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Why Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto is trapped in the jaws of bad design

The new Ripley's Aquarium of Canada is an opportunistic predator. The building faces the bottom of the CN Tower with a big open maw – its angular glass façade like the teeth of a shark, ready to scoop up schools of visitors.

Unfortunately, the rest of the structure sits in the city with all the grace of a beached shark's behind. In the middle of downtown Toronto, in a district that's rapidly changing from a dead zone to a lively mixed-use neighbourhood, this 135,000-square-foot building is an interloper – a closed box that contains a lively entertainment experience while deadening the street. An aquarium is a type of building that's fundamentally out of place in a downtown, and this one is no exception.

Located on Bremner Boulevard, the $130-million facility was built by Ripley's, which is owned by Vancouver's Jim Pattison Group, on land that belongs to Crown corporation Canada Lands Co. It replaces an open space on top of an underground wing of Toronto's convention centre.

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Built with support from three levels of government, it is being received by the city as an important tourist attraction, designed to work in concert with the CN Tower next door. The tower – which is a surprisingly cramped and uncomfortable place to visit – now has a new plaza and "entry pavilion," designed by the architectural conglomerate IBI Group. An ugly and poorly detailed shed, it belongs outside a big-box multiplex.

The aquarium is better, but not good enough. The building was designed by B+H Architects of Toronto, who offer a few different metaphors for it. According to a presentation document I received from the architects, its long, curved form, which runs east-west, resembles a glacial rock formation that's been partly lifted to reveal an ancient sea.

Patrick Fejér, the architect who led the project for B+H, offered a different story when we toured the place. "We wanted to initiate a form that pulled up the bow of the aquarium, if you will, and that disturbance has a ripple effect across the building," Fejér said. Its skin of triangular aluminum panels, he told me, evokes the scales of a fish. (A planned addition to the aquarium's north side would give the fish a sideways tail.)

Whatever you call it – this kind of architectural rhetoric is often meaningless, anyway – the building reveals itself as a machine designed purely to entertain and to maximize revenue. Start with the lobby. Once you step inside that two-storey space, with its glass façades facing east and south, you may find yourself uncomfortably hot; some of the glass is printed with a ceramic fritting, to provide shade, but it isn't good enough, even early in the morning. This space is tall, but feels surprisingly cramped. The terrazzo floors and reception desks strike the expected notes of teal and turquoise; a public art installation, a rotating fish mobile, by the artists David Rokeby and Michael Awad, looks lost here inside the shark's jaws. The lobby, the building's only public space, feels like an afterthought. You're not meant to linger. When I came back on a weekend for a visit with my family, the staff had given up on the lobby entirely – the huge lineups were being held entirely outside, hundreds of people waiting in the brisk November air. (We gave up.) That will be an interesting scene if it repeats in February.

There is no room for anything more generous. More than 50 per cent of the aquarium's floor area goes to the infrastructure that keeps it running, and the rest is packed with tanks. After tickets and turnstiles, you pass a tall tank of schooling alewife fish. Then things go dark, as winding, narrow paths take you in a circuit around the aquarium's upper level, past an array of tanks (lumpfish, rockfish), then downstairs to another level of displays before you circle back up – having seen some of the water-recycling equipment, a play area and a cafeteria – and emerge into the fresh air.

This sequence, which design-team members refer to as "the show," is designed to be entertaining, especially for children; it is clearly less pedagogical and more spectacular than a public museum exhibit. When I toured the aquarium on a weekday with Fejér, the kids and parents were visibly thrilled. My sons will love it, if we ever get in.

But we don't live in this neighbourhood, and those who do are being snubbed by the aquarium's surly mass. To some degree, this is the nature of the beast. Fejér, who has led the design of better buildings, admits the challenge: "Aquariums typically don't spend as much energy on the exterior." They are like casinos, their tanks closed off to natural light and tightly climate-controlled. A decade ago, the company had planned an aquarium for the outskirts of Niagara Falls, Ont., right next to its Great Wolf Lodge family resort.

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Instead, they wound up answering a call from Canada Lands to develop the city site as an aquarium. That decision echoes the tourist-development wisdom of the 1980s and 1990s, when aquariums were (before art galleries) fashionable attractions. It left Ripley's commissioning a large quasi-public building in Toronto, under the direction of owner Jim Pattison Jr. Pattison is the heir to his father's multibillion-dollar conglomerate, which includes signage and, among other things, fish processing.

According to Fejér, Pattison played a significant role in the design of the aquarium, and his city-building instincts are lacking. Pattison and his team advocated for entry to face the CN Tower, away from the street – and also opening it to the south so it could be visible to cars from the Gardiner Expressway. The building's biggest facade is, therefore, a sort of billboard, and its roof has a giant sign with the Ripley's logo readable from the CN Tower above.

Back on the ground, the building fits in poorly with the neighbours. The city is promoting the aquarium as part of a new cultural corridor running north along John Street, and just east is Maple Leaf Square, the Air Canada Centre arena and the high-rise cluster called Southcore: office towers, restaurants, condos and hotels, mostly of high architectural quality. You can walk out of a KPMB-designed office tower, or right out of the gate from a Leafs game, and sit down for a good glass of malbec. And what face does the aquarium present in this direction? A blank wall of precast concrete (sure to stain) and corrugated metal siding. It's like the business end of a Wal-Mart. An "ornamental" fence barely dents the massive blankness of the structure. A public art installation, still to come, will soften and enliven the corner – but not much.

All this was, in a sense, predetermined before the aquarium was ever designed. The combination of for-profit ownership and a land lease gives every incentive for the building to be selfish and self-contained. And it is; Canada Lands and Ripley's have done the city a disservice. Twenty years from now, this busy district will be even busier and livelier. People will ask, what kind of beast is this, and how did it land here?

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About the Author
Architecture critic

Alex Bozikovic covers architecture and urbanism for The Globe and Mail. He is also a staff editor at The Globe. He has won a National Magazine Award for his writing about design. More


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