Toronto Skyline History

Architectural Style Guide: Toronto

Toronto is set on the shore of Lake Ontario along the southern border of Canada. It is a young and bustling city whose downtown core is filled with tall, glazed skyscrapers. The architecture scene in Toronto is currently growing and diversifying at a remarkable rate. Outside of the skyscraper core in downtown Toronto, the city is a patchwork of neighbourhoods, ethnic and cultural diversity, and beautiful green areas. Due to Toronto's geography and soil conditions, brick is the most abundant and readily available building material proliferating across the city.

Toronto Skyline - Prayitno

A Brief History of Architectural Styles in Toronto

Now known as the financial capital of Canada, settlement posts were first set up by the French in Toronto during the mid-1750s. The early city grew up around port and manufacturing industries. The oldest architectural type in Toronto emerged with the construction of large industrial buildings by the harbour, which then continued to be developed along popular railway freight lines. As the British settled in Canada, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architectural styles began to spread through residential, commercial, cultural and factory architecture. Generally, Toronto has adopted worldwide architectural styles without too much variation, with the exception of bay-and-gable and Annex-style homes in specific residential areas.

After World War II, Toronto began to shift focus from its manufacturing and industrial industries towards becoming a financial hub. At this time modern, postmodern and the International Style of architecture developed throughout the city. By the 1970s, deindustrialization of cities was becoming popular all over the world and Toronto was no exception. Factories started either disappearing completely or being converted into lofts and condominiums. The recessions of the early 1990s and late 2000s hampered redevelopment progress in inner-city Toronto. However, as the economy has stabilized, development and construction is once again booming with numerous so-called contemporary 'starchitects' claiming recent buildings in Toronto.

Liberty Village Panorama - Carlos Pacheco

Early Industrial Architecture city centre

As mentioned, the earliest architecture in Toronto consisted of factory and industrial buildings, which built up along the harbour and freight lines from the harbour. A large cluster of Victorian-era industrial buildings have recently been redeveloped into the trendy Distillery District, slightly southeast of Old Toronto. This 13-acre site, originally a series of whiskey distillery buildings, has been turned into a popular mixed-use center filled with restaurants and boutiques. Much like developments in other harbour cities such as Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco or the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, this popular architectural restoration of 40 buildings within 10 blocks indicates a boom in heritage restoration and gentrification of old industrial architecture in Toronto.

Liberty Village - bettie xo

Georgian Style

The earlier neighbourhoods in Toronto were known as New Town and Old Town. These areas were sparsely populated, with mainly detached and semi-detached homes. In 1834, the city was split into five wards, all named after saints. At this time, larger Georgian, Edwardian and Victorian style homes were being built outside the city, however, these areas were still thought of as rural villages, homesteads and railway-based towns.

The oldest home standing in Toronto is from 1794, and the earliest Georgian-style brick homes in Toronto were built around 1800. Georgian style homes peaked in popularity amongst elite Torontonians during the 1820s. This architectural style remained popular in Canada for longer than in the US, as Canadians were keen to hold onto it rather than adopt American or colonial-revival architectural styles. Beautiful Georgian mansions and homes can still be found in the wealthy suburbs of Bridle Path, often referred to as 'Millionaires Row', and Rosedale, both north-east of Old Toronto.

Victorian Style

The Annex, Toronto - Vitorian homes

Towards the late 1800s, the streetcar network was expanded and suburbs such as The Annex began to develop, introducing the first townhouses to Toronto. Due to necessity and smaller lot sizes, attached and semi-detached row houses, also known as townhouses, in Victorian and Annex styles became very popular. Victorian-style homes can be found in neighbourhoods including Rosedale, Cabbagetown and Parkdale.

Unique Toronto Residential Styles

Bay-and-gable and Annex are two residential architectural styles that developed in the city, and are unique to Toronto. These two styles contrast with the majority of architecture in Toronto, which tends to follow global styles without significant local variation.

A bay-and-gable home is a local architectural type developed out of the Victorian style, popular during the 1870s. These homes, often townhouses, were lower in cost and more abundant in lower-class and middle-class areas than those in the Victorian-revival style. They are characterized by their large bay windows protruding to the street and steep gable roofs. Generally, the bay window takes up more than half of the home's facade. This style became extremely popular in Old Toronto as it was well-suited to the typically narrow lot sizes with six-meter street frontages, originally established to avoid high home-taxes, which were calculated based on a building's width. The flexibility of this style to work as a semi-detached home, duplex, row house or single home has also aided in its enduring popularity.

New construction of bay-and-gable homes faded with the popularity of modernism following World War II. However, it has recently made a resurgence with new infill homes in old areas currently being constructed in the bay-and-gable style. In suburbs such as Markham, the style has been adapted to incorporate a two-car garage.

Annex style

The Annex style house is another unique architectural style developed in Toronto towards the end of the 19th century, in more wealthy areas. The suburb named The Annex directly relates to the popularity of this style. These homes include sandstone and brick, turrets, domes and plenty of ornamentation. E. J. Lennox was the primary architect attributed to the style, which combines the turrets and ornament of the Queen Anne style from Britain with American Richardson Romanesque. A home built at 37 Madison Avenue in 1887 became the exemplar for the style over the next 20 years. As the neighbourhood has diversified and become more of a student and immigrant area, many Annex-style homes have been subdivided into apartments.

The early 1900s saw an influx of immigrants to Toronto. Inner-city, lower-class neighbourhoods rapidly developed, filled with shanty-like semi-detached homes. Many of these areas began to be cleared in the mid-1920s to make way for commercial development such as office towers, hospitals and public buildings. Residents of these areas redistributed to more suburban neighbourhoods were larger mansions began to be bulldozed or converted into multi-residential apartments. The inner city remained mainly commercial until the more recent boom in multiplex construction. Most of today's neighbourhoods in central Toronto were established by 1920-1925.

Post-World War II Architecture and Deindustrialization

As the industrial era came to a close following the end of World War II, Toronto grew into a financial and commercial hub. With this change came modernism, which quickly proliferated in commercial, retail and multi-residential architecture. A highlight of this era was architect I.M. Pei's Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Commerce Court West, completed in 1973.

The International Style is a famous architectural style named after a popular exhibition in New York during the 1930s. This type of sleek modernism has proliferated all over the globe, with Mies van der Rohe being one of the most famous architects to work in this style. Like New York, Chicago and Detroit, Toronto hosts a cluster of Mies van der Rohe towers in its downtown core. The Toronto-Dominion Centre, constructed between 1967 and 1991, is now designated in the Ontario Heritage Act.

Post-World War II signaled the rise of the suburban dream in Toronto. British urban planner Sir Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement was taking hold in both the US and Canada. His utopian ideals for community-focused suburbs grew in popularity in Britain from the early 1900s but took until after the wars to reach Canada. During this time, there was a rise in the construction of bungalows, detached homes with shared commons and community areas, as well as further development of the semi-detached housing type including duplexes, triplexes and multiplex communities.

Unlike American suburbs, Toronto's remain denser with less urban sprawl. Torontonian urban planners were actively avoiding sprawl during the 1960s and 1970s, mandating smaller lot sizes and introducing more suburban apartment buildings.

While the suburbs were growing in the 1950s, more and more Victorian mansions in inner-city areas were being converted into immigrant and student housing, or bulldozed and replaced with housing projects and low-rise apartment buildings. These areas include Regent Park, Cabbagetown, Moss Park and Alexandra Park. St James Town, northeast of downtown Toronto, is one of the densest Canadian communities and includes a collection of modernist housing towers. This design is based on renowned architect Le Corbusier's park and tower ideals. The towers in St James Town include both publicly and privately owned apartments.

By the 1970s, major deindustrialization started occurring in Toronto and factories began to disappear weekly, which led to contemporary Toronto's redevelopment and gentrification boom. The 1970s also brought a major tax code reform to Canada, making condominiums more attractive to investors than rental properties. Hence, there was a major condominium boom in the 1980s, which lasted until the recession in 1990. The condominium market is booming again, with many contemporary multi-residential towers under construction in and around downtown Toronto. Further condominium construction is booming around key transport nodes, known as transport-oriented developments. These new communities are particularly popular along the Sheppard subway line completed in 2002.

Contemporary Toronto Architecture

Caperol Court

In reaction to decentralization popular from the 1950s to 1980s, inner-city Toronto has recently grown into a hive of development activity in the commercial, mixed-use and cultural architecture sectors, like this condo on Capreol Court shown above. The architecture world is eagerly awaiting the construction of Toronto-born star architect Frank Gehry's intricate and sculptural glass towers on King Street West in the Entertainment District. These towers will signal the latest in contemporary architecture styles in Toronto. Gehry also completed an extraordinary renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2008, which showcases a collection of different architectural styles from Toronto's short history.

Royal Ontario Museum

Heather Dubbeldam, principal of Dubbeldam Architecture + Design, on what makes the AGO unique in the Toronto skyline: "One of the AGO's most striking features is the Galleria Italia, which runs parallel to Dundas Street. This glass and wood facade presents a "face" to the city and offers a panoramic view of a busy urban street from within an airy, sunlit corridor. There is no artwork present in this space, and viewers are instead invited to meditate upon the context of the city itself: the houses and smaller galleries across the street, the movement of pedestrians and cyclists, the streetcars that transport us."

"One of the AGO's most striking features is the Galleria Italia, which runs parallel to Dundas Street.

This glass and wood facade to the city and offers a panoramic view of a busy urban street from within an airy, sunlit corridor. There is no artwork present in this space, and viewers are instead invited to meditate upon the context of the city itself: the houses and smaller galleries across the street, the movement of pedestrians and cyclists, the streetcars that transport us."

Heather Dubbeldam

Like Gehry, Sir Norman Foster, a British architect, is also currently working on a skyscraper in downtown Toronto. Set to be the second-tallest building in the city, this glass mixed-use tower will continue the revitalization of downtown Toronto with many other surrounding mixed-use projects. Foster & Partners also completed a stunning project at the University of Toronto in 2002, which appears as a floating box with large colourful objects in the foyer.

Another contemporary 'starchitect', Daniel Libeskind, based in New York, completed a renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum. The building has been renamed the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal since Libeskind's provocative metal-clad, crystal-shaped volumes have been added. It is one of the most popular cultural complexes in the city, and with Gehry's AGO renovation at the same time, signals a rebirth of cultural architecture in the city with renovations in the contemporary formalist style.

Royal Ontario Museum

These three international architects' formalist-style works in Toronto during the 1990s and 2000s have landed Toronto in the contemporary architectural scene. Torontonians are hiring international architects to bring renewed vigour and vibrancy to the city, at the same time inspiring a world-class group of local architects. Renowned local Toronto architects include KPMB, Shim Sutcliffe, Ian MacDonald, Bortolotto, Moriyama & Teshima, Architects Alliance and Stephen Teeple. These architects are all working in a variety of scales, from residential to institutional and commercial buildings, in modern and contemporary styles.


Toronto's architecture has evolved over the years due to a combination of necessity and artistic expression, reflecting influences from many other countries as well as demonstrating an original Torontonian style. But this evolution has not resulted in an erasure of history - the restoration seen in the Distillery District has allowed Toronto's industrial past to remain visible, while becoming a trendy new area of gentrification. Similarly, Bridle Path and Rosedale still retain homes in the Georgian style, while Victoriana can be found alive and well in areas such as Cabbagetown and Parkdale. The city's downtown area meanwhile has seen a growth in towers, in the International Style, and condominiums, particularly around key transport links. The bay-and-gable and Annex styles, however, are an architectural nuance which can be said to be truly Torontonian, large bay windows and steep gable roofs, and homes adorned with turrets, domes and other ornamentation an early sign that Toronto was becoming a hub of architectural creativity. And this creativity continues today - living on in Toronto's host of renowned 'starchitects' such as Frank Gehry, and visible in awe-inspiring projects such as the renovations of the AGO and the Royal Ontario Museum.

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