Toronto’s Junction district was not always the artist and family friendly neighbourhood it has come to be known as. At the turn of the 20th century, this vast plot of land in the City’s west end along with its neighbour to the east of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) tracks, the Junction Triangle, was a hive of activity with thousands of workers treading the floors of factories, manufacturing items as varied as housewares, locomotives and food. The area’s rapid development was spurred by the arrival of the railways from the 1870’s (Grand Trunk Railway) and the establishment of the CPR West Toronto yard in 1882 bringing with it hundreds of jobs. Factory workers, many having emigrated from Europe, quickly settled in the Junction and along with them came restaurants, pubs, bars and all kind of trades and commercial activities. The picture was not always rosy however, and by the early 1900’s, crime was rampant and illegal cock fights and bar brawls were common place in what had been rechristened the Town of West Toronto in 1889, prompting residents to vote for a full prohibition of alcohol in 1904. The ban lasted until 2000 and by some accounts played a key role in the slow death of the community in the latter half of century by deterring restaurants to set up shop within its boundaries. Starting in the 1980’s industries relocated out of West Toronto en masse with the closing of large operations such as those of Canadian General Electric, Canada Packers and the Stockyards.
But back to 1920 in the Junction Triangle, industries were prospering, there were no prospects of anyone shutting down and leaving thousands out of a job just yet; that’s when the Auto BLDG or rather, the Northern Aluminium Company Building as its maiden name would have it, opened as a casting plant for its namesake owner.
The Northern Aluminium Company was founded in 1902 in Quebec as the Canadian subsidiary of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (later renamed Alcoa). The company’s operations consisted mainly in the production of primary aluminum, that is the extraction of the metal from bauxite and processing into ingots. At the time, the aluminum industry was burgeoning; the process of manufacturing the metal in large industrial quantities had only been around for a couple of decades and the material was experiencing timid adoption despite its anti-corrosive and lightweight qualities. To stimulate demand for its products, the Northern Aluminium set out to build a factory in Toronto in 1912 at 158 Sterling (Stirling then) Road; the factory would transform raw metal from its Quebec smelting facilities into finished goods the likes of cooking utensils, sheets, foils and pistons. The move proved successful and the Toronto plant expanded its footprint in subsequent years with the construction of the Auto BDLG (1919-1920) and a foundry (1936-1937). In 1925, Northern Aluminium took the name “Aluminum Company of Canada” (eventually shortened to Alcan) while in 1930 the facilities in Toronto came under the control of a new subsidiary: Aluminum Goods Limited (Algoods). Alcan and Algoods contributed to the war efforts in both world wars supplying the allied forces with helmets, plane parts, weapons, bullets and utensils.
In 2000, Tower Automotive, a US-based auto-parts manufacturer on an acquisition spree, bought Algoods from Alcan. Then, the facility manufactured aluminum heat shields and impact discs for the North American automotive industry primarily for DaimlerChrysler. From that time, the facility became known to most Torontonians as the Tower Automotive Building. Tower filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and as part of its restructuring exercise elected to close its operations in Toronto in August 2006. The property was left in limbo for close to 10 years while new owner Castlepoint Nuna mulled over what to do with it. Proposed uses in that period included a movie studio and condominiums. An adjoining smokestack, boiler room and low-rise machining floor were demolished in 2010 to allow for soil remediation.
From an architectural standpoint, the building at 158 Sterling is particularly interesting as an early flat slab adopter, a technique in its infancy at the time of its construction. Flat slab buildings are made of reinforced concrete floor plates with the said plates’ load transferred to supporting columns via fluted column heads (the “mushrooms”). The use of slabs eliminates the need for supporting beams providing for faster construction time and optimization of ceiling heights. The northern side of the Auto BLDG reveals this internal structure with floor plates and columns apparent; one can also appreciate the absence of a cornice or windows. Initial plans called for the building to be extended as far north as the property line hence the facade’s unfinished state.
In numbers, the structure is made up of 10 storeys for a total height of almost 55 metres. Ceilings culminate between 14 and 16 feet above the floors. Floor plates are 9,700 sqft each.
Since September 22, 2018, MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) calls the first five floors of the Auto BLDG home with exhibition, research and studio space, an open theatre for live performances, meeting and workshop rooms and a vault as the museum embarks on commissioning its own collection. The space configuration with ubiquitous concrete columns is unconventional for a museum and a sharp departure from the typical “white cube” model. However MOCA is up to the challenge and is already working on a 75,000 sqft second building across the street (vs. 55,000 sqft in the Auto BLDG), MOCA II, to host additional exhibition space and studios and apartments for resident artists Canadian and international alike. The museum’s first floor features the “Invitation Project”, a free exhibition, as well as a coffee shop and will ultimately open to an outdoor canopied courtyard. Of note, MOCA is free one Sunday each month; consult their website for more information.
MOCA is only the first piece of a new neighbourhood to go up on the old Northern Aluminium land. Developer Castlepoint Nuna ambitions to bring 6 other buildings to what it has branded as “Lower JCT” (Lower Junction Triangle) with the aim of adding space for up to 2,500 jobs, 1000 residents, a day care facility, outdoor park and community space and affordable housing. Gentrification is surely on the horizon in what was once a predominantly blue-collar community; one that some are already referring to as “the next Liberty Village”.
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