Agora Theatre

Open the Square

A Theatre for the City

Athens, from roughly 600 to 350 BC, located its democratic practices in two places in the city, the town square and the theatre…. The Square stimulated citizens to step outside their own concerns and take note of the presence and needs of other people in the city. The architecture of the theatre helped citizens to focus their attention and concentrate when engaged in decision making.

 — Richard Sennett, The Spaces of Democracy

Viljo Revell’s design for Nathan Phillips Square was originally conceived as a civic square, or agora, at the scale of the city. Of the finalists in the Toronto City Hall competition only his project juxtaposed an enormous void with the City Hall’s iconic council chamber. This composition resonates strongly with the twin democratic typologies of classical Athens – agora and theatre – but it also diverges from this model in two significant ways. First, in contrast to the direct democracy of classical Athens, Toronto’s government is representational. Because citizens do not participate directly in decision making, pressure is put on the public square to serve the democratic functions of both square and theatre. Viljo Revell’s original design for the square claims this dual function through its unique section, with its raised edges that focus views towards the interior. Second, while the porch, or stoa, which surrounded the Athenian agora, provided a threshold between the openness of the square and the more intimate spaces of the shops and assembly halls adjacent to it, at Nathan Phillips Square this set of defined spaces outside the raised walkway has always been missing. Revell suggests in his drawings that at least the Western edge of the square should be densely planted, but this was never realized, leaving the porch without enclosure or programmatic support.

In order to strengthen the reading of theatre and square we propose to more clearly define the interior void against a dense enclosure. Outside the stoa, we propose a forested perimeter to provide green rooms adjacent to the square. Inside it will function as both a theatre for the city, where planned and unforeseen events are encouraged, and as an open square supported by the intimate spaces at its edges. Four tactical moves will accomplish these objectives, each closely respecting the spirit of the existing building, through a complementary architectural vocabulary.

Open the square

The Peace Garden and the planting barrier on the West side of the square have compromised its flexibility as both square and theatre. While some Torontonians feel uneasy about the emptiness of Nathan Phillips Square, we assert its openness as the source of its democratic power. By removing the trees from its center, the square is left as a space of pure potential for varied interactions and events. A new stage will act as a fourth element added to the existing composition of iconic elements: the council chamber, the ceremonial arches, and the ramp to the podium. The renovated pavilion west of the pool will bundle essential support for occupation of the square under a new overlook architecturally connected to the raised walkway. The surface of the square will be animated by light, water, and stone slab seating placed on the square’s grid. In addition to the existing reflecting pool we propose a grid of nine water jets to animate and cool the surface in summer. The stair enclosures from the parking will be rebuilt in glass with recessed lighting to create beacons on the square at night. Opening the square is the key to unlocking its potential as the active center of the enlarged City of Toronto.

Program a porous perimeter with green rooms

An intimate perimeter will be formed by tree canopied rooms, the rhythm between them defined by routes to the square from adjoining paths and streets. Their varied ambience will be constructed through the juxtaposition of different elements: ground surface, tree canopy and program. Surfaces will mix hard, porous and planted ground cover. The Queen Street entry forecourt will contain a simple glass entry + bike pavilion and will be more heavily paved to allow easy entrance to the square, while encouraging occupation between smaller planted areas. On the West side, the restaurant program, peace garden and play area will be defined by greater ground cover, limestone screenings and black granite pool, and play surfaces respectively. The perimeter area will be planted with a structural cell soil system that can support a denser and more varied canopy of trees, including Basswood, Black Maple, Freeman Maple and Red Oaks and provide a strong technical solution for storm-water management. The distribution of species is a shifting mixture like the podium roof, with the distribution transforming to meet light and shade conditions. A grove of Service Berries and Red Buds highlights the Peace garden, birches fill the courtyard west of the theatre, and a single line of honey locusts lines the east and west sides of the square, each highlighting specific landscape spaces. The aggregate number of trees on the site will increase its bio-mass by thirty percent, and by sixty percent on the perimeter alone.

Activate the stoa as a threshold

The existing raised walkway around the square is the essential historical defining line of the square. The ground level should act as a sheltered space from which people emerge into the light of the square. It will have generous seating for all weather occupation of the site. The balcony above is essential to the sense of the space as theatre, giving it overlook. This will remain its primary function, but it also will have the potential to act as an intimate space for everyday activities: conversation, reading, or eating lunch. Densely planted trees on the Perimeter will provide shade and enclosure at the second level. The terrazzo plank paving will be combined with wood surfaces integrated with seating at intervals, introducing a finer grain to the architecture and providing a comfortable infrastructure for sitting and walking. South of the skating rink / reflecting pool the concrete panels will be removed from the fascia and replaced with fritted glass panels. At the stairs, voids will be cut from the walkway to lighten entrance points and increase visual connectivity with the square. The City Hall of the podium will be considered integral with the stoa + its surface will be covered with a cooling field of sedums. Finally, elevator access at the west, south and east, stair access at the stage, and ramp access from the peace garden, will double the connections between the two levels of the square.

Organize the existing architecture to bridge the threshold

The Athenian Agora was bounded by the stoa and a series of buildings that sat within it. In Nathan Phillips Square three existing architectural elements will be rebuilt to engage the raised walkway, connecting its levels and bridging between the intimate periphery and the open square. These rebuilt architectural elements will be formally reductive, reflecting the existing materiality of the square, while subtly articulating their later addition to the composition through their lightness and detail. The stage will be reconceived as a large and permanent public landscape acting as a stair and terrace, connecting the raised walkway to the square, serving as bleachers for small performances and as a stage for larger ones. It will be covered by a stainless steel mesh and glass canopy, providing permanent shade and rain cover on the square on the square and acting as an enclosure for lighting, and motorized roller blind walls. The rebuilt pavilion will also function as a raised balcony overlooking the square and is connected to a tree top restaurant perched in the canopy of the perimeter garden. This overhead crossover activates the stoa as a café patio. Finally, a transparent entry and bike kiosk marks the corner of Queen and Bay replacing the existing concrete structure with an information and bike rental desk and providing elevator access to both the parking lot below and the raised walkway above.

Furniture as architecture

Outside the stoa, all benches are reclaimed Douglas fir beams. Their linear composition resonates with the terrazzo plank paving and directs pedestrians into the square. Inside, the refurbished concrete benches are augmented by rough granite slabs, rising from the grid of the square. In and above the stoa are a set of constructed benches made of reclaimed cedar boards. These benches fold from floor to seat to back, sometimes double sided, at other moments double tiered. The slats allow the benches to dematerialize when the spaces beyond them are well lit, helping to clarify the reading of the walkway as a threshold between more intimate rooms of the periphery and the open square within.

Soil regeneration and Stormwater Strategy

Soil is infrastructure for planting, as concrete foundations are infrastructure for buildings. The immense amount of existing soil currently below ground at the Square is a public resource and should not end up in a landfill after the Square’s revitalization. We will recycle the soil, amend it and reuse it in a unique paving support system consisting of Structural soil cells that ensure soil remains uncompacted. This will provide for excellent tree growth, natural filtration of pollutants, and acts as a sponge for stormwater – the system can hold 10 times the volume of normal soil – while maintaining hard surfaces for activities at grade. Substantial plantings at roof levels and grade will maximize water retention. Excess water and surface runoff will be used for an on site irrigation system.


Trees, ground covers and roof plantings are all arranged in varied informal mosaic like field: each treed area is an informally arranged mix of trees, but the mix slowly transforms using different combinations of the 9 species, as it rings the site to suit the different exposure conditions. In this way, the canopy makes a narrative around the site that becomes more evident as the seasons change. The exception are trees inside the raised walkway which are honey locusts and distinguished by being on the grid, and the special mix of flowering trees in the Peace Garden. Similarly, at the podium level, the 15 colourful sedums and alliums in the modular roof garden system are arranged in a fine pixelated gradation, the colours associated with the shade conditions created by the city hall and surrounding towers. Ivy and periwinkle form the evergreen background for a mix of native ground covers including Canada Anemone, Wild ginger, oak leaf hydrangea, Christmas fern and bloodroot mixed in each bed.

Tree Phasing

The substantial renovations to the ground plan will necessitate the removal of most of the trees temporarily from the square in order to create the paved surfaces and regenerate the soil to provide a healthy substructure for future growth. The proposed tree groves are a mixture of natives and one hybrid, with a strong emphasis on providing shade, urban tolerance, variety of shape for winter sculptural interest, and fall colour. The tree types cover a range from very slow to very fast growing ensuring good shade coverage as the grove is evolving. Existing healthy trees will be transplanted bare root into the new design to ensure that large trees are part of the concept at the outset. As these trees reach the end of their lives, they will be replaced with the trees species as designated in our proposed plan. Thus, the new varied grove will slowly come into fruition while advantageously starting with the large size of the existing trees.

Observation Deck

The observation deck allows citizens to enjoy the interior of Revell’s towers as well as expansive views towards the west of the city. We propose upgrading the finishes and lighting and provide public washrooms in an effort to create an improved public viewing terrace and a space for receptions and events that can be booked by large groups. The design proposes two seasonal bar kiosks at each end of the long “boomerang” shape, with café style seating. The existing concrete viewing rail is overlaid with a laminated cherry-wood slab and fit out with bar stools. The bars will act as staging areas for catered events; at other times one could be opened to offer casual refreshments. The central area is maintained as an open area for viewing with raised planter beds and integrated seating. New terrazzo-plank paving and cedar decking create a warm and textured ground plane consistent with the treatment proposed at the walkway and podium levels. The existing overhead steel grating has been removed and replaced with a mullionless glass roof, allowing Revell’s sculpted concrete cantilevers to frame the sky with a minimum of visual obstruction.


The podium of the city hall building is at once part of the raised walkway system and the largest and most secluded of the square’s perimeter gardens. This landscape consists of three formal conditions: a sedum mosaic, a black granite courtyard that frames the curved chamber and a cedar deck café that occupies the prow. The perimeter garden is treated as a field in purple, pink, yellow/orange and green sedums. This ground cover is planted in a prevegetated tray system with shade tolerant species concentrated in the shadows of the City Hall’s towers. The edge of the podium is lined in a walkway paved in terrazzo planks, flush with the planting trays and interlocking with them. Wood benches complete the field, concentrating in intensity on the south side. A demountable kiosk will allow the prow to be programmed as a fair weather bar/café overlooking the square. The council chamber will float on a disk of polished black granite, which acts as a site for temporary sculpture installation. This courtyard is lit with a dispersed pattern of light columns and the sedum field is illuminated by solar tile lights recessed in the planting beds, creating the effect of a constellation of lights when seen from adjoining buildings.

The podium is connected to the square by the ceremonial ramp in the south, repaved in terrazzo concrete pavers with a reclaimed cedar skirt on its eastern edge. It links to the elevated walkway by a barrier free ramp near its north east terminus, to the Hagerman Street in the north with a large stair and to the lobby and council chamber of city hall through elevators within the existing building.

Raised Walkway

The raised walkway acts as the threshold between the open center and the treed green rooms at the perimeter of the site. This liminal space acts as the defining line of the public square. As a balcony, it introduces section and overlook completing the theatre of the city. As a roof structure it functions as a porch or stoa for the programmed spaces adjacent to the agora.

The “U” shaped walkway is reconceptualized in three zones. To the east the walkway is planted on both sides as an allee, and incorporates a substantial planting bed, acting as a raised garden floating in the trees. On the south edge the concrete railing is opened and replaced with a lightly fritted glass fascia that opens up views to the skating rink and reflecting pool. This view is supported by a two tier wood bench that allows viewers to look out over the balcony railing at the square. On the west side the walkway is heavily programmed and literally connected to the restaurant, the concession stand patio, the peace garden and the theatre.

In order to fulfill its potential as a connector to the square, significant slots are cut to bring light and views between the levels. The surface is repaved in terrazzo planks. Benches of reclaimed cedar boards sit on wood carpets, hugging the outside edge of the walkway under shade of the perimeter trees.

The porch below is occupied by double sided benches that reinforce the space as a threshold while offering a comfortable space from which to watch both the landscaped perimeter and the open square in all weather conditions.


The PATH is an important foul weather pedestrian connection from downtown to City Hall. In order to improve the current walk through parking, we have rotated the main stair to the square so that Nathan Philips Square and the entrance to City Hall present themselves to the pedestrian emerging from the PATH on Queen Street. Below grade the PATH has been shifted to be adjacent the drive aisles, providing pedestrians a safer and more pleasant journey through the parking lot. At its North terminus, near the Entrance to City Hall, stairs have been restructured to make this entrance more direct. The PATH is lined by fritted glass panels and defined by a wood ceiling as it traverses the edges of the double height sections of the garage.

Peace Garden

The Peace Garden has substantially altered Viljo Revell’s vision for the square. The current space obstructs the openness of the square compromising its potential as a theatre. We propose that an enlarged peace garden should be rebuilt to the west of the square between the raised walkway and Osgoode Hall. The garden will be organized around a long black granite pool, the water is so shallow that people can walk through the pool without getting their shoes wet. The pool is bounded by a commemorative black granite wall to the east and a grove of ornamental Service Berries and Red Buds on the west providing white and pink spring blossoms. These trees sit on a new topography that is raised to allow them to grow over a below grade mechanical space, providing a seat wall under the trees, facing the pool and at the edges of the garden. At the center of the composition a granite bridge spans the pool connecting the peace garden to the interior of the square. Running south from the bridge, a long ramp hugs the black granite wall, overlooking the pool as it rises, puncturing the wall and bridging from Peace garden to raised walkway. At the north end of the pool two shallow dishes of stainless steel float in the water: one holds an eternal flame lit with an ember from the Memorial for Peace in Hiroshima, Japan, by Pope John Paul II and the other holds water from rivers of Nagasaki.

Stage as Landscape

A new stage should be constructed as a permanent landscape and canopy on the square, while also functioning as a versatile stage for performance. The stage will join the existing council chamber, the ceremonial ramp and the three arches as a fourth defining element on the square, grounding its western edge.

The roof acts as both public canopy and stage infrastructure. A transparent glass photovoltaic roof shelters the stage from rain. On its underside the roof is clad in stainless steel mesh, shading public and performers from the sun. These surfaces sandwich a two way truss structural grid, partially concealing general down-lighting, remote controlled spot lights, motorized roller blinds to enclose the stage, and chain winches to raise and lower traveling lighting pipes or grids.

Service spaces in the back stage are concealed beneath the large public stair to the rear of the stage. Change Rooms, VIP Suite, Green Room, Crew and Production offices are directly below the stage, a half level below grade. The parking level drop off, security and service rooms are all located on the P1 level in the parking lot. All these spaces are connected to the stage by stairs and an elevator.

This new stage is a permanent addition to the square, but its flexibility allows it to transform easily from a professional stage with state of the art infrastructure, quickly and efficiently into a landscape on the square. The two tiers of the stage provide a flexible surface for double amphitheatre, or stage and chorus.

Restaurant / Pavilion

The new restaurant and the restructured pavilion form the most explicit bridge across the threshold of the square. Architecturally the two buildings connect to the raised walkway extruding the dimension of the walkway’s concrete railings in fritted glass panels as a translucent curtain on both building’s façades. Beneath this outer layer the two buildings contrast with one another: the pavilion is clad in black granite to recede into the shadows of the walkway, while the restaurant is clad in glass, transparent in the trees, but illuminated at night as a lantern to attract passersby.

The pavilion organizes essential support for the range of activities that animate the square. The roof of the pavilion is a generous terrace overlooking the square. Radiant heat extends its use to three seasons. The restaurant is a double height space, opening to a large outdoor patio toward Osgoode Hall, with a mezzanine looking east to a small outdoor seating area and City Hall. The fritted glass on its façade meets a west facing glass brise-soliel to shelter the interior from the afternoon sun.

Entry and Bike Kiosk

At the south east corner of the square is an entrance Kiosk that will replace the current stairs and elevator to the parking. This new two storey glass structure is sheltered in the heavily treed south façade of the square. It houses a tourist information and bike rental counter, encouraging visitors to see the sights by bicycle. The elevator has been enlarged and now travels from the parking to the raised walkway, connecting all the levels on the square with comfortable access to the lower level for bikes. Below grade, in the first level of parking is a steel mesh parking enclosure for 110 bicycles, a bike repair and rental shop and shower and change rooms. Bike parking will be provided at grade with posts and rings at all perimeter entry locations..

Potential of the void

We see Nathan Phillips Square as the dynamic heart of the city. It is empty precisely to accommodate the radical differences that constitute the complex cultures of Toronto. As a non-profit infrastructure for programmed cultural events, the square provides a truly democratic venue for communities without economic means to secure expensive performance space. This formalized diversity is complemented by the less predictable events that occur as people spontaneously appropriate the square for political action, relaxation and play. These layered compositions of daily activity are framed by the slow transformation of the trees and groundcover of the perimeter through the seasons and over the years. This slower perimeter zone is also a space for individual and smaller social interactions, offering intimate spaces for the emergence of minority discourses outside the exposed public spaces of the central square.

A Theatre of Everyday Life

The new stage completes the permanent theatrical infrastructure of the square. It supports organized and impromptu events, acting as a state of the art theatre for cultural events and as a frame for everyday life. Through its robust flexibility the stage can activate the square at multiple scales, as a public interior on the square, as a porch looking onto the squares activities, as a band shell for accidental audiences, as a stage for organized events, as an substrate for larger traveling shows and as bleachers from which to watch performances in other parts of the square.

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