Quiet, Green, and Orderly: The History of the UC Quadrangle

Jane Wolff
Magazine Section: 

The peaceful space of Laidlaw quadrangle, designed by renowned Canadian landscape architect Michael Hough, was part of an extraordinary chapter in his early career—and at the University of Toronto. The quadrangle, at the centre of University College, is an iconic space here. Quiet, green and orderly, it evokes the self-contained courtyards of medieval monasteries and old English universities. Despite its apparent seclusion from the busy landscapes of the rest of the University, archival evidence suggests that the courtyard needs to be understood in larger contexts: the re-imagining of the St. George campus in the 1960s, the development of the curriculum of the University’s degree program in landscape architecture, and the career of its young designer.

Even though we think of Laidlaw quad as essential to the life of University College, it was not built until 1964, when the construction of the Laidlaw wing separated the college from back campus. An 1856 plan by architects Cumberland & Storm entitled “Toronto University Buildings, First Study”[i] shows University College with an enclosed courtyard of approximately 195 feet by 235 feet surrounded by a screened cloister, an interior hallway with windows onto the court. As the design evolved, the building became a three-sided U, open on the north side. When the Laidlaw Library building was designed by Mathers & Haldenby in the early 1960s, the courtyard was finally enclosed.

Michael Hough’s design for the Laidlaw quadrangle, which opened with the library, constituted a contemporary interpretation of the essential features of a university courtyard. Unlike the first study for University College (or its Cambridge and Oxford antecedents) the new court’s four sides were extremely different from each other, and there was not a consistent cloister walk at the perimeter. Hough, then employed as the University of Toronto’s landscape architect, used planting and earthworks to create a coherent space that did not depend on its varied edge conditions for integrity. His design translates the essential feature of a monastery or college courtyard—access from inside the building to a covered walk around an open centre—from architecture to landscape. The program for the opening of Laidlaw Library includes this description of the new space:

“Hough… has designed the new quadrangle on two levels. A paved walkway, supported by retaining walls and planted with flowering shrubs, runs along three sides of the area. On the north side, the walkway broadens out into a terrace, forming an extension of the new Library colonnade, with provision for outdoor seating and later, it is hoped, for a piece of sculpture. Two sets of steps on the north and south sides of the quadrangle lead down to a large lawn which will occupy the central space. Maples planted at this level will increase the “colonnade” sense by providing shade over the walkway, contrasting with the sunny lawn area. The whole has been designed to create an atmosphere of quiet reflection, appropriate to an academic setting.”[ii]

Hough’s design evokes the feeling of older courtyards and cloisters without slavish historicism. It creates consistency while accepting the variety and idiosyncrasy of its four sides, for instance, by confining the walkway to the three sides of the courtyard with access from inside to outside. It uses abstraction to convey ideas: trees evoke columns, and the low walls surrounding the lawn emphasize the special quality of the courtyard’s centre.

The enclosure and design of Laidlaw quadrangle effected a radical spatial transformation of the University’s central grounds. Previously, University College had seemed like an object building, an edge between the large, open lawns of King’s College Circle and back campus. The courtyard made University College into its own place, created a semi-public space of a different scale and character from what existed on either side, and emphatically separated the ceremonial entry to the university at King’s College Circle from the informal playing fields of back campus.

That the design of the Laidlaw quadrangle affected the reading of its surroundings speaks to Michael Hough’s deep involvement in the evolution of the University’s grounds in the early 1960s. The courtyard was one in a series of spaces he designed while employed by the University of Toronto planning office, including Philosophers’ Walk (1962), the entry plazas at the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories (1965), the master plan of the St. George campus (1965, with John Andrews and Donovan Pinker) and the master plan and site design of Scarborough College (1964, with John Andrews and Michael Hugo-Brunt). (Hough, Andrews, Pinker and Evan Walker also designed the master plan for Erindale College in 1966, this time as consultants to the University.)

These projects embodied a range of scales, types and ambitions, and together, they suggested a new idea about what sort of place the University should be. Laidlaw quadrangle was a modern interpretation of an archetypal university landscape. However, Hough’s other projects had significantly different images and sources. Philosophers’ Walk followed the route of Taddle Creek between Bloor Street and Hoskin Avenue. The creek had been buried in the nineteenth century without any trace on the surface of the ground. Though its route through a combined storm and sanitary sewer prevented Hough from revealing the stream, his design recalled the ravine through which it had run and offered pedestrians a picturesque walk among newly planted canopy trees. The entries to the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories, at the corners of Huron Street with Harbord Street and Classic Avenue, featured dramatic geometric paving patterns that created visual spectacle on the street and from the building’s upper stories.

Hough’s work also put forth radical ideas at a campus scale. The St. George campus master plan, like many urban planning documents of the postwar era, wrestled with the impact of the automobile on the pedestrian-centred life of the university. It argued for the segregation of cars to the perimeter of the campus, where they would park in above-ground garages. With President Claude Bissell’s support, the plan also called for the suppression of St. George Street between College and Harbord to create a pedestrian precinct that stretched from Queen’s Park to Huron Street. The December 1966 issue of Varsity News reported a demonstration by students in October of that year in favour of the proposal; the demonstrators blocked traffic and laid down turf along St. George Street to suggest the benefits of putting the road underground.[iii]  Finally, the plan called for an expansion to the northwest to accommodate graduate facilities, including a new main library, and to the south for housing. The Scarborough College plan, where Hough’s ideas drove the siting of buildings as well as the detailed landscape design, preserved the creek and ravine that ran through the existing landscape and suggested a linear building that followed the terrain.

Hough’s work as a landscape architect at the University of Toronto extended beyond the physical transformation of the grounds: his projects for the University were carried out as he was planning the launch of a new academic program in 1963 and 1964. The School of Architecture admitted its first students to the new bachelor’s degree program in landscape architecture, led by Hough, in 1965. Hough described the new course to the Varsity as concerning “the planning of land areas for beauty, health, safety, and, of course, utility…”[iv] In a 1968 talk at the Garden Club of Toronto, he urged members’ children to consider landscape architecture as a profession and described the ambitious scope of the curriculum, whose subjects included studio design (partly in collaboration with architecture students), botany, ecology, physical geography, and construction technology:

“There are many new areas of knowledge that we must look into today…the problem of establishing…dialogues with the social scientists and psychologists so that we may contribute in a more meaningful way to the physical environment of the city: also, the problem of establishing communications… with engineers, geographers, botanists, foresters, and other physical scientists… Our objective is to turn out students who can think creatively about problems at every level, and who will be able to fill the many posts in government and private practices in Canada.” [v]

Hough described the university grounds as a laboratory to test ideas about landscape architecture and design education. In an interview with the Varsity in December 1966, he said,“The University itself is a proving ground for the work of landscape architects, which the young men and women seeking a place in the profession may see, appraise and criticize if they wish.”[vi] The program, which became a master’s degree course in 1999, emerged as one of the strongest in North America and continues to further Hough’s commitments to urban landscapes and to the negotiation of natural process and cultural intention.

Michael Hough’s early work at the University of Toronto laid out a set of concerns that would occupy his long and distinguished career. His design firm, established as Michael Hough, Landscape Architect in 1963 and eventually known as ENVision—The Hough Group, was responsible for some of Toronto’s most important landscape projects, including Ontario Place, Brickworks Park, and the Earth Sciences courtyards at U of T, and formative planning documents, including “Bring Back the Don” and “Greening the Toronto Port Lands.” Hough left the University of Toronto for York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies in 1970 and remained an internationally renowned educator for four decades. His books City Form and Natural Process: Towards a New Urban Vernacular; Out of Place: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape; and Cities and Natural Process: A Basis for Sustainability, which argue for the importance of place, the power of ecological systems, and the need to balance cultural desires and natural forces, have had a profound impact on the disciplines of landscape architecture and urban planning. Laidlaw quadrangle demonstrates that from small beginnings come great things.


Revitalizing the UC Quadrangle

A verdant oasis at the centre of the University College and the downtown core, the UC Quadrangle is one of our community’s most treasured spaces—but it has not seen significant improvements in nearly 50 years.

Our plan calls for new plantings, benches, lighting, and walkways to ensure that the UC Quadrangle remains a vibrant green space for the UC community and the public at large.

For more information or to support the University College Quadrangle revitalization or for more information, please click here.


[i] Douglas Richardson, et al., A Not Unsightly Building: University College and its History (Toronto: Mosaic Press, 1990). p. 55-58

[ii] Programme, Official Opening of The Laidlaw Library, University College, University of Toronto, Monday, October 5, 1964 at 4:00 p.m.

[iii] “Students press on with campaign to unify the St. George campus,” Varsity News, Volume 6, Number 10, December 1966, p. 2.

[iv] “From Ancient Babylon to Philosophers’ Walk: Planning for Beauty and Utility,”

Varsity News, Volume 6, Number 10, December 1966, p. 7.

[v] “Talk to Garden Club of Toronto,” Thursday, 15 February 1968. Archives Ontario Fonds F4642-2.

[vi] “From Ancient Babylon to Philosophers’ Walk: Planning for Beauty and Utility.”


Archival photographs courtesy UC Archives

Present day photographs by Christopher Dew

Watercolour rendering by Guanghao Qian