The New Face of Union Station


Central stations are at the heart of urban history: they play host to the mass transportation systems that allow for the collective movement of millions into city centres. Conveniently, the rise of regional rail systems corresponded with a period of remarkable architecture, as Beaux-Arts and Neoclassical buildings sprung up as hubs for regional mobility. union2Union Station Market

Toronto has one such turn-of-the century gem in Union Station, and thankfully did not demolish the structure during the modernist fever of the 1960s (unlike New York’s original Penn Station.) This summer, the façade and plaza in front of Union Station was revealed, and has hosted a daily summer market replete with picnic benches, planters and a notable clock tower (so you don’t linger past break time.)

union3Union Station Clock Tower

This market and open public space is a great improvement to the station—it’s not just a place to pass through, but also one to dwell in. Perhaps the most successful feature of the revitalization is how Union now relates to the similarly regal Royal York hotel across the street. With the removal of curbs on Front St., and the use of brick instead of concrete as a ground plane, Union and the Royal York finally feel like two buildings who respond to one another, and relate to one another through the street that separates them. For a moment, you could be forgiven for forgetting you’re in a city that sees kilometres of glass rise into the sky on a yearly basis.

union4Union Station, looking North to the Royal York Hotel

The revitalized Union Station can now play competitor to many of its international counterparts. Chicago’s own Union Station is similar in style, and yet lacks the generous set back from the street that has allowed Union to create a grand plaza and market.

union5Chicago’s Union Station

Amsterdam’s Station Centraal is similarly beautiful, and also features a generous helping of open public space outside its entrance.
union6Centraal Station, Amsterdam

We may even dare to compare Union to the Gare du Nord in Paris—although Union might benefit from some of those beautiful street lamps.
union7Gare du Nord, Paris

Finally, it appears that Toronto is ahead of the curve in some respects in its revitalization of Union Station. Work has just begun in London on a similar improvement to Victoria Station. As part of a larger redevelopment, the exterior of the station will be pedestrianized, creating a programmable public space like the one we have in Toronto. Could this be what being a ‘world class city’ feels like?

Images 1-4 Union Station by Michi McCloskey from Open City Projects
Image 5 by Loco Steve, FlickrCC
Image 6 by Canadian Pacific, FlickrCC
Image 7 by Petit_louis, FlickrCC

Matt is a student in the University of Toronto’s graduate planning program. He has worked on projects ranging from prospective transit-supportive density mapping and design, to social housing revitalization policy. He is currently exploring the public consultation process in Toronto, and how the planning process can engage with more diverse groups of constituents in a more substantive way.

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