[URBAN NOTE] “The Shell Oil Tower is a lost 1950s masterpiece”
At the end of last year, Spacing Toronto’s Chris Bateman described the too-short life of Exhibition Place’s Shell Oil Tower.
A little over 30 years ago this winter, one of Toronto’s earliest Modern buildings was pulled to the ground. When the Shell Oil Tower at Exhibition Place was completed in 1955, Toronto didn’t have any steel-and-glass downtown office towers.
The most-prominent building in the city was Commerce Court, a 24-year-old limestone-clad bank building decorated with sculpted heads representing courage, observation, foresight, and enterprise. Its reign as the Commonwealth’s tallest structure prolonged by the Great Depression and the Second World War.
The Shell tower was conceived as an advertisement for Dutch petroleum giant, Shell Oil. The company invited four architects to submit designs for an “cheerful” observation tower, but didn’t stipulate the materials, decoration, or motifs.
The blueprint submitted by architect and associate University of Toronto professor George Robb envisioned a rectangular, nine-storey column of steel and glass topped by a viewing platform and large analogue clock. A staircase spiralled up the outside and another descended within. Robb’s design was luminous and completely transparent thanks to its walls of glass.
“Exhibition architecture poses the architect a number of special problems,” wrote Canadian Architect magazine in its first issue in November 1955. “His building has to be gay, even flamboyant; it also has to withstand the concentrated assaults of crowds for short periods, and then be shut up for months on end.”