Reviving Maple Leaf Gardens


Photo by Trevor Mein

By Peter Saunders
Toronto’s fabled Maple Leaf Gardens—previously home to major-league hockey, big-name concerts, boxing and other sporting events—recently emerged from a decade of disuse. Its new anchor tenant was not a sports team or event management company, but instead Loblaws, a grocery retail chain with stores across Ontario and Quebec. To appeal to urban consumers and win over skeptical traditionalists, the transformation of the vast, empty space had to set new standards for point-of-purchase (POP) signage and related design elements.

This process began in 2010 with a creative pitch session that pitted five design firms against each other to determine which could live up to Loblaws’ daunting mandate: “Create the best food store in the world.”

While most of these contenders were North American firms, it was a foreign team that ended up scoring the deal: Landini Associates, a multidisciplinary retail design and branding consultancy based in Sydney, Australia.

“We do not actively promote our services, as most inquiries come through word of mouth,” says Mark Landini, creative director. “We won the job because Loblaws felt our concept matched its vision for an urban food store.”

In this case, the architectural firm already assigned to redesign Maple Leaf Gardens,

Toronto-based Turner Fleischer Architects, was aware of Landini’s work because one of its principals visits his relatives in Australia regularly.

“It was circuitous,” says Landini. “I had never been to Canada before. We were flown over for a briefing, to see Maple Leaf Gardens, some Loblaws stores and some of their competitors. I also spent a few days just walking around Toronto.”

As he continued to visit the city, his walking tours helped him grasp the cultural importance of the heritage site.

With the opening of Loblaws’ new store, the heritage building has emerged from a decade of disuse. Photo courtesy Loblaws

With the opening of Loblaws’ new store, the heritage building has emerged from a decade of disuse. Photo courtesy Loblaws

“I understood how iconic Maple Leaf Gardens was when I noticed every bar and shop had ice hockey on TV,” he says. “In Australia, the closest equivalent is rugby, but Canadians’ mania for hockey eclipses that! The arena had also hosted the Beatles, Elvis Presley and the boxer Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali. So, when the building was shut down, the social context changed. The new store would need to be more than a supermarket. It would have to revitalize this part of the city with a new sense of place. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of the community.”