The Innis Review: Of Robarts Library

Kenneth Ip recently published in in the 2010-2011 edition of the Innis Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by Innis College at the University of Toronto. The paper, entitled “Of Robarts Library: Understanding Ugliness’ in the Architecture of the 1970s”, looks at the University of Toronto’s main library as a typical example of Brutalism in architecture and argues that the building must be appreciated beyond its mere visual aesthetics.

Of Robarts Library: Understanding Ugliness’ in the Architecture of the 1970s
Kenneth Ip
The Innis Review Spring 2011

“Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.”

– Alison and Peter Smithson

One building seems to tower over the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, both figuratively and literally. Standing at the corner of St. George and Harbord Street, the John P. Robarts Library makes its existence felt at one of the busiest intersections on campus with its bulk and mass. Composed almost entirely of concrete, the building is a distinguished example of Brutalism, a form of Modern architecture that emerged from Britain primarily after World War II in response to the assembly-line driven aesthetics of mainstream Modernism (Banham 356). This paper will try to examine Robarts beyond its mere appearance, studying its architectural qualities and historical background. Through a reading of the architect’s intent for the library, it is hoped that Brutalism and the problems associated with it can be better appreciated with respect to its historical context.

Robarts was designed by Warner Burns Toan & Lunde of New York and Mathers and Haldenby of Toronto in 1966, with construction finishing in 1978 (Friedland 477). The plan originally limited access to graduate students, faculty members, and fourth year undergraduate students, and was not open to students of all years until protests in 1973 (Friedland 477). This relaxation of policy towards access to Robarts came after the approval of the final designs, and resulted in design elements which would arguably hamper the usability of Robarts even to this day, a problem which will be discussed further on in this paper.

Standing on the north-west corner of the St. George-Harbord intersection, the presence of Robarts is felt in the sheer size of its volume, further emphasized by its material choice of concrete, which gives it a solid and heavy impression. The form of Robarts is essentially divided into two distinct masses: a top tier and a lower tier. Towards the bottom, the building is composed of giant concrete pillars, behind which rests windows to allow light into the first few floors. Above this sits a large solid volume, largely windowless save for a few thin slips of glass which protrude out from the concrete. Towards the north and south of the main block, two smaller buildings, equally robust in composition, stand guard before the library. Together, the complex signals a dominant position at the University of Toronto, impressing, or perhaps even intimidating, passersby with its vast size and heavy masses.

The entire complex of Robarts Library occupies only the south-east corner of the block, leaving grassy areas towards the back facing Sussex and Huron. The building itself allows easy access for people from the main thoroughfare, but neglects those coming from the west, forcing them to walk around the entire perimeter of the building to one of the three entrances on St. George. The placement of the building towards the south-east corner also serves an aesthetic purpose, as by doing so, the architects have placed the building in the most prominent position to be seen, an effect similar to the domes of churches such as nineteenth-century Soufflot’s Ste-Geneviève in Paris (Bergdoll 23).

Robarts, like many post-WWII Modernist buildings, is stripped of ornamentation as this was thought to be being honest to its function and building method: the building does not hide behind its ornamental features (Curtis 257). It lacks decorative motif and its treatment of concrete in its natural tone also rejects colour. However, its concrete finishing on the exterior questions whether or not Robarts really did reject ornamentation completely. The concrete slabs on the lower tier of the library run in a horizontal direction, continuing up the towers on the side of the building, while the top tier of the building features concrete treated in a vertical manner, creating a distinctive pattern. This juxtaposition of patterns suggests that the architects intended to adorn their building through materialistic expressions, a decorative element not in the traditional sense of motifs but through an articulation of the material’s properties.

A fundamental idea to Brutalism is the way in which one can read a building simply through its exterior. At Robarts the heavier, almost windowless, top section of the building clearly suggests a keep or place of storage, a reflection of the internal use of space and in contrast to the lower tier. While some argue the building’s daunting form creates a sense of unfriendliness to the public, it is precisely this character that the architects were after; the ability for anyone to be able to look at the pure mass of the building and understand it as a library due to its role as a storage for books. Although the exposed concrete faces criticism of being overly raw and distant, it was chosen due to its materialistic differences to steel, which at the time of construction was seen to create a coldness and blandness in buildings. The use of concrete, then, becomes a medium through which architects sought to reconnect their buildings with people.

The material also speaks for another humanist connection to the public, as the use of concrete suggests a cost-consciousness desire of the project to save costs in construction, important in buildings during the economic recession of the 1970s. Furthermore, despite criticisms of the bulkiness of Brutalist structures, concrete in the context of the 1970s was seen as a contrasting material to the rigid properties of steel: concrete could be moulded to the architect’s desire and could be finished in a number of various textures.

In studying Robarts Library, one cannot judge its beauty from first impressions. Many criticisms have been on their material and form: too raw and too imposing. Yet as demonstrated by this essay, these two qualities were derived purely from the context in which they were built. Robarts may appear out of context and ignorant of its surroundings, yet a sense of honesty in construction and design can be read in its materials, forms, and architectural articulation. When placed in the context of the 1970s and the architectural currents of the time, John P. Robarts Library stands as a reaction towards the mainstream Modernist architecture of the 1950s, representing the humanistic quality of honest architecture. Its form, then, is not one of intimidation, but of invitation to read function in architecture.

BANHAM, Reyner. “The New Brutalism.” Architectural Review 118.1 (1955): 355-361. Electronic.

BERGDOLL, Barry. European Architecture 1750-1890. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

CURTIS, William JR. Modern Architecture since 1900. London: Phaidon, 1996. Print.

FRIEDLAND, Martin, L. The University of Toronto: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Print.

Download the original PDF here







  1. Felicity Pickup

    A good piece of work. Thank you for adding to my understanding of this building.

    • ki

      Thanks Felicity!
      I heard there’s a new addition to the library by Diamond + Schmitt Architects that’s quite exciting in its interaction with the existing Brutalist design.

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