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How the Gardiner will help Fort York stand tall again

It's no easy feat to rejuvenate a 200-year-old national landmark in the shadow of a hulking concrete commuter artery.

But the ambitious new vision for Toronto's Fort York would go one step further: Incorporate the Gardiner Expressway into a re-creation of the fort in time for the bicentennial of the War of 1812, one of the formative conflicts of Canada's history.

The city announced the winning conceptual design for Fort York's visitor centre Friday - a joint project by Vancouver's Patkau Architects and Toronto-based Kearns Mancini Architects.

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It plans to build a steel version of the escarpment that defined the fort's 19th-century geography - making the 20th-century Gardiner an integral part of the design and reinforcing the visual impression that these now-tiny buildings helped defend a country.

"[We wanted]something that had some scale, that could compete with the Gardiner, or at least situate itself in relation to such a huge long, linear structure in a way that they acted together … to bring back the kind of defensive landscape that site originally was," said designer Patricia Patkau. "I would call the Gardiner a landscape."

Hemmed in by the raised expressway, railroad tracks and thousands of gleaming condominiums, once-imposing Fort York is reduced to a collection of squat brick buildings - utilitarian antecedents to an infamously utilitarian city.

New York historian and urbanist Anthony Tung, a juror on the committee that selected the winning design, said this would change the impression of utilitarianism: "The original fort looks quite imposing and it would have looked quite imposing at the time of the War of 1812. … That one winning submission was doing something of great contextual architectural brilliance, re-creating the lost imposing edge of the lake."

Right now, an art installation of undulating blue LED lights - Watertable, by Toronto artists Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak - hangs from the Gardiner's underbelly where it passes over Fort York Boulevard. Add a carpet of sea grass, as the design proposes, and you create the illusion of the lake that would have come right up to the fort itself.

"You would have totally appropriated the Gardiner Expressway and made it into an interpretive educational tool … re-creating the lost geography of Toronto," Mr. Tung said. "If it can be built as they envisioned, it actually might be something that will gain international attention because it is another excellent example of the creative reuse of old infrastructure zones."

Now it's a matter of time and money. Fort York has barely 2 1/2 years to complete intensive construction and raise the estimated $18.2-million needed by June, 2012. Although the city has pledged $5-million and the federal government will pitch in $4.6-million, the remaining funding is still up in the air.

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Deputy mayor Joe Pantalone, who heads both the visitors' centre and bicentennial steering committees, said he is confident the province will come through with the $6-million the city has requested, leaving several million dollars to the generosity of private donors.

"There is no doubt that the work will be done, because it has to be done," he said. "Fort York was where the city of Toronto was effectively born."

This is part of a far larger project to turn Fort York into a museum-site worthy of its historical significance, said Fort York museum administrator David O'Hara.

Over the next several years, the fort plans to spend more than $30-million in capital projects on infrastructure and exhibits, including artifacts - like the militia flags buried in 1813 to prevent their falling into U.S. hands - that normally don't see the light of day.

"We really want to engage Torontonians in the history of this city," he said. "This is one of our biggest challenges: We have this original, authentic 1812 site that really is the city's founding landscape. And, no, I don't think people really know enough about it. … With all the development going in around us, it's time for us to sort of take another look at the place."

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