Toronto for design lovers: Where to find architectural gems

A prayer hall, a bar and a water treatment plant are just some of the city’s most gorgeous spaces.

Aga Khan museum
Photo, Arthur Mola.

In partnership with Tourism Toronto

From the middle lane of the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto might appear to be drowning in cranes and non-descript condos, but there are plenty of architectural jewels tucked away in the city’s streets. Here are a few of our favourites.

The Aga Khan Museum

Yes, it’s a bit of a hike north to get from downtown to Don Mills, home of the two-year-old Aga Khan Museum, North America’s first gallery devoted to Islamic art. But it’s worth every minute on the Don Valley Parkway or TTC bus. To say that the museum looks like nothing else in Toronto doesn’t do it justice: It’s an incredible work of modernism, all sharp angles and gleaming white stone, positioned 45 degrees to true north so that the sun hits each surface throughout the day. The treasures inside aren’t too shabby either, with roughly 300 of the collection’s 1,000 paintings, ceramics and artefacts rotating every few months. Stroll past the formal garden, five granite reflecting pools and neat rows of serviceberry trees to get to the Ismaili Centre, a place of worship and education for Toronto’s tens of thousands of Ismaili Muslims. You’ll need to book a free tour to get in, but the light-drenched prayer hall — capped by a geometric glass dome that faces Mecca — is one of the most jaw-dropping rooms in the city and shouldn’t be skipped.

Bar Raval
Photo, Arthur Mola.

Bar Raval

Though it may be perched at the edge of Little Italy, Bar Raval is a restaurant straight out of Gaudi’s Barcelona. You’ll notice the mahogany first — tons of it, curving and twisting along the windows, walls, bar and even ceiling. Then, you might spot the laser-cut steel, as delicate as filigree to let the sunlight in. After that, you’ll probably clock that most people are standing, the better to capture a classic pintxos and tapas-bar experience (and accommodate a crowd). But Bar Raval’s considerable atmosphere is more than matched by its terrific food, which is served from 8 a.m. till 2 a.m. Come early for the breads, pastries and ham croissants; come for a lunch of Spanish charcuterie and cheese; come late at night for ambitious cocktails and Galician tinned seafood. The Basque-style cheesecake is a capital idea any time at all.

401 Richmond

Nestled among the fabric shops and furriers of Toronto’s fashion district, 401 Richmond is a sprawling, airy haven for artists and entrepreneurs. The century-old building, where manufacturers once etched lithography onto tin, now houses more than 140 designers, painters, milliners, architects, filmmakers, musicians and writers. Original wood floors make satisfying creaks as you move from gallery to gallery, and there’s a roof garden complete with a 40-foot greenhouse and quality views of the CN Tower. Be sure to pop into independent seller Swipe Design, a pretty brick-and-beam spot that specializes in books on design and architecture. (Your coffee table will be thrilled.) There are also plenty of notebooks, in case inspiration strikes, and a well-stocked children’s area complete with toys, in case a little distraction is necessary while you browse.

RC Harris water treatment plant
Photo, Arthur Mola.

The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

From a distance, the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant — which sits alone, on a hill, overlooking the lake at the eastern-most end of the 501 Queen streetcar line — has the look of an imposing, abandoned fortress. But get a little closer, and its lovely art deco arched windows and stylized frescos come into view. Get closer still and you might hear the 24/7 hum of Toronto’s largest water-treatment facility, which provides roughly 40 percent of the city’s drinking water. Like the Prince Edward Viaduct (commonly known as the Bloor Viaduct), the R.C. Harris makes a cameo in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, but this landmark is an even better destination for a quiet walk and some moody photos.

Inside the Art Gallery of Ontario

A ticket to the Art Gallery of Ontario gets you up close and personal with some pretty incredible art: there’s a whack-load of Group of Seven masterpieces, nearly 3,000 Inuit sculptures and photos from the likes of Edward Burtynsky, Cindy Sherman and Stephen Shore. But Frank Gehry’s dramatic 2008 redesign demands you to step back and marvel at the AGO’s architecture, too. The Galleria Italia, just on the other side of a row of Lawren Harris paintings, feels like standing in the floating hull of a ship, with rounded wood and glass that stretch almost a full city block. The Baroque Stair, a dramatic spiral staircase, is perhaps even more impressive: It emerges through an archway into the middle of Walker Court, then twists and snakes through the air before vanishing like magic into the glass roof.

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