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Concrete Jungle

How the Medical Sciences Building got its stripes

The Medical Sciences Building owes its unusual sculpted concrete exterior to two Ontario artists: Ted Bieler, who taught in U of T’s department of art and archaeology from 1962 to 1967, and Robert Downing (pictured above).

The original building, plain and boxy, looked dramatically different from the front campus’s cut stone structures, so the artists were asked to design a textured exterior.

But that was only half of Bieler’s brief from architect Peter Goering. The panels had to be thick enough to contain reinforcing steel bars.

“I guess one of the engineers had looked at the original design of the panels, and realized it was not only boring, but weak – structurally,” says Bieler, who, although retired from teaching, still continues to sculpt. “So Peter approached me and said: ‘Do you want to come up with some ideas for this?’”

After accepting Goering’s challenge, Bieler brought friend and fellow artist Robert Downing on board. According to Bieler, the two of them simply “mucked about” in his U of T-based studio until they’d created a prototype – using wood and a table saw to build a scale model of the design. The thick concrete stripes on each panel, randomly arranged, cover the steel supports.

In return for their savvy solution, Bieler and Downing were also commissioned to create a few free-standing sculptures for the building and its environs. Downing’s stacked cubes greet students inside the lobby, and Bieler’s Helix of Life still stands at the front of the building – U of T landmarks just as iconic as the artists’ concrete panels.

In memory of Robert Downing (1935–2003)

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