The Lambert legacy

Amid the flurry of  skyscrapers rising in Toronto, there are precious few architectural gems. The only eye-catching designs are the L Tower by Daniel Libeskind at the Sony Centre and the Absolute World condominiums – aka Marilyn Monroe – by Yansong Ma in Mississauga.

I spent 90 minutes recently rediscovering the Toronto-Dominion Centre and have decided to anoint those six buildings as Toronto’s best design. The trouble with the TD Centre is that’s been around for so long that everyone takes it for granted. It nearly didn’t happen and the fact that it exists at all is due to the vision of one man, Allen Lambert, Chairman of TD Bank from 1961 until he retired in 1978. Lambert was introduced to art and architecture by David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank when the U.S. institution sought to buy TD. The takeover was quashed by Ottawa, but Lambert began to haunt art galleries and think about design.

At the time, Toronto had seen few new office buildings for decades. Developer William Zeckendorf, who had built Montreal’s Place Ville Marie, approached Lambert in the early 1960s with plans for a concrete tower that Lambert rejected. Lambert turned instead to Cemp Investments, a Bronfman firm, a move which brought in Phyllis Lambert (no relation), Sam Bronfman’s daughter. The Bronfmans had just built a new headquarters for Seagram on New York’s Park Avenue. The architect Phyllis picked for that structure was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who was also chosen for the TD centre. In the end, New York got but one Mies while Toronto has six plus the banking pavilion in the International Style.

Until the TD Centre was begun, there was still some question where downtown Toronto would be situated: King and Bay or Yonge and Bloor. Allen Lambert made the decision. And his legacy didn’t stop there. As a Centennial project in 1967, TD bought 100 pieces of Inuit sculpture. His successor, Dick Thomson, in 1981 added another 100 works curated by the Smithsonian for an 11-city U.S. tour. The magnificent collection is displayed on the mezzanine in the South Tower on Wellington Street.

To my mind the bronze-tinted glass and black steel towers of the TD Centre look as fresh and as stunning as they did when they were completed from 1967 to 1991. Allen Lambert, who continued to be active in business until his death in 2002 at 90, used to joke that there were three ages of man: youth, middle-age and “You’re looking well.” In his case, because of his unique contribution to the downtown core, I think there’s a fourth age: eternal.

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