News / Toronto

Warming stations bring joy to Toronto’s frozen beaches

Stepping through the waist-high entryway into the Snowcone warming hut on Kew Beach is like entering a pineapple cathedral. The yellow, pink and orange panels infuse the thin winter sunlight with warmth while the oblong structure blocks the frigid wind.

“The tropical colours make it feel like it isn’t negative 20 outside,” said Marc Piché on Monday afternoon, while his daughters, Maelle and Isla, climbed on the lifeguard tower enclosed within.

A team of Ryerson architecture students had finished affixing the individual plastic panels only minutes before, and already dog walkers, joggers — and yes, even cross-country skiers — were stopping to check out the striking structure.

Inspired by the form of a pine cone, the “Snowcone” was designed to act as a stained-glass greenhouse when it’s sunny, while using protruding white petals to catch falling snow and transform the hut into an igloo after a storm.

“It goes from transparent to opaque, using snow for insulation,” said Lily Jeon, who designed the structure on a computer with classmate Diana Koncan.

Along with about 20 friends and family, the pair crafted the hut piece by piece over four weeks as part of their digital tools class, and then spent about eight hours putting it up on the beach. Their creation sits alongside four winning warming huts, chosen from over 200 entries in an international design competition, that will line the frozen shores of Lake Ontario between Kew Gardens and the Balmy Beach Club for the next six weeks.

Winnipeg has been commissioning whimsical warming stations since 2010 to give the public something to enjoy in the depths of winter. One of last year’s winners, Roland Rom Colthoff of Raw Architects, decided to adapt the concept for Toronto’s beaches, asking designers to build their structures over and around the lifeguard stations that go unused all winter.

“That’s the idea: get people out to enjoy the winter at the beaches,” he said.

With support from local councillor Mary Margaret McMahon and MPP Arthur Potts, Colthoff fundraised and promoted the competition for months, attracting imaginative entries from 30 countries. A jury selected four winners, including a giant wooden throne, an insulated cube and a fire pit lined with benches.

Then all that was left to do was build the things — on the coldest weekend of the year.

It was a mere -28C with the wind chill when British architects Dan Wiltshire and Ben Butler stood shivering beside their “Sling Swing,” which drapes a dozen orange slings from cantilevered scaffolding built over the lifeguard tower.

“We’ve been joking that this is the coldest — by far — experience we’ve ever had,” said Butler. “At home, it’s -1C.”

Their warming hut was inspired by the fabric deck chairs often found in British parks. But instead of sending an attendant around to collect a pound from each sitter, Wiltshire and Butler decided to offer their swings up for free.

“When someone says ‘beach,’ you think sand and sun. In the U.K. we love our deck chairs, so the idea was to take the frame and the canvas and just extend them to envelop people,” said Butler.

Young and old alike flocked to the installation, swinging, taking selfies and sprawling in them like hammocks.

“It’s nice to see people use the deck chairs without feeling guilty,” Bulter laughed. “There’s interaction. People who don’t know each other, they’re just bumping into one another unexpectedly.”

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