OCAD University

OCAD University’s physical evolution


From a small building on King Street West to the iconic Sharp Centre for Design

By Christopher Hume; originally published in OCAD University's 135th anniversary edition of Sketch magazine. Archival photos courtesy of OCAD University's Dorothy H. Hoover Library and Archives.

An archival photo of The Grange Building, designed by former principle George Reid, dated to 1921.
The Grange (1921)

Only a tiny handful of buildings have the power to change a city, or at least the way it is perceived. In Toronto, the Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD University is one of them.

Designed by award-winning British architect Will Alsop, this unique structure is known around the world. Since it opened in 2004, pictures of this remarkable facility have circulated widely. In the process, they have raised awareness of the school and created a new image of Toronto as a city willing to be bold, take risks and think outside the grid—if not the box.

An archival photo of The Normal School, dated to 1912.

Normal School (1912)
Sitting on a series of 12 brightly coloured steel "stilts" 11 storeys (26 metres) above street level, the Sharp Centre redefined OCAD U and with it, art school architecture. Though controversial at the time, Alsop's "flying tabletop," as it's known locally, has quickly become a Toronto icon. Not everyone loves it, but no one denies it has had a tremendously positive influence on the city and has helped bring a notoriously conservative community into the 21st century.

Of course, the Sharp Centre is just one of a number of architectural episodes that comprise the history of the school. Indeed, OCAD U's story is one that mirrors not just changing attitudes to the city, but also to art and art education.

When the institution was founded in 1876, as the Ontario School of Art, it was housed in a building at 14 King Street West that has long since disappeared. Needless to say, back then the city was a much smaller place and residents' ability to get around it was limited. In other words, things had to be close or they were inaccessible.

An archival photo of the McCaul streetcar loop, dated to 1929.
McCaul Street loop at Grange Park (1929)

By 1882, the faculty had become part of the Department of Education and moved to the Normal School complex, now incorporated by Ryerson University. It too was situated well within the heart of the city, an indication both of the city's inherent understanding of the importance of art and also of art education.

After that, the school seems to have changed locations and names every few years. It spent time (1886 to 1890) at the corner of Queen and Yonge Streets, before going back to King Street West where it shared premises with the Art Museum of Toronto at the Princess Theatre from 1890 to 1910. At this point, it was known as the Central Ontario School of Art and Industrial Design.

An archival photo of art students with a horse at summer school in Port Hope, dated to 1924.
Summer School in Port Hope (1924)

When the theatre was torn down to make way for the expanding street grid, the school had to search for a new home once again. But it was also during this period that the Provincial Legislature passed the "Act Incorporating the Ontario College of Art." Queen's Park voted for OCA to receive an annual grant of $3,000 in addition to giving the college a free room back at the Normal School that it had vacated almost 30 years earlier.

Not until the 1920s did the institution construct its own building. Situated at the north end of Grange Park, the new premises were designed in the same Georgian style as the original Grange, which dates from 1817. When it opened on September 30, 1921, it was the first purpose-built art school in Canada.

Its appearance is a testament to the pioneering role played by George Reid, who had been appointed principal of OCA in 1920. A farm boy born in Wingham, Ontario, in 1860, he himself had been a student at the Ontario School of Art before travelling to Philadelphia and then Paris to study painting. A tireless champion of the visual arts, Reid was a pivotal figure in the history of Toronto. Best known for his murals (Old City Hall, Jarvis Collegiate and others), as well as genre paintings such as The Foreclosure of the Mortgage (1893), Reid was a tireless activist who helped to lay the foundations of Toronto's cultural infrastructure.

His struggles to have the visual arts accepted as part of the provincial education system kept him busy for decades. As he wrote in the OCA Student Manual in 1927: "Art education has been begging for a long time for its proper place in the scheme of Education as a whole, and is only now coming into its own."

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