past pieces of toronto: bata headquarters

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on April 8, 2012.

Bata Headquarters, Don Mills, circa 1965-1969. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 356, Item 023.
Thomas Bata was proud that the Don Mills headquarters of his shoe empire was designed so that it couldn’t be expanded. He believed that the role of headquarters was not to dictate corporate policy, but to act as catalyst for stimulating new approaches to marketing and product development. “In outlining our specification to the architect,” he wrote in his autobiography Bata Shoemaker to the World, “we insisted that the building should be designed so that, if we were ever tempted to spawn a huge bureaucracy, we would be thwarted by the lack of space and immovable walls.” While Thomas Bata’s vision was fine as long as his company retained the property, it didn’t serve the building when it passed to other hands.

When Bata moved its base of operations from England to Canada in the early 1960s management briefly considered Batawa, the company town north of Trenton that the shoemaker developed during World War II, for the new headquarters. Issues Thomas Bata experienced across the Atlantic soured him on the idea. “I was aware of the problems that can arise when local management and corporate executives operate out of the same location,” he noted. “Seemingly trivial issues, such as who presides at public functions and whose wife opens the flower show, can become a source of friction. Above all, I was concerned that my presence in Batawa might undermine the stature and authority of the person who was running the Canadian company.” Thomas also worried about the lack of nearby international airports.

The company settled on a site on Wynford Drive and hired architect John B. Parkin to design the headquarters. Parkin was no stranger to the Bata family, having designed the family home in Batawa. Thomas’s wife Sonja consulted on the design sketches with Parkin. When two designs were shown to Thomas, he noted one was far superior to the other. “I always suspect,” he later wrote, “that the second sketch was a decoy, to make me believe the final decision was mine.” Completed by 1965, the building resembled a rectangle sitting atop umbrella-like columns.

When Bata moved its headquarters back to Europe in 2002, the building was placed on the market for $10 million. After several months, it was purchased by the Aga Khan Council for Canada, which had already bought an adjoining property to build an Ismali cultural centre. The timing was fortuitous, as the Aga Khan was having problems securing land in London, England for a planned museum of Islamic art. The museum concept was transplanted to Don Mills, and plans began for a $300 million combined complex.

Though the Bata headquarters earned a heritage listing as a fine example of 1960s-era modernist architecture, it wasn’t a designated property. A battle between preservationists and the Aga Khan Council flared up in September 2005 when the building’s fate was placed in the hands of municipal politicians. The arguments boiled down to preserving an example of a period of architecture that was disappearing from the city versus a prestigious new development. Project backers claimed that the building didn’t fit into their vision—according to former Aga Khan Council president Firoz Rasul, “an office building cannot be a symbol of anything, not a synagogue, not a church, not a temple or a mosque.” Among local newspaper architecture columnists, the Star’s Christopher Hume argued the building’s columns, which he felt were reminiscent of a Greek temple, paid “homage to the past while extolling the virtues of the future" (though he later praised the Aga Khan project), while the Globe and Mail’s Lisa Rochon thought its north elevation was “clumsy” and the large spread of surface parking fulfilled “the deadening formula of the industrial office complex.”

Where did the Bata family stand? Sonja supported the Aga Khan project, even if the destruction of her old office stirred up emotions. “I wanted to have a piece of excellent architecture in Canada then and this is what we achieved,” she told the Globe and Mail. “But I think the time now has come to change. [The Aga Khan] project will be much better than what we have right now.”

City council agreed with Sonja. The demolition request received near-unanimous approval. Construction of the Aga Khan Museum is ongoing.

Additional material from Bata Shoemaker to the World by Thomas J. Bata with Sonja Sinclair (Toronto: Stoddart, 1990), the October 11, 2002, September 19, 2005, September 20, 2005, and September 22, 2005 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 20, 2005 edition of the Toronto Star.


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