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Torontoist Remembers: Aeroquay One

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It’s been demolished for two years now, but the old Terminal 1 at Toronto’s international airport was once world-renowned for its futuristic and innovative design. State-of-the-art when opened on February 28, 1964, it was obsolete only a decade later as jet travel became commonplace. Known as Aeroquay One, the inventive terminal would process 1400 passengers per hour.


aeroquay_drawing.jpgAfter World War II, passenger air travel grew at double-digit rates over the next fifteen years. The 1950s not only brought a new era of prosperity, but also the turbo-prop aircraft and soon after, transatlantic travel and jumbo jetliners. Post-war aviation technology was bringing prices down while increasing the size and range of distance for passenger airplanes. Up to this point, ocean liners were the embodiment of luxury travel.
Though flying was still somewhat of a luxury for the leisure class and business traveler, airports in major cities found themselves unable to process the influx of passengers. Toronto had Malton Airport, which had been formerly used as a military training airstrip, including for test flights of the infamous Avro Arrow, but was in serious need of expansion. In the late fifties, the Department of Transport commissioned architects John B. Parkin and partner John C. Parkin (no relation) to design a new terminal for what would soon be renamed the Toronto International Airport (it became Pearson International Airport in 1984). The massive structure would not only handle an unprecedented number of passengers through its gates, but establish Toronto as a world leader in airport design.

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Aeroquay One was completed at a cost of $27.5 million, and was the world’s first circular terminal. The Aeroquay consisted of a central, square parking garage surrounded by a circular concourse with 24 gates spoking the outside of the ring. Other airports around the world were set up as long rectangular buildings where passengers had to walk extended distances to reach their respective gates. The design of the Aeroquay meant that each gate was never more than two minutes from the nine-level parking garage — a revolutionary concept soon to be replicated in new airports around the globe.
aeroquay_exterior.jpgThe exotic new terminal was also known for its architectural aspiration as a sculptural form. Its ramps were swooping and futuristic-looking and its lounges and restaurants overlooked the gates and runways through large windows. It featured the latest in modern art and furniture, appropriate for Canada’s entry into the jet age, and many elements echoed the styles of other Modernist architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.
When architect John C. Parkin took his friend Arthur Hailey for a tour, the author was so moved by the environment that it inspired his famous book Airport. The Aeroquay was considered such a masterpiece that a photo of it accompanied the Voyager spacecraft through the solar system.
Sadly, the very design that had been so acclaimed was to bring forth its obsolescence. Jets became even larger and had trouble with the limited space at Terminal 1. Passenger volume would skyrocket as fares became more affordable, and the expansion of the air freight industry added more problems into the mix. Instead of being whisked from the parking garage to the gates, passengers soon became accustomed to waiting while the airport juggled planes and schedules. Terminal 1 was one of four similar proposed designs, three of which were never built because of the need to accommodate the huge new aircraft.
To meet demand, a grungy freight depot began conversion into Terminal 2, opening in 1972. In the 1980s, the world started to become more conscious of security, so barriers were installed throughout Terminal 1 that ruined the intended passenger flow around the ring and caused even more logistical problems.
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The bright and airy Terminal 3 opened in 1991. By the time the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) took over operations in 1996, all of Pearson’s terminals had reached capacity, and by 2000, 30 million passengers were passing through the airport annually (more than half of all airline passengers in Canada).
When a massive redevelopment plan was implemented, Terminal 1 had to go. What made it difficult was the need to keep Terminal 1 open while the new facility was built around it, so a complex tangle of ramps and roads were constructed for both passengers and contractors. According to rules implemented by the GTAA, the construction could not disrupt the regular operation of Pearson despite its immediate proximity to live runways and passenger areas.
aeroquay_new_terminals.jpgOn April 5, 2004, the last flight left the terminal (Flight 862 to London) and on November 4th, the final chunk of Aeroquay One disappeared into history. Terminal 2 is next and the young Terminal 3 will also eventually meet the wrecking ball. When the final stage of the current construction is completed, Pearson will process 50 million passengers annually until the airport will need to be expanded again around 2020.
Still, the old Aeroquay remained useful for almost 40 years, moving about 218 million passengers. Airports are too often frustrating and quotidian today, but the debut of Aeroquay One marked a time of great promise when the future was as close to reality as it’s ever been, and when Toronto really could call itself world-class.
Photos courtesy of the GTAA, Canadian Architect, Air Canada and Anthony Prevezano

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