UrbanToronto: Welcome to the Brand-New Fort York Visitor Centre
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UrbanToronto: Welcome to the Brand-New Fort York Visitor Centre

The 24,000-square-foot centre is both a gateway and an interpretative hub for the Fort York National Historic Site.

The development, design, and history of building projects, brought to you by UrbanToronto.ca.

Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

The official opening of the Fort York Visitor Centre was held on September 19. By most definitions, Toronto’s newest attraction, which is embedded into the ground, makes a bold statement whilst being minimally intrusive. The project is the result of a collaborative partnership between two design firms, Patkau Architects, an innovative studio based in Vancouver, and local associate architects Kearns Mancini.

“Right from the beginning, my feeling was that it could not be a little building sitting here, because it would just look trivial beneath the Gardiner,” says architect Patricia Patkau. “Somehow it had to take on a different persona, like a landscape.”

Exhibit gallery with “The Vault” in the background. Photo by Stephanie Calvet.

Built in 1793, Fort York, now a National Historic Site, is known as the location where the Battle of York came to its violent climax in 1813 during the War of 1812. Today it is home to one of the oldest collections of fortifications in Canada, enclosing the country’s largest collection of 1812-era military structures within its defensive walls. While the Fort is powerful in its history, it is not in its physical presence. Characterized by low-lying buildings, on a site landlocked between roadways and rail corridors, it has been almost invisible to passersby. Many Torontonians are not even familiar with its existence.

The north edge of the Fort York Visitor Centre  Photo  by Marcus Mitanis

The north edge of the Fort York Visitor Centre. Photo by Marcus Mitanis

The Visitor Centre now changes this balance. Located on Fort York Boulevard, almost immediately below and just north of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, it acts as both a gateway and an interpretative hub for the entire 43-acre Fort York National Historic Site, considered the birthplace of Toronto. The new building is itself a key component in the ongoing restoration and revitalization of the city’s founding site, which includes not only the seven acres within the Fort’s walls but also the archaeological landscape, Garrison Common, Victoria Memorial Square, the Fort York Armoury, and Garrison Creek parkland to the east. For the architects, the building was not simply seen as a Visitor Centre but an opportunity to provide a sense of connection both historically and physically with other parts of the site.

The 23,000-square-foot Visitor Centre provides Fort York’s first secure exhibit space and enables the display of artifacts from the City’s collection that tells its 200-year story. Toronto exhibit designer Reich + Petch also had a hand in shaping the educational environment, which includes a vault designed to display iconic and light-sensitive artifacts; a 2,900-square-foot exhibit gallery; and an Orientation Theatre. In addition to permanent and changing exhibits, it also provides facilities for education, research, staff, and community use.

Head over to UrbanToronto.ca to learn more about the project.