by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York
Danforth W. Toan, FAIA, recently died at the age of 94. He was an architect and founding partner of Warner Burns Toan & Lunde Architects & Planners in New York, now known as WBTL Architects. Dan designed many significant buildings in New York and around the world. Many were college libraries and educational facilities, including the Columbia University Hammer Health Sciences Center and NYU’s Warren Weaver Hall here in New York City.
Other campuses his buildings transformed include Brown University, where he designed the John D. Rockefeller Library and the Science Tower, and Cornell University, for which he designed the Olin Library. Among a score of other campuses he shaped were LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, and Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Perhaps his largest structure is the Robarts Library for the University of Toronto, which when it opened had over a million volumes. His extraordinary sense of place changed colleges from Emory University in Atlanta to St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
Dan was a graduate of Dartmouth College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Dan was also involved with the Architects Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility. For the ADPSR, and for friends, Dan would play the saxophone in an architect jazz group called Jazzitechts. The group opened for Dizzy Gillespie in New York in 1991.
As a teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation for more than 12 years, Dan was known for connecting with students – literally leading them around the campus blindfolded until they saw what they could not see. In both the academy and practice, Dan was a step ahead of the rest of us, paving the way for an appreciation of what teaching, learning, and the design of space had to do with the future.
Perhaps the most fun he had as an architect was the design for Grumman of the astronaut living quarters for an early iteration of the NASA Space Station. Dan saw the future up close and personal and made it habitable, logical, and a pleasure to behold.