particularly saturated and partially reflective. Because of the small stippling on the surface, they glitter a wee bit.

    I have come to find it a cheery and technological colour palette, evocative of a well-designed, tidy, clean, durable future. It isn’t flat gloss latex beige eggshell off-white taupe. It isn’t woodgrain or stainless steel or travertine. It is its own category, and Wedgie Fulford is too fucking old to appreciate it.

  4. SP
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 12:07 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    On the land deal…

    Early on when I first moved into the TBC I asked a similar question of someone in the know regarding CBC’s funding of the building and the land around it. Wedgie has some of the story but like any CBC tale…there’s always more. My understanding the CBC still owns the land (correct me if that has changed in recent years). In the late 80’s when the land was at it’s maximum market value, CBC and Cadillac Fairview (the developer) came up with an idea of funding the construction of the TBC. Cadillac Fairview agreed to build the TBC and lease it back to CBC for 99 years. Cadillac Fairview was then granted exclusive development rights for a master plan which included Magic Mountain park, The Workers Comp Building plus a high rise hotel and convention facility (where the parking lot is). The lease money for the land under those developments would go back to the CBC and cover it’s part of the 99 year deal with Cadillac Fairview. The dollar amount of the TBC lease was based on what Cadillac Fairview estimated the highest possible dollar amount CBC could expect from the full development of the property (at the height of a real estate bubble). Then the bubble burst. The hotel and convention facility were scrapped, the Workers Comp Building was scaled way back, the CBC found itself on the hook to Cadillac Fairview for 99 years at a dollar amount it could never afford and a funding model that would never ever generate the amount of cash needed. One of the reasons the CBC created a VP of Real Estate was to manage the fiasco of the TBC and the black budget needed to honor the Cadillac Fairview lease.

  5. P
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 7:49 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    They used to give TBC tours, including weekly tours for schools, but I think that got axed.

    If you look on CBC.ca, the “How to” page tells you to go to the “About” section for “information on CBC Tours”. That page then takes you to the corporate site, and when you go to the “Facilities” section, no tour info.

    I don’t know if the Fulford article mentioned it, but there were originally serious plans for a theme park in the TBC basement. They considered a broadcast history museum, and even an aquarium. And a Hooters on the main floor.

    If you think the place is cool now, imagine it with sharks and boobies!

  6. Dwight Williams
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 5:36 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I’ve said it before if memory serves, but if not I’ll say it now: I’d pay good money for such a tour, the next time I visit Toronto.

  7. Barbara
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 5:11 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I think it looks cool. Thanks for the inside ‘look’ at the building.
    There was talk of giving guided tours of the building. What ever happened to that?

  8. Anonymous
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 4:37 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I,ve always heard it called the red cross building and when I’m at work , my eyes turn as red as the grid


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