At its opening in 1973, the Brutalist-style Robarts Library at the University of Toronto was said to be the largest academic building in the world, with each side of the equilateral-triangle-shaped building measuring 330 feet, and with enough space inside for 4,000 people and 1 million volumes. The library was impressive to more than just Toronto students; novelist Umberto Ecco wrote much of his 1983 novel, "The Name of the Rose," in the library, taking some of its features as inspiration for the secret library described in the book.
Architect Danforth W. Toan, FAIA, who designed Robarts and other libraries all across North American college campuses, died last week in Tappan, N.Y., at 94.
As founding partner of Warner Burns Toan & Lunde Architects & Planners in New York, now known as WBTL, Toan designed Columbia University's Hammer Health Sciences Center, New York University's Warren Weaver Hall, Brown University's John D. Rockefeller Library and the Science Tower, and Cornell University's Olin Library, among many others.
"He changed the course of library design in the U.S.," says Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director of the AIA New York Center for Architecture, who worked with Toan at WBTL for 15 years. "The first project I helped him with as a draftsman, the Aurora Central Library in Colorado, has helped knit that community together."
Toan also designed buildings for LaGuardia Community College in Long Island, N.Y., Sara Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., Washtenaw Community Center in Ann Arbor, Maine, Emory University in Atlanta, and St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. But one of his most interesting projects wasn't for a college at all—it was for Grumman Aerospace Corp., now Northrup Grumman Corp., for which he designed the astronaut living quarters for an early iteration of the NASA Space Station.
During his career, Toan was also involved with the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, played the saxophone in a jazz group called the Jazzitects—which opened for Dizzy Gillespie in New York in 1991—and taught at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture Planning & Preservation for 12 years. Bell recalls how Toan was known for leading students around the campus blindfolded to help them see space differently. It is perhaps appropriate that Toan, designer of a few Brutalist buildings, was also active in historic preservation, finding himself at the center of the Vinyl Wars in 1994 in Tappan, opposing the use of vinyl siding on historic homes.
Toan spent his last days in Tappan, where he helped plan and design the Hickory Hill Cooperative houses, as well as Hickory Hill II, a collection of senior housing.