A weekly column on residential architecture published in The Globe and Mail, Toronto



15.12.12   The Coolness of Cross-Laminated Timber



Earlier this fall, I wrote up a forthcoming Toronto condominium block to be fashioned chiefly from the high-performance forest product known as cross-laminated timber (CLT). This material, I understood, had been receiving enthusiastic notice by forward-looking architects and engineers in North America and especially in Europe. The launch of this midrise condo stack in the Beach neighbourhood was news: It was the first residential project made of CLT to come forward in this city since last January, when Ontario lifted the upper limit of wood-framed buildings to six storeys.

          Less newsworthy was the artistic design, which I found dowdy. In the review, I blamed the hum-drum art of the building on its cutting-edge stuff: “If I hesitate to cheer for this structural advance--which is surely desirable for all the reasons its fans put forward--it’s because CLT framing doesn’t really lend itself to artistic invention of the fresh sort cities need nowadays. The system appears to resist curving and bending and formal jogging or syncopation--the imaginative design moves, in other words, that contemporary digital modelling encourages and that steel makes possible.”

          These remarks drew a quick reply from Toronto architect David Warne, who had designed (while full-time with LGA Architectural Partners) a CLT-framed wing of the new architecture school at Laurentian University, in Sudbury. “I just wanted you to know that CLT can do quite fantastic things,” wrote Mr. Warne. He attached to his e-mail some images meant to prove his point.

          They did so, and I stand corrected.

          When I wrote about the condo building, I did not know, for example, about the remarkable wooden roof of the Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park at the Zürich zoo. This vast wildlife pavilion, crafted by the Swiss firm of Markus Schietsch Architekten, features a curving, wavy dome made of prefabricated triple-layer panels. The fabric is penetrated by 271 plastic skylights. In the words of the architects, "the roof dissolves into a transparent maze-like structure that establishes an organic relationship to the surrounding forest.” The pictures of the dome, which is supposed to suggest the interlacing branches of trees, indicate that CLT can indeed be as dramatic as steel.

          Steel, of course, won’t be replaced by CLT--at least not for a while. But the material can raise the emotional temperature of a project that, were it executed in steel alone, would probably seem cold and inert. In his highly theatrical new headquarters of  the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Paris--a blogger called the structure a “stuck armadillo”--Renzo Piano has used laminated timbers (along with steel) to frame the building’s curvaceous glass canopy. The effects of the wooden vaults (and wooden floors and furnishings), if photos can be believed, include the softening and warming of an brightly skylit interior that might otherwise be uncomfortably hard.

          Mr. Warne’s most intriguing images, however, illustrate the marvellously eccentric, hugely controversial, wildly over-budget CLT contraption known as the Metropol Parasol, completed in Seville’s old market quarter four years ago.  Designed by Berlin architect Jürgen Mayer H, this swirling ensemble of wooden parts glued together demonstrates that CLT can certainly be made to express every architect’s (computer-assisted) fancy, however flamboyant and improbable.

          A critic writing in London’s /Guardian/ newspaper, in search of a word, called it a “cloud,” a clump of “mushrooms,” umbrellas, even a “waffle.” In fact, as the same critic notes, the 90-foot-tall composition contains a market, stores, a museum of Roman antiquities unearthed on the site, a rooftop restaurant, and a “winding, undulating” walkway for strolling above the ancient streets. It also provides welcome shade in a city with hot summers.

           According to other published reports, the structural engineers decided, at a couple of points along the way, that Metropol Parasol couldn’t be built as designed. But Mr. Mayer H and the technical people eventually came up with something that was doable and that didn’t compromise the architect’s vision--and the strange structure went up in the heart of Seville.

          Not every city needs (or wants, or could tolerate) a Metropol Parasol.  But this project, and others that Mr. Warne brought to my attention, show that I was wrong to think that CLT construction is doomed to be boring. As the technology catches on, and as production becomes cheaper, we can expect to see CLT deployed more and more imaginatively, even in mid-rise condo building.

          The cybernetic hardware and software are already in place for such a development, and so are the computer-driven tools necessary for precision-cutting the wood. Canada surely has no shortage of trees. CLT, David Warne believes, is “the material of the future.”


15.10.30  Thinking about superkül 


image by tom arban

          To celebrate their first dozen years or so in the business of design, Toronto architects Margaret Graham and Andre D’Elia have published a book entitled Rain Gravity Heat Cold. This fact is worth noting, if only because most architectural practices these days opt to make their presence known to the world (when they bother at all) via the Web, or with the help of publicists.

          But superkül, as Ms. Graham and Mr. D’Elia call their office, would be something out of the ordinary  had the principals never decided to issue a book.

          Leafing through its pages, I was reminded of the memorable residential projects I have visited and reviewed here over the years, including 40_R Laneway House, in Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood, and Rosedale’s light-filled, gracious Split House. I was also informed about an array of homes, inside and beyond the city limits, with the same high quality of intelligence, attention to detail, and clean contemporary styling I admired in the houses I have seen.

           The thoughtfully designed book is more, however, than a portfolio of attractive images. It is also an imaginative work that tells superkül’s story from a variety of perspectives.

           In his stiff but convincing foreword, for example, architect and Harvard professor Kiel Moe zeroes in on the formal excellences of the designers’ working. Mr. Moe writes of the “exceptional, enigmatic dimension of the superkül work: the way in which the routine and extra-ordinary are deftly reimagined and constructed to become extraordinary.”

          The interview with Ms. Graham and Mr. D’Elia by Toronto historian Eric Beck Rubin, on the other hand, is an engaging, unstarched portrait of a marriage, and of the principals’ creative partnership, its inevitable tensions, its outcomes. At one point, Mr. Rubin asks: “Aside from spatial complexity, what are some other recurring threads in your work?” Mr. D’Elia: “I can go through a whole list. There are materials. Light. Our spaces are typically bright. This is something we try to achieve--we want people to feel alive in them.” Ms. Graham: “We differ in that, I like shadows.” (The composition of the couple’s houses usually shows strong rhythmic contrasts of sunlight and shading.)

          The very layout of the book, orchestrated by Blok Design, also relates a tale.

           Instead of a judicious procession of equally weighted projects, the book is a sturdy, various souvenir album of numerous houses, offices and other buildings done since 2002, when the firm was founded. There are fine professional images (many by Shai Gil Fotography, and by Tom Arban),  snapshots of houses lit up by festivity, lively conceptual experiments, a little portfolio featuring shifting patterns of light and shadow in an interior open to the sky, a series of pictures that illustrate a process of creating a formal model.

          Some of superkül’s many works are commemorated skimpily, and I would have liked to see their expert Three Dormer  House accorded more coverage than a glimpse the size of a postage stamp. But several homes and offices surely get the emphasis they deserve. One assumes, for example, that the architects are especially proud of Compass House, in Ontario’s rural Mulmur Township, judging from the prominence given it here.

          Compass House was named by the client, who intuited from the plans that the house would embrace what he called “a view in four directions that addresses the immensity of the site and pulls it back into the house to make you feel at home and cozy in two-hundred acres.” But, Ms. Graham told Mr. Rubin, it was not until the client lived in the house through a couple of seasons that he actually understood the logic of the design. “He emailed me to say, “the house works, in the way we talked about it working, and I feel it….’ Those are the moments that I live for in practice.”

          But what is it about superkül’s work that produces such feelings of groundedness and expanse? If I had to pick a word for it, I would choose spirituality--a term I rarely use for architecture, because the notion is so easily misunderstood.

          Yet the architects themselves name spirituality as an motive force in their designs. Ms. Graham describes superkül’s building art as “a kind of ecclesiastical architecture, a shell for the ceremonies of life. Naves, apses, aisles, rituals are imbedded in all our projects.”

          Perhaps the spiritual is the “exceptional, enigmatic dimension” that gives the work of superkül its particular resonance and poetry. In any case, there is an unforgettable “aha!” moment that I have myself experienced in their buildings, and that they report their clients having.

          “It could be the way the light came into a room one day,” Mr. D’Elia said to Mr. Rubin, “and it suddenly felt like the whole house took a breath. That is what we aspire to.”



15.10.02   The best of two worlds

People hunting for a home in Toronto’s real-estate market these days have just four building types to choose from. The most popular one, of course, is the house, either stand-alone or semi-detached. Another is the single-storey apartment. A third is the townhouse, situated at the bottom of an apartment block or dropped into a row of similar structures.

The fourth type, which is far less common than the other three, is a hybrid of townhouse and apartment. It’s a wonder that developers don’t build more units of this attractive sort. Multi-level suites stacked atop one another offer the best of two worlds of housing: the clear distinction between sociable, common downstairs space and private upstairs areas provided by a two-storey townhome, and a tower apartment’s efficiency, compactness and sense of security.

If you would like to try making such digs into a home, and would like to do so near Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood, you may want to check out the four-level complex that Kenneth Zuckerman (president, Zinc Developments) plans to put up at 35 Wabash Avenue.

Crafted by Toronto’s RAW Design, with interiors by DesignAgency, this project will feature 27 two-storey units (with rooftop decks) stacked over 27 townhouses that open fore and aft at grade. Corridors will give access to the suites at the first and third levels. (The elevator stops at these floors, and in the parking garage below ground.) There are no hallways on floors two and four of the building, so the width of the unit’s upper storey can be upwards of 19 feet--wider by far than many a Hogtown house of conventional size and layout.

But, in fact, most things about 35 Wabash are ample. In addition to the two-level suites, the complex will contain six flats that measure from 600 square feet to 1,000 square feet and cost $600,000 and up. The two-storey homes range in size from around 1,000 square feet to over 1,600 square feet, and in price from the $600,000s  to $1.2-million. The area of open space (back yards, balconies, roof decks),  Mr. Zuckerman told me, will be up to 1,000 square feet per suite.

To give you an idea of what to expect in stacked units at the large end, here are some facts about one that comes in at 1,640 square feet. The open-plan entry level, on the third floor, is more than 17 feet wide, and roughly 36 feet from front to back. There is a powder room just inside the front door. Upstairs, a full washroom serves two bedrooms, while the master has a spacious /en suite./ The outside area is 1,000 square feet. (The average unit is 18 feet wide, while a few are 12 feet.)

The developer said he expects his clientele will be a mix of “young families and empty nesters, who don’t want to go to condo towers.” Here’s hoping 35 Wabash attracts many of the former. Whatever else one can say about this project, it adds stock to the downtown inventory of housing suitable for starting a family--and that’s a good thing indeed.

If this finished building lives up to its renderings and floorplans, young and affluent professional couples will find there convenient, well-appointed, two- and three-bedroom places to live in after their graduation from little one-bedroom apartments in the core. They will be people who appreciate high-density dwelling, but who also want parks and shady streets and good shopping nearby. They will probably bring children into the world, and so inject fresh energy and care into the  multi-generational Roncesvalles community. That is, to my mind, a best-case scenario.

The exterior promises to be clean-lined, modern, and artistically unremarkable. While not every condo project needs to be a show-stopper, each should add something to the streetscape. Mr. Zuckerman asked RAW to come up with a design that responds to the “industrial heritage” of its immediate environment, something that “celebrates the area.” The result doesn’t really respond to or celebrate anything. It is neither plain and gruff, like the little prop-shop and antique radiator outlet next door, nor sentimental, like the rows of terrace housing on its east side.  And it doesn’t transcend both west and east by making a fresh, punchy statement all its own.

But never mind. What’s interesting about 35 Wabash is not the wrapper. It’s the hybrid spatial arrangements within.



15.09.25   Hullmark Centre: a good urban citizen

            When it comes to residential skyscrapers, Toronto could use more haute couture.  A high-fashion highrise, especially when raised at a key intersection or other conspicuous place, can be an exclamation point in an otherwise prosy cityscape. It can express the importance of a given spot on the urban map.

          That said, effective city-building only occasionally requires the services of a grand architectural couturier. Most sites, even at crossroads, merely ask for good tailoring--and some seem to cry out for nothing more glamourous than a little respect.

          Take, for example, the misbegotten intersection of Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue, out in the old suburban vastness of North York. As a major junction in both the street and rapid-transit grids, it has long deserved special attention.

          Until recently, it hasn’t gotten much. On one corner is a homely parking lot, development destiny unknown. On another is an unsightly strip mall with a fast-food joint and a Seven-Eleven. The hulking concrete facades of the Sheppard Centre, an office-retail complex, frown down on the street from the north-east side. (Quadrangle Architects’ impending overhaul of the Sheppard Centre promises to do good things for the interior shopping mall--currently downmarket and dull--though the dowdy exteriors of the 1970s-era towers are to be largely untouched.)

          Something different has happened, however, on the south-east corner, where the two-tower, mixed-use scheme called the Hullmark Centre is nearing completion. It’s not haute couture. It’s not flamboyant, ingenious, or show-offish. Rather, the project is sound architectural tailoring--a trim, bold, dignified instance of commercial modernism--and it brings welcome respect to its particular location in the city.

          Designed by Carlos Antunes and Clifford Korman, partners in Toronto’s Kirkor Architects and Planners, for Hullmark Developments and the mammoth Tridel real-estate concern, the Hullmark Centre is a small town stacked into the sky. The complex comprehends 683 residential units, 240 commercial suites and some 67,000 square feet of retail, including a spacious Whole Foods grocery store. There are 1,061 spaces for cars, and 700 for bicycles. (Showers are provided for bikers.)

          Without going out into the weather, a home-owner can muscle up in the gym, have a movie party in the bookable theatre, visit a doctor, dentist, lawyer or accountant, and even get a nose job. Those residents who are employed in the downtown core may find dressing for Toronto’s awful winter to be unnecessary on work days, since the buildings are connected directly to the subway. On fine days, residents and their friends can lounge or picnic in outdoor gardens that are as attractive and well-appointed as any I’ve ever seen in a condo project.

          The common areas--lobbies, lounges, theatre and so on--have been decorated and outfitted by Toronto interior designer Mike Niven. Working with a palette of rich woods and warm stone, Mr. Niven has fashioned spaces that are simple and inviting--plain, slightly formal, but not austere. The distinctive atmospheres he has created range from a sort of middlebrow chic (in the soaring lobby of the north residential tower), to gently rustic (in the outdoor areas). The art he has chosen catches the eye of the passerby, and (unlike the décor one usually encounters in condo corridors and amenity spaces) is lively and even memorable.

          But for those of us who won’t be seeing much of the Hullmark Centre’s insides, what matters more than pictures on the wall is the urban design of the project--the way it addresses its site and the city beyond. In this regard, Mr. Antunes and Mr. Korman have done a solid job. The exterior geometry of the towers is well-mannered and rational, and the surfaces of the volumes--composed of dark glass expanses outlined by white strips and stripes--are as energetic as they should be in a large big-city building.

          While the shafts of the towers make firm artistic statements in the rising skyline around Yonge and Sheppard, some of the nicest things about this project happen at grade. The sidewalks on the three street-facing sides of the complex, for example, are graciously wide. And instead of filling up every square foot of the 3.5-acre site with architecture, the designers have pulled back the most prominent façade of their building from the intersection, generating a new, curving piece of public realm at this otherwise indifferent corner.

          The inner edge of this plaza is occupied, rather disappointingly, by a drugstore and a bank. It would have become a more sociable, successful place had a bouncy café or popular restaurant been found to face onto the open space, and perhaps spill out into it.

          Blame for this mistake, of course, can’t be laid at the feet of the architects, who carved out the place for whatever tenants the developers could find to fill it. For what it is--not fine art, but architectural tailoring on an urban scale--the stone and steel fabric of the Hullmark Centre works.




15.09.11  A highrise that fits the intersection of Bloor and Yonge


Though it has long been a key orientation point in Toronto’s urban grid, and the site of an important crossing of subway lines, the intersection of Bloor and Yonge streets has also been, until now, pretty mean.

          On the northern corners stand a couple of utterly undistinguished high-rise office buildings. Also framing the intersection, to the north, is the dreary concrete hulk  of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Before its demolition earlier this year--a move opposed by architectural preservationists for reasons that escape me--a low-rise men’s-wear store, Stollery’s, indifferently occupied the southwest corner.

          On the southeast angle, there used to be a shabby, two-storey warren of cheap shops, nail parlours, noodle outlets and such. If, at some point before the recent past, you wondered why Toronto got nicknamed Hogtown, the architectural wallow at the Yonge-Bloor crossroads would have given you a broad hint.

          The fortunes of the place began to brighten, however, as the city’s residential real-estate boom rolled forward.  In 2005, a sleek 60-storey skyscraper was proposed for the southeast corner by the Toronto firm of Young and Wright. Then the property was flipped, and the new owners, Bazis International, chose architect Rosario Varacalli to design an 80-storey shopping and housing complex for the site.

          But before spade-work on Mr. Varacalli’s scheme started, Bazis ran into financial difficulties, and eventually sold its interest to a consortium that included Great Gulf Homes. In the spring of 2010, Great Gulf unveiled its own plan for the lot on the southeast side of the intersection: a very tall residential tower with shopping at the base, to be crafted by David Pontarini, principal in Toronto’s Hariri Pontarini Architects. Of the (at least) three ideas put forward to fill the spot, Mr. Pontarini’s was the one that would be incarnated in steel and concrete.

          Since doing a column about this project five years ago, I have been watching its gradual emergence from a vast hole in the ground, and its steady ascent toward a full height of 76 storeys, now almost reached. Location alone made and makes the building significant. The plans looked promising. But now that this new highrise is nearly finished, it’s time to ask: Has the structure lived up to the renderings Mr. Pontarini’s office produced in 2010?

          It has, I discovered one hot afternoon last week--and then some.

          According to the drawings, the Bloor Street and Yonge Street facades of the steel-framed tower were to rise from the base in broad, flat curves, undulating vertical rivers of glass and balconies. Instead of being tailored in the straight-ahead, mechanically regular fashion of most highrises, the sculpted surfaces were to flow rhythmically, expressively between top and bottom. Last week, I found that, in the almost-completed product, they do just that. In fact, the skins of the tower shaft are showing more swing and muscular lilt than I thought they would.

          Writing in 2010, I was not enthusiastic about the base. It struck me as too small a bottom for so large a building, and a rather dispirited way for the structure to hit the ground. It wasn’t extraordinary, and it should have been. “Mr. Pontarini’s podium could be put anywhere in the downtown core,” I noted. “It’s just not special enough.”

          I was wrong. The real, built-out base--as opposed to the impression left by the renderings--is robust, dramatic, briskly urbane. Above the levels of the streetside shops, the architect engages the eye of the passerby with a sophisticated game of raking angles and fluid volumes that says: This is it--the centre of a young, various metropolis.

          Tall buildings can sum up cities in this way.  Because they are large and conspicuous, they can operate at a metropolitan scale, projecting in their material design the energy and complexity of big-city life. Mr. Pontarini’s skyscraper at the corner of Bloor and Yonge--it has about it, especially down below, the spontaneity of a pencil sketch--is surely not the only kind of big residential structure Toronto needs. But a little flamboyance is quite appropriate at this place where major streets, transit routes and lines of force in the urban imaginary intersect.

15.09.04   Bungalows may be doomed by high real-estate prices, but they are not forgotten


          Some of the nicest houses in North York’s suburban vastness are bungalows.

          Thrown up by the hundreds on former farmland after the Second World War, they tend to be small, neat and modest in style, but situated on wide patches of lawn--just the thing for a couple starting a family. These houses have a certain plain, popular architectural integrity. They speak of the optimism many young Torontonians felt circa 1950. We’ll miss these dwellings, after they’ve all been knocked down and replaced by the ugly, muscle-bound mini-castles now enjoying a vogue in Toronto’s post-war districts.

          That said, bungalows weren’t designed to stand up forever. And people nowadays often want more elbow-room than they normally provide. Bungalows, it seems, are doomed by real-estate prices, taste and aging to disappear from the urban landscape without a trace.

          Without a trace?

          Not so fast.

          Last week, I visited a new timber-framed, two-storey residence in North York that has not forgotten the basic logic, plan and simplicity of the bungalow it replaced. It is twenty-first century architecture--clean-lined, well-proportioned--that is deliberately rooted in the quick-built, mass-produced, franchise manner that once said “home” to a couple of post-war generations.

          Here is how this place works.

           Instead of filling up the 7,000-square-foot corner lot with a house almost that big--a common thing to do in this part of town--Toronto architect Reza Aliabadi, 41, set down his flat-roofed building exactly on the small foot-print of the one-and-a-half storey bungalow that previously occupied the site. Instead of making a visual splash--again, a frequent occurrence on the streetscapes round about--the front façade is quiet, unassuming. Its geometry and grey stucco cladding are elegantly, trimly tailored in good modernist style, but it doesn’t do anything surprising.

          In fashioning the 2,700-square-foot interior, the designer has paraphrased the symmetrical plan of the original bungalow, with its stair running up the middle of the square volume. This scheme for organizing living space was efficient and pleasant in 1950, and it still is.

          But while keeping to the old layout in a general way, Mr. Aliabadi has made numerous moves of the inventive sort one rarely sees outside custom-designed housing.

          The owner is a recently-separated financial planner of west-Asian background who wanted a compact place where he could enjoy his casual, newly-single life. Among other things, he asked his architect for, and got, an enclosable spot, just behind the skylit living room, dedicated to the earthly pleasures of sipping fine liqueurs and smoking aromatic mixtures in a water-pipe with his friends.

          (Well-to-do Victorian men, of course, regularly retired from the company of women to special quarters after dinner for port and cigars. But this is the first time I have seen what Mr. Aliabadi’s floor-plan designates as a “gentlemen’s room,” in a contemporary house.)

          The owner’s  request for plenty of natural illumination has been satisfied by large windows overlooking the back lawn. Skylights above the bed in the master suite and over the bridge that joins the master to two smaller bedrooms illuminate the upper level, while a light-well two storeys deep draws sunshine down into the living room.

          Mr. Aliabadi has carefully defined each space, instead of letting it flow seamlessly into the next, as in open-plan styling. The sparsely furnished living room, for example, is relaxed--but a gorgeous six-foot by six-foot slab of unusual marble over the fireplace focuses the area. The handsome expanse of stone commands attention, and helps make the austere room distinctively masculine. (I know no other word for what the place felt like.)  

          Here, as he has done in other residential projects--perhaps more boldly elsewhere--Mr. Aliabadi is exercising some sensible push-back against the open plan.

          Invented by pioneering European modernists to free people from the tight, over-articulated, heavily gendered layouts of nineteenth-century housing, the concept has become routine in thoughtful custom design. So routine, in fact, that many otherwise interesting architects nowadays seem unable to imagine any other way to arrange spaces for living. But I can think of no compelling artistic reason why there shouldn’t be “gentlemen’s rooms,” or why  the stuff of hard architectural framing--floors, ceilings, walls, openings--should not be as emotionally various and specific as the things human beings do within the territories so framed.

          Perhaps architects have a thing or two to learn from the bungalow before it is gone. This North York house embodies a couple of those useful lessons. There could be others to be gathered before this housing type vanishes once and for all. 


15.08.28  Adding up to zero: art comes to a new Toronto condo building

          Many years ago, when I was a graduate student in the States, I had an ailment that required treatment once a week in a large university hospital. The lounge in which I waited to see the doctor was no more interesting or luxurious than such institutional places usually are--except for one thing: a painting of a deep cove on the rocky Cornish coast. The canvas hung behind the clinic’s reception desk, where anyone checking in couldn’t miss it.

          The picture wasn’t by a famous artist, and didn’t depict a famous scene. It wasn’t avant-garde or challenging in style, and its subject-matter was picturesque and quite conventional. It was a landscape of the uncontroversial, realistic sort one customarily encounters in hospital waiting-rooms, dentists’ offices,  hotel rooms, tower lobbies, condo corridors and other public or common areas. You don’t expect to have your socks knocked off by an artwork in such environments, and they rarely are.

          Despite the painting’s sedate topic, however, I found myself looking forward to seeing it each week. The colours were strong, fresh and clear, the brushwork was vigorous, and the composition was energetic, if hardly “radical.” The picture invited us simply to smell the salty sea air, feel the dramatic weather, hear the waves crashing on the cliffs at the mouth of the cove, sense the calm within it. And, in the opinion of this out-patient, the canvas worked. It wasn’t great art. It wasn’t a masterpiece in the seashore genre. But while not overstepping the bounds of what “hospital art” has to be, it gave pleasure I have not forgotten,

          Such memorable pleasure is all we can reasonably ask of art in institutional settings. Which isn’t to say that’s the only thing we ever get. Toronto’s tower developers occasionally surprise art-savvy observers by purchasing or commissioning genuinely important pieces by Canadian and international artists for lobbies and passage-ways and more public venues.

          This is not, however, what Toronto’s Menkes Developments has done with their $150,000 art programme at Pears on the Avenue, a new 20-storey upmarket condominium block just north of the corner of Avenue Road and Davenport Road.

          In a statement, developer Jared Menkes explains what has motivated the gathering and installation of the art. His family firm “has always incorporated art into our condominium projects, because we believe that residents don’t just take pride in their individual units, but also in the common areas and amenity spaces--and they appreciate the added character and dimension that comes from quality art. With Pears on the Avenue, we were excited to be able to assemble a collection of original Canadian art that was a balance between emerging and established artists.”

          The job of assembly has been carried out by consultant Grace Zeppilli, who worked closely with interior designer Alessandro Munge on the selection and placement of the (by my count) 19 sculptures, large-format photographs, prints, paintings and mixed-media works. These pieces have been put into the lobby, on the walls of a second-floor corridor that runs alongside the gym, and in the guest suite, a party room and a boardroom.

          I’ve never seen a more spiritless or more stale group of artworks in the common areas of a residential highrise.

          Vancouver photographer Norman Stelfox’s giclee prints, in the lobby, are at least bouncily colourful--though all the credit for vivacity should properly go to American glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose sinuous sculptures they depict and riff on. Whatever excitement they have is second-hand, merely the left-over décor from somebody else’s party. Of course, even an excellent source can’t guarantee that an artist’s take on it will be effective There is no American terrain visually richer than the desert, for example, so one can only marvel at the banality of Peter Andrews’ three images of it here. But banality is what characterizes the collection as a whole.

          Ms. Zeppilli had to work hard to find art this dull and forgettable. Toronto, to name only the Canadian scene closest to home, is full of affordable sculptures, paintings, prints and photographs that are as good as, and often far better than, the canvas I admired in a hospital waiting-room long ago. Nobody’s talking about anything quirky or wild--just art that deserves and rewards the passer-by’s attention. Residents and their guests may glance at the art in the rooms and corridors of Pears on the Avenue, but they’ll never take a second look.


15.08.14  Contemporary interpretations of an ancient idea: the sukkah revisited

          Next month, Jewish believers and their families and guests will celebrate the ancient festival of Sukkot (“booths”) by dining and entertaining in temporary outdoor structures called sukkahs. These dwellings will do the jobs assigned to them by sacred tradition if they call to mind the homelessness endured by the Israelites during the 40 years of pilgrimage that followed the exodus from Egypt, and the protection  (symbolized by the improvised huts) that God gave his people in the wasteland.

          But Nancy Singer, executive director of the Toronto non-profit housing agency known as Kehilla Residential Programme, believes the annual observance bears a message for all people of good will, Jewish and gentile alike.

          “Sukkot means the importance of shelter,” Ms. Singer told me. “It’s about vulnerability, people living underhoused, or living on the street--dislocation, estrangement, wandering in the desert, and the need to create a sense of home. Sukkot couldn’t be a more perfect match with what we do.” (Kehilla administers hundreds of units of affordable and supportive housing across the city, most of them occupied by clients funnelled into the organization by Jewish community groups.)

          Inspired by a display of festive sukkahs in New York in 2010, Nancy Singer and friends launched the first edition of Toronto’s Sukkahville the following year. It was to be an international design competition for the perfect sukkah, and the imaginative centrepiece of Kehilla’s Sukkot-time campaign to garner funds for its work and bolster public awareness of the need for affordable shelter.

          In the estimation of its organizers, the initial Sukkahville worked resoundingly well; and thus began what’s become an annual city tradition. Sukkahs crafted by the eight finalists in this year’s juried contest, and a few more by past winners, go up at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square on Sept. 24. The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on the plaza the next day, and the sukkahs will be on public view until Sunday, Sept. 27, when, at sundown, the week-long celebration of Sukkot begins.

          If the structures themselves will be light on the ground--up, judged and gone in just four days--the process of choosing the designs has been notably heavyweight.

           Heading the jury is the well-known architect, planner and author Ken Greenberg. Other judges are Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner; Shauna Levy, of the Design Exchange; Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic of The Globe and Mail; and PLANT Architect’s Christopher Pommer, who co-created the outstanding original scheme for the ongoing overhaul of Nathan Phillips Square. A panel of three rabbis vetted each submission to determine its religious orthodoxy. Every contestant who made the final cut received a $3,600 stipend--Sukkahville’s 2015 budget is around $46,000--and, in an outcome that’s easily more valuable than the stipend,  his or her plan got the scrutiny and criticism of that high-powered jury.

          As their proposals suggest--you can see them all at www.sukkahville.com --some of this year’s Canadian, American and European finalists interpreted the rules of the competition cautiously, while others have let their fancy roam far beyond the conventional.

          Italian designer Gianluca Pelizza’s conservative “Desert Veil,” for example, will be a wood-framed cube clad in an open-worked skin of clay and roofed with olive branches. According to the rabbis, a sukkah must give protection from the elements, but must also be porous enough for people inside to see the stars. Mr. Pelizza’s project, the earth and wood elements of which are meant to recall “desert, nomadism and transience,” meets the religious requirements with plain elegance.

          For an entry that isn’t elegant, but that has a certain rough charm, visitors should check out the sukkah called “Roots,” by Swedish artist Ulf Merjergren. This exuberantly rumpled shelter will be composed of heavy straw ropes, twisted together into what looks like the unearthed root system of a large tree. It is intended to be, Mr. Merjergren has written, “a poetic reflection of the history of the Jews, where both turmoil and unity have been present, and where the search for roots [has] been of great importance.”

          To one degree or another, each of the plans is a thoughtful, enthusiastic response to the challenge set before contestants by the Kehilla agency. Torontonians, Jewish or not, can look forward to an interesting and perhaps provocative September weekend down at Nathan Phillips Square, as they take in the showcase of sacred symbolism and architectural imagination that is Sukkahville 2015.


15.07.31  Reza Aliabadi's transformation of a Thornhill condo from cluttered to clear 


In the years since he moved from Tehran to Toronto and set up a practice here, architect Reza Aliabadi has written and published a journal of his thoughts on the building art, curated some 20 art shows in his space at Bayview Village mall, painted and drawn, crafted furniture, and found time in the midst of it all to design and see through to completion a number of detached homes.

          These houses, to my mind, are his most notable accomplishments, and I’ve reviewed several of them in this column. Each has marked an engaging new stage in Mr. Aliabadi’s meditation on architectural modernism--not merely the stylistics of the movement, but also its logic and legacy of ideas.

          His envelopes, for instance, offer clean-lined, minimal counterpoints to the humdrum, sentimental fabric typical of the suburban neighbourhoods he has often worked in. The interiors of his houses are usually subtle, sensuous plays with space that occasionally surprise, yet never jar. Certainly at the scale of the stand-alone, single-family dwelling--where ceiling heights can be varied, where ingenious itineraries and openings and shuttings can be orchestrated--Mr. Aliabadi has shown himself to be a high-order poet of volumes and voids.

          But not every design job that has recently come this architect’s way has offered an opportunity for bold spatial thinking. What can be done, for example, with a high-rise condominium, where the ceilings can’t be raised, exterior glazing is unchangeable and the apartment is divvied up by load-bearing walls?

          Mr. Aliabadi decided to answer this question when an elderly Thornhill couple asked him to overhaul the 1,500-square-foot condo they had lived in for some 20 years. She “longed for light and brightness,” the designer said. Her husband wanted “modernity and minimalism,” and a studio in which he could make his abstract paintings. Both wished to say good riddance to the clutter and stuff they had accumulated during a marriage that began upwards of 60 years ago.

          The $100,000 renovation started with the tear-down of every wall that didn’t hold the building up, which opened the dark, narrow central corridor to daylight and created straight sight-lines from one end of the suite to the other. Part is connected to part, and they add up to a scheme that, even though the area is not large, has breadth and breathing room.

           Formerly closed off, for instance, the kitchen has been linked to the open-plan living and dining area, and the old kitchen cupboards have been replaced by shelving within easier reach.  The corridor was considerably widened to accommodate the wife’s walker, and other changes, including the removal of all barriers,  were made to the apartment’s original layout and outfitting to insure ease of movement.

          Mr. Aliabadi has spoken of “treating the emptiness, not filling it up.” Once he had refashioned the formerly generic, diced-up interior of the condo into a free, flowing “emptiness,” he set about “treating” it with carefully selected furnishings and colours. Every item, one senses, had to swear under oath that it was completely necessary, and not merely brought on board to “fill up” the void.

          At the owners’ request, two old-fashioned wingbacked chairs were allowed to survive from the furniture ensemble in the unrevised apartment--though they have been reupholstered to fit in with the prevailing palette of strong red, deep black and stark white. Apart from these chairs, the furnishings--from couch to pillows to the handsome dining table Mr. Aliabadi designed himself, and the seating by Charles and Ray Eames--are modern in the classical sense: impatient with overstuffed traditionalism, eager to be functional (as opposed to being bric-a-brac), and bright with industrial-strength colour. (The red accents that the architect has deployed in the kitchen, the living-room area and elsewhere, by the way, are meant to rhyme with the chemical red the owner uses in his paintings, which decorate the walls of the apartment.)

          A series of photographs Mr. Aliabadi showed me document the suite as it was before he gutted and reconfigured it. The place was the worst nightmare of every early architectural modernist (and many interior decorators since): crowded with furnishings that ranged in style from Victorian kitsch to La-Z-Boy “traditional,” sagging under the weight of curlicues, chintz and general awfulness. No wonder the owners were tired of it.

          All that (apart from the pair of wingback chairs) has been swept away, displaced by a scheme with simple clarity and straightforward visual intelligence, and as much flair as you can reasonably expect to find in a condo renovation, in suburbia or anywhere else.



15.07.24   Out of the slums, a skyscraper


 In each year since 2006, the U.S.-based architectural journal eVolo has hosted a competition intended to smoke out the most inventive, original new skyscraper designs  in the world.

          And quite a few of the world’s imaginative people have responded to their call. The 2015 contest attracted no fewer than 480 proposals from all inhabited continents. According to the magazine’s Web site, the high-profile international jury--which included the well-known Italian architect, urbanist and curator Massimiliano Fuksas--was looking for projects that embodied “creativity, ingenuity, and understanding of dynamic and adaptive vertical communities.”

          The judges apparently found these qualities best exemplified in Essence, the first-place winner. Thought up by four Polish designers (Ewa Odyjas, Agnieszka Morga, Konrad Basan and Jakub Pudo), it’s a vast, translucent, mile-high block that would rise from New York’s Times Square and feature a stack of landscapes such as jungles and oceans. (Oceans? Go figure.)

          Mercifully, Essence will never be built. It is extravagantly mammoth, even by Manhattan standards, and its construction (which is probably impossible and definitely undesirable) would involve vandalizing one of the great spots in urban America.

          But to be fair, practical buildability in the real world was apparently not a criterion in eVolo’s race. “Creativity” and “ingenuity” were wanted, and contestants obliged with proposals that often soared beyond the limits of the present-day doable.

          So what is the point of a competition that sets no real-world limits? The easy answer is that there isn’t any point. Inviting architects to submit fantasies with no hope of realization, according to this view, is tantamount to wasting everyone’s time.

          The problem with such quick dismissal, however,  is that every breakthrough skyscraper by the masters of building tall, from Louis Sullivan to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Frank Gehry, started out as something never before seen, never even imagined. Every art needs an occasional dash of utopia. Though the projects it elicited may not radically reshape the contemporary city in the near term, the eVolo exercise occasioned a number of ideas that usefully--and sometimes surprisingly and urgently--challenge conventional orthodoxies about planning and building.

          Take, for example, eVolo’s second-place finalist. It is a residential high-rise proposal crafted by Indian architects Suraksha Bhatla and Sharan Sundar, and sited alongside the oceanside shanties of some 5,000 families of impoverished fisherfolk in the east-coast Indian city of Chennai.

          These families, the designers explain in their brief, are among more than 100-million Indians living in urban slums. The commonest public remedy for this rapidly worsening situation--raising large settlement schemes at the edges of cities--involves distancing people from services and jobs, which, in turn, makes the places unpopular with the families they are supposed to serve.

          The team, for their part, would keep the squatters of the district in an urban landscape they recognize and feel at home within, and provide safe, clean shelter in the tall structure they call “Shanty Scraper.”

          This building would be no modernist concrete slab in the style of nowhere. Quite as ramshackle, dilapidated-looking and jerry-built as any of the slum dwellings that surround it, the raffishly handsome tower would be largely collaged from “post-construction debris such as pipes and reinforcement bars” and from “recycled corrugated metal sheets, regionally sourced timber and thatch.” It would be large, that is, and it might seem strange to Western eyes--though we’re becoming familiar with strong vertical segmentation and complex skins in towers by Mr. Gehry and other designers. But the casual vernacular styling might make it fit comfortably into the neighbourhood where Suraksha Bhatla and Sharan Sundar imagine it could go up.

          In common with every project submitted to the eVolo competition, of course, Shanty Scraper is an imaginative romp beyond the boundaries of the possible. But unlike some others--and like the most interesting (and controversial) visions of Le Corbusier and other early European modernists--it springs from serious, socially engaged thought about what the city should be.

          “As urban planners and architects,” the Indian team write in their manifesto, “we must make a conscious decision to improve the life of squatters (shelter, services and livelihood) by applying principles of sustainable urbanism….Informal settlements and the paucity of land parcels can no longer be ignored, and the complexities of resettlement will force slum dwellers themselves to build higher, using locally available, structurally sound, recyclable materials, [and] accommodating themselves into organized communities.”



15.07.10  Kind of Asian 

“There is an old saying that design has to improve life,” Toronto designer Johnson Chou, 52, said in a recent interview. “But for me, it articulates life. It makes us reflect on what we are, what we do--and design describes the person using it. Which is why I am obsessed with metaphor and movement, with creating narratives that resonate with those who use the spaces.”

           Mr. Chou’s name has been made by the chic, futuristic interiors he has done at corporate headquarters (Grip Ltd., Red Bull), and for clients who want personal digs or condo sales centres that are sleek, savvy and beyond the merely functional. These outfittings have embodied something of “what he is”--a modernist, a veteran of the distinguished architecture school of the University of Waterloo, an admirer of the late, expressive work of Le Corbusier.

          But the commission to craft the insides of Yee Hong Garden Terrace, a new upscale residence for Asian seniors in suburban Markham, has tapped still other, more intimate aspects of what and who Mr. Chou is. If he is best known in the local design world as an artist with minimalist, modernist flair, the Yee Hong project reveals him to be the good son of a vivid Chinese immigrant community saturated by centuries-old values and customs. “We grew up living with [traditional] colours and materials,” he told me, “believing they were imbued with metaphor and meaning because their appearance coincided with ritual and tradition.”

          To occidental eyes unfamiliar with those historical metaphors and meanings, the results of Mr. Chou’s handiwork in the model suite of the Yee Hong complex can seem slight, and too tasteful by a long shot. Walls are empty, apart from the odd old-fashioned Chinese landscape drawing. The open-plan arrangement of the space is far more conventional than the designer’s provocative apartment layouts elsewhere. The lobby is spacious, but it also appears to be pretty bare.

          A certain spartan sparseness, however, is something Mr. Chou has been aiming for.

          His interest in restrained decoration goes back at least as far as the late 1980s, when he was a student in Waterloo. The topic of his final thesis was the traditional Chinese garden, its elements and principles, and he has drawn on this research while thinking through the Yee Hong interiors. The walls are supposed to be as bare as those in a classical garden, adorned “with few artworks, [and] primarily seen as a backdrop to furniture.”  Other garden features he has sought to incorporate include “the play of opposites, organic forms, pattern, asymmetry and the creation of narratives.”

          “The play of opposites” can work out in unexpected ways. In the lobby, for instance, Mr. Chou has juxtaposed flouncily ornamental rococo chandeliers--memories of a time when high-style Chinese taste ran to the extravagant and European--with strictly modernist furnishings and rectangular wall-panels as abstract as Japanese domestic architecture. “The challenge,” he said, “is to maintain a careful balance between Asian and Western furniture and accessories, as there is always the peril of pastiche.”

          The panels are in the potently meaningful (at least to Chinese sensibilities) colours of shimmering gold and rich purple. “The meaning of colours and materials was never explicitly explained to me,” he said. “I simply lived it, and I will likely pass it on to my children, quietly.” Very early on in his life, for example, he learned the significance of red, which brightens the Yee Hong interior design at various moments. “We received precious red envelopes filled with money during Chinese New Year, and red soon implied joy, good luck, prosperity.”

          Gold, similarly, is freighted with both ancient and very personal connotations. “My mother would emerge radiant at events, wearing her favourite gold-coloured silk dress, the one with the slit on one side. I would know that the event was special, rare. Gold or yellow came to symbolize that for me, and, I knew, for many others. Blue and green--especially jade--also had resonance with our family, and I am inexplicably drawn to that colour. It’s the colour of my business card. It apparently represents vigour and vitality. Nobody needed to tell me that. Somehow I knew.”





15.06.26   A modest but high-performing house by Solares

Tom Knezic, principal and co-founder of  the young Toronto office Solares Architecture, told me last week that his idea of a perfect house is a “black cube.” He admires Daniel Libeskind.

          We were talking in the living room of a two-storey dwelling that he and colleague Melodie Coneybeare completed a year ago in the city’s Pape Village district. The house is taller than the bungalows round about, but its modestly modern, squared-off form fits comfortably within the old streetscape. The area is 1,750 square feet, not counting the basement.

          Crafted for a couple with one child and conservative tastes, the structure is as artistically unassuming inside as it is on the exterior. Mr. Knezic and Ms. Coneybeare have made no unconventional plays with shape or colour or layout. The upstairs bathrooms (there is no powder room on the main floor) are usual. The 870-square-foot basement, while spacious and well-windowed--the main floor is lifted almost six feet above the ground at the rear--is also what you can expect to see in any new family home.

          In fact, I would have almost nothing to say about this plain-jane house, were architectural design the only thing that interests me. It isn’t. What’s invisible or tucked out of sight in a project can be as remarkable as anything visible--and such is the case with this structure, as Mr. Knezic explained it to me with tables and graphs and diagrams.

          You start with the bones. Instead of raising a wood frame and stuffing it with insulation--the commonest way to build a Toronto house from scratch--Solares made the walls from a product called Amvic +3.3  Block. Each unit is a Styrofoam form, hollow except for a plastic web. After these light elements are stacked up and locked together like so many Lego pieces, concrete is poured into the forms and allowed to set. The result, the architect said, is a very tight wall system with higher energy efficiency than a wooden framed infrastructure can provide.

          Putting up the skeleton of the building in this way cost more than doing it in the customary manner--“between $20,000 and $30,000” more, Mr. Knezic said. (Total construction budget: about $622,000, including solar panels.)

          But the idea, of course, is to save money over the life-span of the house. To that end, Mr. Knezic and Ms. Coneybeare have built in a number of cost-effective devices and arrangements. Hot water, for example, is supplied to in-floor heating emplacements on the building’s three levels, and also to the laundry room and taps and showers, by an on-demand boiler the size of two microwave ovens. The climate of each floor is controlled by its own thermostat. It’s nothing fancy, and certainly not “smart.” Like the other appliances in the house, it’s off-the-shelf  technology. All windows are triple-glazed.

           In the long haul, the house could even start earning money. The flat roof supports the 5-kilowatt array of solar panels that empty their power directly into Ontario Hydro’s electrical grid. Mr. Knezic estimates that the panels will pay for themselves in seven years--the hardware and installation cost just under $23,000--and will thereafter be spinning cash for his clients.

          All of which sounds good. But will that front-end investment in Amvic Block, triple-glazing, and so on eventually pay off? Or are the predictions just so much “green” wishful thinking?

          It will take a decade or more to obtain big-picture answers to these questions. To get a fix on the story so far, however, Solares hired Toronto-based BlueGreen Consulting Group, which specializes in energy assessments, to study this house’s performance during the first year it was lived in.

          The results are interesting. Annual heat loss out all windows, doors, walls and ventilation mechanisms was half of what is allowed under Toronto’s relatively exacting building code. (The walls of an ordinary new house leak almost twice as much energy as the Amvic Block ones.) Hot water consumption: down a third. Greenhouse gas emissions were off from the permitted ten tons a year to just over six. More than once during our conversation, Mr. Knezic insisted that his company is about making sustainable, affordable homes. BlueGreen’s findings suggest that Solares has built one here.

          But couldn’t it have been done with a dash of visual flair? There’s no law, after all, that says environmental sobriety can’t dress well. The costume need not be as radical as a black cube. But if it’s going to take up residence on a Toronto street, it should add some zip to the lay of the land. Solares appears to have the science of architecture well in hand. The office now needs to get busy with the art.



Not too tall, not too small; Toronto badly needs more mid-rise housing options

6 August 2010

       As the rollout of condominiums from the latest construction boom continues, Toronto finds itself becoming a city of extremes: numerous tall residential towers amid a sea of short, older storefronts and single-family homes.
       What's largely lacking in our downtown inventory of housing types is the mid-rise apartment block, bigger than a duplex but smaller than the condo behemoths sprouting up across the core.
       The kind of building I have in mind is five to 10 storeys high, cleanly modern in design, knit well into its surroundings. Toronto needs such infill to balance our streetscapes. Trouble is, not much in the way of mid-sized anything seems to be coming out of local architectural offices these days.
       Which isn't to say you never find something of the sort in Hogtown. Last week, I visited an interesting new example on little Ritchie Avenue, in the old industrial corner of the city near the junction of Roncesvalles Avenue and Dundas Street West.
       Designed by Toronto architect David Anand Peterson and now nearing completion, this handsome six-storey apartment house has grown up in a rough neighbourhood, aesthetically speaking. Right next door is a gas station.  Workshops and broad-shouldered old warehouses, some converted into loft complexes, dot the area, and workers' housing from a century ago stretches along nearby streets.
       Mr. Peterson has responded to this hard urban landscape with a C-shaped courtyard structure that is just as hard.
       The style is Bauhaus modernism, squared off, flat-roofed and flat-planed, rational and efficient. The Guyana-born architect has expended considerable effort to keep the modernist geometry of his volume tight, clear and simple: The side facing the gas bar, for instance, is a flat curtain of metal mesh that falls from the roofline to a point just above the tucked-in car park on the ground level.
       And instead of hanging his balconies on the structural framework, Mr. Peterson has punched the terraces on the courtyard side into a sheer exterior wall, making the inner surface of the structure look like a chest of drawers minus the drawers. An imaginative use of vivid colour on the street-side façade and the courtyard walls – it's a kind of chartreuse that turns greener or more yellow in different lights – further reinforces the project's pleasantly tough solidity and its sense of firm grounding in the urban grid.
       Like the building's industrial-strength architecture, the southwest-facing garden courtyard framed by the three residential wings is evidence of sensible contextualism. The surrounding zone is not wholly bleak and drab, after all.  Behind the residences along Ritchie Avenue, and abutting the courtyard, are green backyards full of tall old trees. Mr. Peterson has invited that lively strip of vegetation to march a little farther northward, into the embrace of his building. (Large cisterns below the two courtyard pools collect storm water for irrigation.)
       The 50,000-square-foot expanse of the edifice itself has been carved up into 57 condominium suites, some small, others impressively spacious. At the ground level, the two-storey units open immediately onto the courtyard. All the other apartments, including the two-level suites that begin on the fifth storey, are entered from open-air walkways that run around the outer perimeter, either behind walls or (for most of their extent) just inside the metal screen.
       Such “streets in the sky” are not fashionable among architects these days. The designers and developers who create the towers prefer a centralized elevator and corridor shaft. But Mr. Peterson's outlying footpaths afford sweeping views over the city and into the sky, and effectively orient the units away from the edges, inward toward the courtyard and the balconies that overlook it.
       Despite certain imperfections in detail – the elevator lobbies are mean for a building of this size, some of the elevated walkways seem too narrow – I like the architectural heft and robust attitude of this work, the way it lands on the ground, its no-nonsense disregard for popular prettification.
       But I like even better the example of responsible urbanism it provides. During his time of professional training, Mr. Peterson did a study stint in the Netherlands. There, he told me, he came to a fresh appreciation of the mid-rise apartment complex as a tool for city-building. The structure on Ritchie Avenue comes out of this Dutch lesson, and it has something valuable to teach Toronto about the usefulness of mid-sized residential architecture for creating the livable, walkable density a modern city needs.


30 July 2010

       It's not the real name of the professional Toronto couple I'm thinking of, but let's call them the Quicks.
       Both Mr. and Ms. Quick are business-class passengers on the jumbo jet of life. Both have had busy, fulfilling careers involving much flying, many hotel rooms, and several residences in cities throughout eastern Canada.
       But recently the time came for the Quicks to find a permanent roost. It had to be downtown – they are thoroughly urban people – and it had to be a condominium with all the advantages of condo living: views of the inner city, a concierge, ease of maintenance, no lawn to mow and great terraces to entertain and lounge on.
       Then the Quicks ran into problems that confront many a home-buyer in the downtown or suburban towers: the bland, generic suite layouts one usually finds in high-rise condo blocks, and the cramped dimensions of even the largest affordable apartments. They came up with an interesting solution, however.
       The couple bought two adjacent two-bedroom condos in a recent building near the corner of Queen Street West and Beverley Street. Then they hired Toronto designers Merike Reigo and Stephen Bauer to strip the place back to the bare concrete supports and combine these apartments into a single loft of nearly 3,000 square feet.
       The marriage of these flats by Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer is thoughtful and always beautiful.
       The new configuration of the condo takes the shape of a broad, square U embracing three sides of the building. Floor to ceiling glass walls on all outer edges expose the interior to the many lights that Toronto's skies have to offer: strong sunshine from the south, quiet and healing illumination from the north, and the fires of sunset from the west. The city fabric is dense in this district, but the transparency of the apartment and the spacious terraces projected from its concrete floor plate on the south and west sides create a pavilion-like openness rare in the downtown core.
       This effect of simplicity and airiness is reinforced by the black and white colour-scheme and material treatments used throughout. The ash flooring, baked and oiled down to a blackish finish, counterpoints the white paint and textured white paper on the wall surfaces. The play of light and shadow is carried through into the designers' choices of furniture for the most public areas of the suite: modernist black sofas from Kiosk in the living room, for example, and a large, handsome dark-lacquered maple dining table for ten sculpted by Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer in league with Group Two Design. (The Quicks like to entertain over dinner, and the dining room, with its graceful table, cheerful, glittering metal chandeliers and north-facing windows, is the centre of gravity for the whole arrangement of the apartment.)
       The transitions between areas are subtle, but sure. Instead of a routine modernist open plan, Ms. Reigo said, “we wanted places to be – not a sea of space.” The manner of articulating these places varies from zone to zone. Tall pocket doors do the job of isolating room from room, when isolation is called for. In the south wing, however, Mr. Quick's home office and the den the Quicks share are separated from the adjoining corridor leading to the guest suite by a large clear glass wall–a move that allows the interior rooms to be flooded by south sunlight while drawing a firm distinction between the less and more private sections of the apartment.
       The general tone of this renovation is comfortable, but not luxurious; it's roomy without seeming shapelessly vast, and well set up in every respect for two people who work hard and entertain generously. But at the end of the day–after the last e-mail has been answered, and the last dinner guest is out the door–the couple get to retreat to the master bedroom suite, where Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer have installed a bit more opulence than the visitor finds elsewhere in the scheme. A tub for a relaxing dip stands near the bed. In the bathroom proper, the walls are paved with lovely white Calacatta marble, while the shower is lined with sparkling glass mosaic tile.
       This large apartment would not suit every taste and lifestyle, but the ideas driving the design of Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer are surely applicable widely. They include imaginative place-making in the city and the skillful carving out of empty space the kind of dwelling-places that urban people want and need. After all those hotel rooms, the Quicks have found their perfect house.

A lively bible for guerrilla gardeners; Author Lorraine Johnson offers a wealth of handy information about sowing, reaping and foraging in likely and unlikely places

23 July 2010

       I glanced at the review copy of Lorraine Johnson's City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing (Greystone Books, $19.95) and almost discarded the book without a closer look. It was the title that put me off.
       Yet another gardening tome by some California hippie or Victoria matron, I grumbled to myself – one doubtlessly full of tales about gorgeous vegetables that most Canadians can never grow in our cold latitudes. But just before tossing out the paperback, I flipped it over and read the brief bio on the back, which stopped me dead in my tracks. Ms. Johnson, I found, lives and gardens in Toronto. Intrigued, I read this charming, fact-packed book in one sitting.
       In City Farmer, Ms. Johnson manages to do several interesting things at once, all of them well.
       She first reminds us city folk of what everybody knows but conveniently forgets: just how distant we've become, geographically as well as spiritually, from the sources of our food, and what a high toll our eating habits take on the natural and cultural environments. She encourages us to appreciate the gracious impact that a kitchen garden or schoolyard vegetable patch can have on children, and she tells many stories of the healthy, socially beneficial results of community gardening projects.
       Drawing on her extensive practical experience in Toronto and that of many other urban growers throughout North America and beyond, she offers a wealth of handy information about sowing, reaping and foraging in likely and unlikely places.
       I'm talking about backyards, but also front yards, vacant lots and windy tower rooftops. Allotment gardens in public parks and balconies and sunny windows, but also weedy laneways and the derelict margins of railway lines.
What I like best about this book is its very lively portrait of the metropolis as one grand garden.
       We're certainly not accustomed to experiencing a city in this way.
       Driving around, or even exploring on foot, citizens get used to seeing their urban context as a system of hard surfaces and objects – streets, sidewalks, buildings, light standards, bridges, traffic signs and such – punctuated, here and there, by the odd park or the inevitable lawn.
       City Farmer turns this vision on its head.
       The book invites us to explore the city's green nooks and crannies; to consider the potential of fire escapes, the flat or even sloping roofs of garages, the forlorn edges of streets, the medians of boulevards and other unused spots in the cityscape as growing places for vegetable crops.
       The reader is enjoined to defy the grass monoculture of the lawn, dig it up and put in fruit trees, gooseberries, grapes, rhubarb, arugula, carrots. The least adventurous of us urbanites will find tips here on how to maximize the often tiny spaces we have for gardening, while the most venturesome are pointed in the direction of so-called guerrilla gardeners. “Rogues on a mission,” Ms. Johnson calls them, anarchic green thumbs who don't ask permission to sow a crop on private or public land.
       The reader is also urged, among other slightly or outright illegal activities, to regard parks and wastelands as larders. A fine pesto can be concocted from garlic mustard, an otherwise hateful invasive weed. Dandelions harvested from any lawn can yield up dandelion wine. (Ms. Johnson describes how this is accomplished.) Though doing so requires professional oversight to avoid injuring the trees, maples can be tapped for syrup.
       But with no oversight at all – and with care not to get caught – an enterprising forager can create more than one feast from the fruits, berries and weeds that annually go to waste in the city's parks.
       Ms. Johnson is well aware of the ethical and political ramifications of certain recommendations in her book.
       She knows, for example, that the three hens who roost in her Toronto backyard and give her splendid eggs are illegal under the city's current pet bylaws. (Many other municipalities, we learn here, take a more benign attitude toward keeping chickens.)
       But Ms. Johnson is that rare bird, a gardening activist, who believes peaceful resistance to what she considers nonsensical agricultural regulation is a duty prompted by higher concerns for the environment and for health (as well as for the civilized pleasure of having fresh eggs and veggies).
City Farmer is certainly more than the ladylike gardening portfolio I took it to be at first. This book is a robust manifesto for wresting back the food supply, at least a little, from the multinational firms that now control it, and a work of agitation and propaganda on behalf of a good cause: the gradual transformation of our cities into vast plots for cultivating all the good gifts our northern earth has to offer.

A classic example of Classical Revival; Beautifully designed new urban villa in Toronto stands as elegant proof that classical architecture has much life in it still

16 July 2010

       Architectural classicism has enjoyed an extraordinary run of popularity since its revival in the Italian Renaissance. Though the style is out of vogue for public buildings these days (except in Britain), people of private means in Europe and North America continue to commission country and city mansions featuring the Greek and Roman business of columns and entablature, sedate proportions and rhythmic façade treatments. The results we've seen in recent years are very various. Some look like little ancient temples blown up with bicycle pumps. Others are merely pretentious, pretty trifles, like so many scaled-up doll houses larded with classical ornaments.
       But one occasionally finds a contemporary house in a classical manner that brings honour to this quintessentially Western tradition. A residence of this kind is called Villa Charax, and is located on a shady ravine drive north of Davenport Road in Toronto.
       Designed for a family of five by the British architect and scholar Demetri Porphyrios, in collaboration with Bill Arnold, his connoisseur Toronto client, this steel-framed Greek Revival project shows a modest (though hardly meek) face to the street. The simple façade is evidence for the unusually mindful attention the owner gave to the crafting of his house. An early proposal for the house-front by Mr. Porphyrios had two Doric columns flanking the doorway. But the columns had to go, Mr. Arnold told me, due to their traditional connotations of power, wealth, prestige.
       The façade of an urban villa should be refined but unassuming, he believed, and so it became: an elegant symmetrical composition of light stucco surfaces (inflected by small windows), pale French limestone trim, and large, dignified mahogany doors standing atop a flight of steps in Belgian Blue Stone.
       The exterior combination of formal simplicity and a handsome material palette is carried through into most of the interior, to highly pleasing effect.
       The expansive neoclassical drawing room, for example, is framed by high ceilings, tall portals with solid walnut pocket doors, and white oak floors. These strong structural features and the room's sparse appointments – a Florentine fireplace, Venetian wall sconces, a few chairs fashioned by the owner from a 1920s art moderne French original and drawn into a circle around a small glass table – create an atmosphere of calm but alert reflection, a philosophical setting for, let's say, spirited conversations among friends about high matters of art and culture. I can't imagine trivial chit-chat in this room: The very walls would cry out in protest.
       But despite their austerity, the drawing room and the adjoining dining room manage to be quite comfortable. One reason is the beauty of the furnishings – the dining table is a remarkable contemporary reworking of neoclassical furniture themes – and another is the proximity of these rooms to the neat, symmetrical garden and, beyond the garden, the treetops rising from the plunging side and remote floor of the adjacent ravine.
       This architecturally directed view of culture (the garden) abutting nature (the woods), of the sharply separated realms of the tame and the wild, would have delighted the Greek Revivalist architects and their fans in the early 19th century; and, as we find in the thoughtful landscaping of Villa Charax, it's still a vision of that primordial Western duality with the power to charm.
       The other spaces in this house – the library, the sitting room and kitchen, the four bedrooms upstairs – tend to be somewhat more forgiving than the principal rooms, without being any less rigorous in detail. And the deck on top of the building, reached by a tightly spiralling staircase from the second floor, is a wonderful refuge high in the treetops.
       I do have one hesitation about Villa Charax, however, having to do with the entry hall. Washed by sunshine descending from a skylight, this large room is clad in sumptuous materials, including Carrara marble and much reddish-purple imperial porphyry quarried from the Egyptian desert and polished in Florence. A foyer, it seems to me, should be a prelude to the house beyond. But apart from its fine proportions, the bright entrance pavilion gives little indication of the restrained, attractively shadowy interior spaces to come.
       That said, I admire almost everything else about this project – the imaginative and never slavish fidelity to neoclassical precedents (especially the work of the client's favourite historical architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel), the superb craftsmanship, the unfailing attention to detail.
       I wonder at times whether classical building design has any place in the modern world – whether it's an exhausted enterprise, with a glorious past, and no future at all.
       But Villa Charax is proof that the classical language of architecture has life and fire in it yet.

Mr. Tall Buildings' sticks to his architect roots; Known for building some of Toronto's most notable skyscrapers, Gary Switzer has a new venture with a like-minded financial backer

9 July 2010

       Gary Switzer, 55, has seen Toronto's residential development industry from every angle.
       Trained as an architect, he laboured over working drawings in the office of Webb Zerafa for a few years, then joined the city's planning department. Mr. Switzer quickly tired of the planner's task of tweaking and tending the development schemes of others, however, so he swung back into the private sector, with Great Gulf Homes. There for 21 years, he headed the firm's high-rise operation, bringing to fruition some of Toronto's most architecturally notable condominium towers of the boom era.
       Mr. Switzer struck out on his own last year, and founded his company, MOD Developments. MOD launched (in partnership with Graywood Developments) its first project into the marketplace in June: the outstanding residential-commercial complex called Five, in the heart of downtown Toronto. MOD's backer, by the way, is financial services company Tricon, whose architecturally savvy president, Gary Berman, co-founded (with interior designer Anna Simone) the Pug Awards for Toronto's most artistically popular buildings. The coalition of Mr. Switzer and Mr. Berman represents an entwining of business ambition, financial prowess and keen architectural awareness of a kind rarely seen in Hogtown's recent real-estate history.
       I talked with the voluble, brimming developer in the old Yonge Street mansion that MOD shares with Tricon. While understandably excited about Five – I reviewed it a couple of weeks ago in this column – he fondly recalled his successful years with Great Gulf, which, until his stint, was mainly known for suburban housing.
       “I started Great Gulf's high-rise division,” Mr. Switzer told me. “The owners had a vision of doing something more urban downtown. The guys at Great Gulf piqued my interest in terms of what kind of project I wanted to do. Our first [tall building project] was St. James, at King and Jarvis. That established our reputation in the community. From there, we went on to do the Morgan, the Hudson, X Condominiums, 18 Yorkville. I got the reputation as Mr. Tall Buildings, and so I was.”
       Mr. Switzer loves to build and look at skyscrapers, but he is no dreamy aesthete when it comes to great height. He confesses to “a little bit of vertigo.” He doesn't like standing on the balconies of the condo towers he has put up across the downtown core. And he is deeply aware, as every developer of tall buildings must be, of the practical limits on the art he so admires.
       “You've got issues of financing these large buildings,” he said. “You've got the technical issues and costs of doing tall buildings, the amount of pre-sales you need when you're dong a 700-unit building. At a certain point it doesn't quite make sense any more, if you're not getting the sales. You have to charge so much to be building these structures. Buildings are becoming more and more unaffordable. The price point keeps going up from $400 a foot, to $500 a foot to $600 a foot, so obviously the purchaser profile gets much smaller. I worry about it. But developers are optimistic, sometimes even ignoring the writing on the wall.”
       The architects Mr. Switzer has employed in his projects have tended to design in historical styles. Peter Clewes, for example, cast his X Condominiums as an homage to the severely restrained manner of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But even strict modern tailoring comes at a price.
       “Mies said ‘less is more.' One of the guys at Great Gulf said that Mies never finished the sentence. It should go ‘Less is more expensive.' If you do minimalism, as we did at X, you pay extra for those extruded mullions that try to mirror the Miesian I-beam on the exterior. We knew this was a significant aspect of the design of this building, so we spent extra money on it.”
       The clear and present danger in all this, of course, is that design quality will be compromised because of the soaring cost of building tall.
       “The good developers will start with the architecture,” Mr. Switzer said. “My commitment to architecture is total. One of the reasons I felt comfortable in starting this new company in conjunction with Tricon was their commitment to design. I'm not interested in doing banal buildings, and just grinding it out. I don't think I would ever want to do a building if I weren't excited by the architecture. It's really in my blood.”

Is this the end of architecture's Gilded Age? While some critics think that we've entered an era where the functional trumps the spectacular, should we really be expecting anything less than an architect's grandest visions?

2 July 2010

       Startling, provocative architecture is a thing of the past – washed up, tuckered out and exhausted by the flamboyance and bombast it displayed during our most recent Gilded Age. The headlines in that age belonged to Frank Gehry and other “starchitects,” but in the present period – the one that began with the international financial crisis of 2008 – the headlines belong to them no longer.
       In advanced design circles, show-offishness is out and the plain-jane modernist box is in, and not a minute too soon: The usual buyers of architecture (library and museum boards, corporate directors and so on) are tired of grand stylistic gestures, and, anyway, they can't afford to build glittering icons by ego-driven architects any longer.
       Which is a mercy. Now that the patrons are broke and the public is fed up, architects can get on with the urban housekeeping they do best: spiffing up city centres, creating sustainable housing, that kind of virtuous thing.
       Such is the verdict of critic Cathleen McGuigan, writing in a recent issue of Newsweek magazine.
       “As Western economies begin to recover,” Ms. McGuigan says, “extravagant, eye-popping architecture is giving way to a subtler new aesthetic. In the U.S. and Europe, architectural values are shifting from can-you-top-this design toward more efficient, functional building.”
       She concludes: “Pointlessly pointy architecture is so over.”
       This wrong-headed article left me fuming. Here's why.
       Ms. McGuigan makes much of what she takes to be the new-found liberation of architects from the demands of the marketplace.
       She invokes the name of famous architect Rem Koolhaas to underscore her point that “clients are focusing on urban planning ‘not just for economic reasons [Mr. Koolhaas says] but because it's what they should really do. Planning is the ideal form of investment.' ”
       Not only are the born-again public clients good, but the old private ones are evil. “Unburdened by the demands of developers to come up with quirky glass towers full of overpriced apartments,” she tells us, “architects are becoming involved in designing master plans for urban neighbourhoods.”
       The Sleeping Beauty of architectural talent has been awakened from the developers' death-like enchantment, it appears, by the Handsome Prince of public-sector bureaucracy.
       This version of recent history flies in the face of the facts. Architects did not suddenly wake up to the problems of urban process and sustainable planning on the morning Lehman Brothers collapsed. For many years before 2008, but with hastening intensity since the turn of the new century, advanced designers and technologists in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have been giving serious mind to the environmental and cultural impact of buildings.
       The very boom-time period that saw the design of those “quirky glass towers full of overpriced apartments” – some of which are magnificent, by the way – also saw the fluorescence of the ecological, systems-oriented thinking that has now become something of a religion among architects and planners, as well as the architecturally savvy public. (The development community has indeed fallen behind.)
       The artistic radicalism heralded by Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the radicalism of the complex ideas connoted by the word “green,” in other words, are two sides of the same coin, two outcomes of a conversation about values and city-building that had been ongoing for decades.
       But the most egregious sticking point in Ms. McGuigan's article is her scorn for what she calls “can-you-top-this design.”
       I believe we should expect design that can't be topped from architects, and we should settle for nothing less. Especially the centres of intelligent culture in our cities – the universities, opera houses and concert halls, museums, art galleries, libraries – should be sheltered by architectural forms that express the immense importance of the activities within.
       Daniel Libeskind's contentious, fiercely intellectual addition to the Royal Ontario Museum and Mr. Gehry's more humane, vigorous overhaul of the Art Gallery of Ontario are among Toronto's best new contributions to the imaging-forth of cultural intensity.
       While cities will always need careful tending and mindful reinvention of the kind Ms. McGuigan admires, they are also in eternal need of buildings that arise from the imaginations of the most artistically radical designers and that speak to the metropolitan and global scale of our ambitions.
       Of course, these are tough times for architects who want to work on great, iconic projects. But it's to be hoped that these architects will continue to dream and draw through this chilly era, in the confidence that the anti-big sentiments of our day will change, and that their large visions will be translated some day into the hard stuff of building.

 A tower to make Yonge young again; Five will bring a cool condo to a rough patch of downtown Toronto – and revive old storefronts too

25 June 2010

       Yonge Street between Bloor and Wellesley is one part of Toronto that's in absolutely no peril of being officially designated a heritage district.
       Its Victorian storefronts, for the most part, are architecturally forgettable. Neither the self-conscious gentility of Rosedale nor the chic of Yorkville, its near neighbours to the north, have made a civilizing mark on this downmarket strip, with its endless pizza joints, nail and tattoo parlours, sex shops and the like.
       That said, this stretch of Yonge Street does possess one thing that makes it a good candidate for improvement: the attractively hard, lowrise street wall created by those otherwise nondescript facades. What's needed here is a scheme of urban healing that will draw many high-earning, hard-working residents into this balefully neglected downtown area – main-street intensification, in planning jargon – while conserving what's already right about the commercial streetscape.
       The ingenious new complex called Five Condos, proposed for the southwest corner of Yonge and St. Joseph streets, could be just what the doctor ordered.
Designed for MOD Developments Inc. and Graywood Developments Ltd. by David Pontarini, founding partner in Hariri Pontarini Architects, Five is a mixture of three interconnected elements.
       The most conspicuous of them is a 45-storey residential tower containing 412 condominium suites and offering five levels of underground parking. (The interiors are by Anna Simone, principal in the much-awarded firm of Cecconi Simone.) This tall building will feature a sculptural gesture that is emerging as Mr. Pontarini's signature in skyscraper design: a pushing in and pulling out of balcony fronts at various levels to generate the effect of a great, gently billowing top-to-bottom curtain of glass.
       The inspiration behind this treatment, Mr. Pontarini told me, is a much more adventurous Chicago building called Aqua, by Jeanne Gang and her firm Studio Gang. Ms. Gang's tall structure is basically a modernist block, though it shows the world a remarkably vivid face, with high drama – much rippling and ruffling, like the surface of a lake battered by wind – fashioned by manipulating the protruding edges of the floor plates.
       The important thing about Mr. Pontarini's tower is not, however, its novelty in profile – a cautiously decorated box is still a box – but rather its relationship to the Yonge corridor. Instead of eliminating the site's five existing street-side storefronts and building out to the edge of Yonge Street, Mr. Pontarini has pulled his tower smartly back from the avenue, behind the old buildings.
       This small troop of architectural survivors, the second item in my list of the plan's three, is to be cleaned up and otherwise given a new lease on life by heritage specialists ERA Architects, Mr. Pontarini said. The one or two upper storeys will become office space; the ground-floor units will continue as retail shops. The offices will be accessed through a rear entrance, off St. Joseph Street. (A Gothic Revival warehouse on St. Joseph, or at least its ruggedly handsome façade, is also slated for salvation. It will serve as the entry pavilion of the tower.)
       The third aspect of Mr. Pontarini's design is a roof garden by the celebrated landscape architect Janet Rosenberg, boosted a storey or so off the ground. This green space, a pleasant open-air interval in the dense commercial and residential fabric that surrounds it, will be slotted between the tower and the Yonge Street buildings.
       Though we have nothing to go on at this stage other than renderings, Five promises to be an excellent and thoughtful instance of urban design, and it could even be a model for the future invigoration of Toronto's most important streets.
       What we all like about Yonge – the long rhythm of small shops and low facades, punctuated now and again by little streets – is kept intact by this project. A sensible, urbane philosophy of architectural preservation (encouraged by city planners) is at work here, not the antiquarian devotion to every old brick and stick that's too much the reigning dogma in the local heritage community. If Five lives up to its artistic pledge and succeeds in the marketplace, it could entice other developers to adopt a similarly sophisticated attitude to our historic thoroughfares.
       And what we don't like about this extent of Yonge Street – its forlorn shabbiness, its sense of being unloved, uncared for – will be under pressure to change, as several hundred affluent residents, those “eyes on the street” architects and urban planners like to talk about, move in and begin to demand something better from the stores in their neighbourhood. Not that Yonge Street will be suddenly transformed by one project. But Five sets a valuable precedent for how the transformation of Toronto's main streets can be brought about.

The once-lonely Fort York area starts to buzz

18 June 2010

       Within vivid living memory, the area around Fort York was a lonely place of railway switching yards, factories and broad, empty streets – perfect for peaceful evening strolls far from uptown bustle, but devoid of the pulse of city living. Toronto's ongoing condominium boom, of course, has changed everything about the lay of the land down there. Tower after tower is rising from former industrial sites and railway lands, patching up the tattered urban fabric in the vicinity of Fort York and bringing vitality to the once-desolate neighbourhood.
       And, along with the towers, the signs of metropolitan civilization are appearing. There is now a big grocery store at the corner of Fort York Boulevard and Spadina Avenue, within easy walking distance of thousands of homes. Close to the store, a new school and park will soon be completed. And a couple of long blocks west along the uncompleted boulevard (where it joins Bathurst Street), one of the surest indicators of full-service urban culture will emerge: a spanking new 17,000-square-foot public library to be designed by Shirley Blumberg, partner in the Toronto firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects.
       The library is not, however, Ms. Blumberg's only intervention at the point where Fort York Boulevard and Bathurst will someday meet. She is also the author of the adjacent Library District Condominiums, a 29-storey building that will conclude the westward march of condo stacks along the boulevard between Spadina and Bathurst.
       The artistic and marketing schemes of the Library District tower have been borrowed from the branch library itself – or, rather, from the books stored on its shelves.
       Indeed, if the Internet and Kindle have made old-fashioned books obsolete, the architect and the developer (Context) have not heard the bad news: Ms. Blumberg's design calls for bright green, yellow and blue vertical panels on the exterior of the seven-level podium – an explicit, if abstracted, reference to the spines of books standing at attention on a shelf. The same motif appears on the sides of the sloping, ramp-shaped roof, though the colours will be muted there, and again on the jauntily angled amenities pavilion scheduled to go up between the tower and the branch library.
       On the marketing side, the literary theme continues. The suite layouts have been named after honoured authors, including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Agatha Christie.
       This corny list, like the more engaging surface decoration of the tower, is an interestingly antiquarian gesture – especially in view of the fact that the branch library will almost certainly be a mediatheque, with many CDs, DVDs, computer terminals and such, instead of a conventional book morgue. I have nothing against old-style book depositories, by the way. I just find it curious that so much creative energy has been expended on making the Library District condos evoke a medium that is a shrinking part of the library business.
       (For the record, the writer-named suites in the project range in size from studios at 388 square feet to two-bedroom apartments at 826 square feet. Prices go from about $192,000 up to nearly $458,000 for the largest units.)
       The multi-coloured pattern that adorns the walls of the amenities pavilion and the lower reaches of the tower is Ms. Blumberg's most interesting contribution to tall-building design and urbanism here. In a climate with many grey days, and in a zone with many silvery glass buildings, the shining blues, greens and yellows of the structure will likely create a welcome bright spot in the urban grid.
       The most attractive aspect of the Library District scheme, however, is its formal relationship to the other architectural features of its site. The branch library, the pavilion-tower arrangement, and a second tower on the same block (architect to be announced) will link up into a well-spaced, sensitively ordered ensemble spread on two sides of a new park, to be landscaped by Janet Rosenberg + Associates.
       The walkways of this lovely new green space – a plus for occasional users of the library and permanent residents alike – will open onto a new linear park destined to provide, eventually, a pedestrian connection all the way from Fort York to the Rogers Centre.
       When these things come to pass – the park, the towers, the library on this block, and all the other projects planned for the area around Fort York–a haunt for lonesome walkers will be lost forever, but the old fortification will be where it has always belonged: in the midst of Toronto's urban life.

Prefab, and loaded with green tech

11 June 2010

       The century-old dream of a high-style, entirely factory-built house took an interesting step toward reality in Toronto last week. That's when developer Steve Glenn, principal in the Los Angeles firm LivingHomes, and Toronto's Nexterra Green Homes announced their plans to bring forth, on a shady ravine lot in North York, the greenest prefab luxury dwelling this town has probably ever seen. (The house, which is scheduled to be dropped in place by the end of this year, is the first of four similar buildings projected for the picturesque site.)

       Designed for Mr. Glenn by the senior southern California architect Ray Kappe, the 3,200-square-foot Toronto project will come loaded with just about every ecologically responsible feature you can think of.
       The scheme calls for heating and air-conditioning to be provided by a geothermal system sunk deep into the earth. Photovoltaic cells on the roof will supplement, and ideally replace, the hydro that an ordinary house sucks from the electricity grid. The building envelope will be tightened up and super-insulated to resist the extremes of Toronto weather, the expanses of glass will be triple-paned containers of inert argon gas, and interior off-gassing will be curtailed or eliminated by the use of special paints and varnishes.
       In addition, having the house fabricated in a factory – it will be made in Winnipeg by Conquest Manufacturing and shipped to Toronto for assembly onsite – means a sharp reduction in the material waste that usually accompanies residential construction. And that's only a partial list of the house's environmental refinements. Clearly, this dwelling will make its strongest pitch to that niche market where the human impact on nature is of paramount concern.
       Mr. Glenn brings both entrepreneurial expertise and a keen sense of public service to the job of creating such housing. His ventures have included a $1-billion business incubation firm, a software company with high-profile corporate clients such as Oracle, Reuters and CBS, and, since 2006, the green real-estate development project LivingHomes. For the past several years, he has also been engaged as a volunteer with the William J. Clinton Foundation, labouring on projects ranging in topic from American childhood health to HIV/AIDS in Africa.
       But the green home is where his heart has been for the past four years. The proof of Mr. Glenn's commitment to green thinking is in the very first building done by LivingHomes: the Santa Monica residence of Mr. Glenn himself, which became the first new single-family home in the United States to receive the U.S. Green Building Council's top (platinum) rating under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. If the Toronto house lives up to its billing, it could well attain platinum status under Canada's own LEED regime.
       The ecological guts are not, however, the only attractive things about this building. Take the architectural art of it, for example. Ray Kappe, who began his design career in the early 1950s, is a veteran practitioner of glassy southern California modernism. He brings to Toronto the moves he has long made in the sunnier southwest: the horizontal roof line, the extensive glazing of whole walls, the sweep of open interior space, a lightness of touch that is very southern California.
       Instead of a lush tropical garden setting for his structure, of course, Mr. Kappe has been working in Toronto with the edge of a deep urban ravine. But as we find in this residence, his brand of American modernism is very open to nature of every kind, unconcerned about making a grand statement in the landscape, and content to be a kind of neat, modest transitional pavilion between the dense city fabric and the wild.
       But while LivingHomes house invokes the old promise of beautiful, healthy factory-built dwellings for everyone, it also brings to mind what is still unfulfilled in that promise: a price point that could make this kind of housing genuinely affordable.
       The asking price for the Toronto project is $1.6-million, though that figure includes everything – design, land costs, fabrication, transport, site preparation, appliances, the works. It's a reasonable sum to expect for an experimental prototype that incorporates deluxe design and outfitting. And indeed, the price would come down if orders rushed in and the assembly line in Winnipeg started to mass-produce similar units.
       As Mr. Glenn told me, such is the vision of LivingHomes: to supply 10 green homes this year (the current number he's got under way), 20 next year, and many more eventually. Only in this gradual way can prefab eventually meet its historic goal of affordability.
       Meanwhile, the North York LivingHomes house is an instance of the kind of green housing that may some day be possible, not just for a few, but for the millions.

Mr. Big comes to town; Aura will be Canada's tallest residential structure, with a mammoth footprint that will muscle its way onto Yonge Street

4 June 2010

       The disappearance of an above-ground parking lot in downtown Toronto is always an occasion for rejoicing, because each is a blemish on the urban fabric. That's why I was glad to learn that the bulldozers have begun tearing up the lot on the southeast corner of the block of Yonge Street between College and Gerrard streets.
This activity is making way for the Canderel Stoneridge development group's mammoth residential skyscraper known as Aura. The tower will close the last yawning gap on Yonge south of Bloor Street and, at least for that reason, is a welcome addition to our downtown's dense streetscape.
       Everything about this building is big. Topping out at 75 storeys, Aura will be the tallest residential structure in Canada. There will be 200,000 square feet of retail area in the spacious four-level podium, including an entire floor leased to the American chain Bed Bath and Beyond, hitherto a phenomenon of the suburbs, and a 40,000 square-foot health club.
       The 931 units could offer shelter to some 2,000 people, who will surely be affluent and interested in ample spaces: Prices start at $715,600 for an 859-square-foot apartment, and range upward to $17.5-million for an 11,370-sq.-ft. penthouse. On the technical side, the immense weight of the edifice will be carried elegantly downward along a massive central tube and just eight perimeter pillars, to insure that the retail interiors at the base will be column-free.
       I don't have anything against large buildings in principle. But when is a big building simply too big? Take the base of Aura, for example. This structure, clad in limestone and granite, will muscle its way out to the very edges of Aura's 65,000-square-foot site, leaving no room for green or public space at the margins. While we expect inner-city towers to meet the city in a tough manner, Aura seems to be overdoing it, pushing too hard against the sidewalk.
       To this objection, architect Berardo Graziani replies that he is providing 20,000 square feet of greensward on top of the four-level podium and, anyway, the main retail entrance to the base will face Barbara Ann Scott Park, the mid-block green space behind the College Park mixed-use development just to the north of the Aura site. (An east-west corridor leading from Yonge Street to the park will lie along the alignment of little Hayter Street, erased long ago to create the one, big block Aura will stand on.)
       Even if one agrees with Mr. Graziani's argument – I don't; a more slender tower, with public areas round about, makes more urban sense at this point on Yonge Street – my problems with this tower don't end there.
       Like large size in general, great building height doesn't bother me, at least not as a rule. It only does so when the structure boosted to the sky falls short of making a substantial contribution to the skyline. The top of Aura, to take a case in point, will be visible from far and wide. But if renderings are anything to go on, the 20-storey curving blade of light blue glass, positioned above a conventional window-walled block, will not be architecturally distinguished enough to stand out forcefully against the sky. The thing Mr. Graziani is proposing belongs to the 1970s, or so it seems to me, not the contemporary moment in tall-building design.
       But here again, Mr. Graziani stands firmly by what he has done. In crafting this building, he wished to have no part in the disjunctive, ironic or otherwise limit-testing moves common in avant-garde design nowadays.
       “Personally,” he told me, “I tend to think buildings that are there for the initial shock value don't fare well in the longevity and future of the actual structure. It has to have staying power, it has to be somewhat classic in design. … That's the approach we take with our designs. They are not the most eccentric, but we do believe they will stand the test of time.”
       While I don't agree with Mr. Graziani's characterization of the advanced tall-building art, neither do I mean to single him out, or Aura for that matter, for being insufficiently up to speed. Skyscraper design is everywhere lagging behind other forms of artistic enterprise. My worry is that it will never catch up, and that, at the end of the current construction cycle, our new downtowns will look like they were put up 40 years ago.
       But even if they do, there is some slight consolation in the fact that many parking lots will have disappeared in the process.

Ahoy! Arc's in port at Bayview and Sheppard

28 May 2010

       If you happen to be near the intersection of Bayview and Sheppard avenues in suburban Toronto and think you see a Caribbean cruise ship tied up at the subway station there, you haven't had one too many Cuba Libres. It's just Arc you're seeing: a large condominium building from Daniels Corp. that looks somewhat like a hefty ship, though without getting kitschy or literal about the allusion.
       Arc is not, of course, the first landlubber building to be inspired by marine design. During the Art Deco decades in North America – roughly the 1920s and 1930s – avant-garde architects often decorated residences with portholes, streamlined prows and balcony railings in white-painted tubular steel. The gentle power of ocean-going liners on architectural imaginations slipped after the outbreak of world war in 1939. For millions of soldiers bound for the battlefields and for myriad refugees fleeing destruction, crossing the ocean was a miserable business, endured in stinking, crowded quarters below deck. It's little wonder that new North American houses stopped looking like boats after the Second World War.Things are different now. A younger generation has discovered the Mediterranean and Caribbean holiday cruise ship, with its endless supply of pleasures and entertainments.

       Designed by Clifford Korman, principal in the Toronto firm of Kirkor Architects and Planners, the boat-shaped Arc building is not as luxuriously appointed as the commercial pleasure craft going out of Miami, but its amenities and features are worth noting.
       The 60-foot pool, for example, is part of a recreational and fitness complex that comes with its own personal trainer and organizer of activities. Among the diversions delivered by Arc are movie and poker nights, ski trips, golf tours, cardio workouts and Pilates classes. On the south end of the eighth floor, the building opens into a curving, glassy expanse of party rooms, a bar and such. Beyond the glass are a broad terrace and wide views of the downtown core (and, less fortunately, some undistinguished tall residential buildings in the neighbourhood).
       These spacious amenity areas on the southbound prow of the structure provide what most residents don't have in abundance: space. Arc's 450 suites tend to be on the small side, and, compared with prices fetched by similarly sized condominiums downtown, relatively inexpensive. A 650-square-foot apartment here runs about $295,000, while that outlay would get you only the smallest studio in a tonier condo tower downtown. Such figures suggest that Arc's target group of prospective homeowners are young but high-earning and hard-working, mostly single and in the real-estate market for the first time. These are active people who surely put the eighth-floor amenity zones to good use as extended living and dining rooms, and who enjoy the busy recreation centre. On my visit last week, I got the sense that the residents probably go out mainly for work, spending the rest of their time with each other in the gym, pool, or entertainment rooms.
       The site of Arc, after all, is deep suburbia, far from the clubs, up-market shopping and jobs of downtown. But its typical suburban isolation – Arc resembles an island as much as it does a ship – is sharply mitigated by its immediate proximity to the subway. The location is ideal for someone who does not want to live in the city centre – there are certainly reasons other than financial ones for not wanting to do so – but who desires the fastest, most convenient connection to all the city has to offer. The basic necessities of life are also very close by, in the form of a large mall adjacent to the building. I find it attractive that some of the good things about living in suburbia have been joined so neatly to the possibility of living one's daily life (at least while young and independent) without a car.
       That said, I do have some problems with the way the building hits the ground. There is no direct access to the subway from the bottom floor; the developer should have held out for permission to create it. The lobby is huge, dull and vacuous; it badly needs the enlivening touch of art. Retail, so far, is limited to a bank branch. More services should be brought on stream at grade to raise the pitch of activity on the barren suburban streets round about.
       Apart from these caveats, I find Arc a welcome addition to Toronto's mix of new condo buildings: sleek and economical behind its cladding of glass and silvery-blue aluminum, and well done in a part of the city where a bit of flair is rarely part of the condo package.

Behind the typical façade, this is a green house worthy of 2010

21 May 2010

       Driving or walking along the leafy streets in the Governor's Bridge district of Rosedale, you might never notice the house I'm writing about this week. It's new, but it fits without a glitch into the quiet urban streetscape of similarly new, stylistically old-fashioned homes.
       What counts about this 3,400-square-foot dwelling is not its architecture, which is hardly daring or inventive, but its exceptional efficiency. Using some of the most advanced energy systems now available in the marketplace, Toronto designer Richard C. Brightling has created a house that looks forward into the future of construction, when all new residences will be required to perform much better than they do now. With clients demanding greener solutions to their need for housing, and architects increasingly adept at coming up with such solutions, that future is not far off.
       Energy-saving features of the Governor's Bridge house include a high-performance building envelope that is insulated to a standard considerably beyond what is now required by city construction codes. The atmosphere inside this tight skin is kept fresh and clean by an exchanger that replaces and filters the air every four hours.
       Heating and cooling is accomplished with a $70,000 geothermal system. Six fluid-carrying tubes have been sunk 200 feet into the ground, where the temperature is a steady 14.4 C. Pumped up to the surface and into a control room in the basement – this tightly packed, high-tech facility resembles what I imagine a submarine interior to look like – the fluid is then used to modify the temperature of fan-forced air. Geo-thermal energy is not free; electricity is needed to run the pumps and raise the temperature from its base level of 14.4C to something more comfortable. Nevertheless, Mr. Brightling told me, his clients' annual savings on air conditioning come in at 30 to 40 per cent.
       Hot water for showers, dishwashing and so forth is generated by solar thermal panels installed on the roof. Glycol (which does not freeze in winter) circulates through the panels, gathering heat from the sun that, in turn, heats water in the tank. I was surprised to find that the tap water was very hot indeed – on a cool spring day, with little or no help from hydro. This $8,000 system works efficiently in our northern climate for most of the year, Mr. Brightling said, taking notable strain off the electricity grid (and hence lightening the electric bill).
       Being a confirmed apartment-dweller, I don't have a lawn, nor do I understand the North American obsession with having lawns. But if one must keep a green patch out front and back of the house, it should pull its weight, environmentally speaking. It does so here. Mr. Brightling has installed a 4,500-litre tank under the back yard of this project that effectively catches rain water running off the roofs of the main house and the garden shed and makes this water available for irrigating the lawns. This uncomplicated plumbing arrangement is an example of good ecological stewardship, especially in a city that wastes far too much water.
       Back inside the house, Mr. Brightling has introduced a few other smaller features that also enhance the pleasure and sense of security in living there. There are the ceiling sprinklers, for instance – nearly invisible fixtures intended to deploy individually when the air around them reaches 100 C. And there is the lighting, equipped with low-wattage LED and halogen bulbs to further enhance the energy efficiency of the house.
       These, then, are the major and minor systems at work in Mr. Brightling's technical outfitting – some complex, others simple, all suitable for comfortable living in a sustainable, environmentally responsible manner. Nor is the cost of these green measures, as a percentage of total expenditure, really prohibitive. Of the $1.8-million it took to build the Governor's Bridge house, only $150,000 was invested in green technologies – all of which will bring cost savings down the line.
       Now, to marry such advanced thinking about the environment to contemporary good design! Like the passion for lawns, the desire for a 2010 house that looks like it was done in the 1920s escapes me. Windows were small back in those days, interiors were chopped up into small rooms, the middle of the building was always dark. To be fair, Mr. Brightling has opened up the rear of the Governor's Bridge house to the light, but the front façade is as fusty and serious as anything in Rosedale from 80 years ago. The architectural taste of Rosedale residents, it appears, has some catching up to do, if it's to stay abreast of the technological advances taking root in their dignified old neighbourhood.

A dog's-eye view of a masterwork; A delightful children's book explores Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater using a dachshund as a guide

14 May 2010

         Frank Lloyd Wright's daringly cantilevered Fallingwater, completed in 1937 in the Allegheny Mountains near Pittsburgh, is surely the most famous modern dwelling in America.

         Four million visitors have trooped through the project since 1964, when it became a public museum. Critics of architecture have spilled gallons of ink in their attempts to capture its peculiar sculptural brilliance. And the academic historians, for their part, have thoroughly documented every aspect of the creation of this house – the squabbles between architect and client that more than once threatened to derail construction, the engineering headaches that came with Wright's determination to float his concrete house directly on top of a rushing stream and rocky waterfall, and much else.

         But all the books and critical articles about Fallingwater, however valuable their insights and information, have failed to answer the most important architectural question of all: What was it like to live inside this masterpiece?

       We need wonder no longer. A long-time resident of Fallingwater, a dog named Moxie, has stepped forward to tell her story of the house, and she has done so with charm and warmth in the children's book Moxie: The Dachshund of Fallingwater (Bright Sky Press, $19.95). Cara Armstrong, curator of education at Fallingwater, has acted as Moxie's mouthpiece here and illustrated Moxie's narrative with crisp, vivid watercolours.

       The domestic world Moxie reveals to us bustles with the busy comings and goings of the human and canine occupants of the house. Among the humans are Wright's client, the cultivated Pittsburgh department-store tycoon Edgar Kaufmann, his wife Liliane, who loves long-haired dachshunds, and the Kaufmanns' son, Edgar, Jr. (The Kaufmann family used Fallingwater as a weekend and vacation retreat from 1938 until they gave it away to a public trust in 1963.)

       The non-humans include Moxie and her six brother and sisters, each given a name beginning with the letter M – hence Moxie's moniker, “the M's,” for the lot of them. Moxie is the architecture critic in the litter. She admires, for example, the way Fallingwater engages the nearby natural order of stone and water. “All the best parts of the outside world are right inside,” she says. “We're that lucky!”

       Wright, she relates, studied the site and carefully knit into his design the things the family and their pets loved about the place – especially a rock by the waterfall, where the Kaufmanns and the dachshunds had enjoyed many a good picnic. “Our rock became Mr. Wright's favourite rock, too, so he designed the whole house around it,” the pooch recalls. “The rock helped him make the house strong enough to stand over the cascading water below it. He could appreciate a good rock when he saw one, just like me, Moxie.”

       With more than a dash of canine narcissism, Moxie fancies that dachshund geometry inspired Wright's design for Fallingwater. “Look at the house and you can see the long straight backs of all the M's in the horizontal lines of the house – in the long, low tables, in the shelves, in the bands of glass that make the windows, everywhere!” Even the bold cantilevered slabs of the residence, in Moxie's dog's-eye view, were suggested by the dachshunds' tails, sticking straight out.

       Because she has always had the free run of the house and grounds, Moxie is well-suited to be our guide. We start at the great fireplace built on the picnic rock so that the dogs “can nap on the warm stone whenever they want. Then [Wright] put a really big room around it so we could invite people over to share our house.” On Friday afternoons, when the Kaufmanns arrived from Pittsburgh, Moxie barks out the command “Cascade! Cascade!” to the other M's, who promptly plunge down 21 steps to the entry level. (Moxie stands out from all the rest of the M's by reason of her pearl collar and loud bark.)

       In similar fashion – by relating each space and interval in the house to her own enthusiasms – Moxie leads the young reader into an intimate engagement with the house and an appreciation of Fallingwater's built form as an emotional territory, richly dwelt in and enjoyed by all its inhabitants. This is certainly how adults and kids alike should feel (at the best of times) about the architecture we visit, use and live within. Loaded with a simple glossary of terms at the back and graced by delightful breeziness, Moxie: the Dachshund of Fallingwater is an introduction to architecture for an intelligent, curious child. But it's also a reminder to us adults of the ways architecture – done mindfully and well, as Wright did Fallingwater – can shelter and enrich our lives.

River House applies spatial brilliance to robust materials for a brand new interpretation of the country retreat.

30 April 2010

       For architects since the time of Palladio, the rural villa has been a prime site for trying out new artistic strategies and testing design theories in real-world situations. The most memorable results of this ongoing, centuries-old experimentation are often modest in size and bearing: Palladio's country seats, for example, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Illinois, and Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. What makes these projects stand out is not grandeur and opulence, but the quality of intense, robust architectural imagination they embody.

       River House, in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, is among the newest contributions to the long, fruitful tradition of modern villa design, and it is surely one of the most excellent new Toronto-area homes I have ever reviewed in this column. Crafted by Adam Thom and Katja Aga Sachse Thom, partners in both life and art, this small, brilliant residence for a couple and one child combines a strong material palette – poured-in-place concrete, untreated cedar cladding on the exterior, handsome jatoba flooring throughout – with refined, gracious livability in a rough, lovely pocket of Ontario countryside.

       On the face of it, the tract that River House stands on seemed to offer more problems than opportunities for creative design. A good portion of the property is thickly wooded hillside. A little stream, mindfully protected by local environmental officials, runs slantwise across the site, and a roadway bounds the lot on its southern edge, all of it sharply restricting the area available for construction.

       The Thoms' solution to these inconveniences is a poetic wedge of housing that handily fills its irregular, difficult place in the landscape, and that responds with remarkable empathy to its natural and artificial conditions, including the history of its location. Challenged by Brampton city officials to come up with a plan that recalled local building styles, the Thoms scouted out the neighbourhood and found an old flat-roofed woollen factory, water-powered in its day, composed of stone and concrete, chimneys and blocky volumes.

       Thus were born certain features of River House – its long, low-slung profile, its tall concrete tower punching skyward and the rugged concrete treatments on the interior. But the raking angles and turning geometry of the volume, which lend great variety and interest to the transitions and rooms within, are the designers' own creations.

       This external surface of the house opens and shuts according to the views that are available and desirable. Each of these views is framed by precisely sculpted architectural apertures, terraces, thresholds. The windows in the living room and dining room welcome in the verdant forest floor at the back of the building, while the windows on the street side limit what's allowed to enter.

       The structure turns a blind side to the ranch-style home in the next lot, and hides it behind tall grasses.The landscaping plans, which have not yet been executed, call for extensive plantings of native species, knitting the composition into the green surge and tangle of the bottomland.

       On the inside, the various parts of the house step up or step down in response to the changing levels of the site, and in order to accent the shifts in use from one section of the house to another. Instead of being enclosed by squared-off rooms, the living areas are lightly bounded by walls that seem to flex and tense along diagonal lines, diverging and colliding in a kind of measured structural play.

       The interior is less an open-plan arrangement, with a simple flow-through of space – though the Thoms have clearly learned from the rational schemes of modernist residential planning – than a system of spatial valves that subtly differentiate and define the moods and atmospheres inside the building.

       The stairway up to the second level, for instance, passes between two walls of concrete that were poured into horizontal plank and plywood forms. The concrete surface has registered every knot and imperfection in the moulds, lending visual excitement to the ordinary act of walking up steps.

       At the top of the staircase, the space opens up on a sort of bridge, with overlooks of the foyer below and the forest beyond – a sociable corridor that links the couple's suite and the child's small room. (None of the dedicated areas in the house is large; the Thoms have chosen, instead, to emphasize the zones of transition, by making each a dramatic passageway.)

       The beauty of River House operates at several scales and through several material textures, from the expanse of cedar cladding at the rear down to the jatoba coverings of the air-conditioning vents. Despite the variety and intensity of moves both without and within, however, the house coheres splendidly, and projects a very fresh vision of what the modern house can be.

A few degrees from the norm

23 April 2010

       The Toronto phenomenon known as Queen Street West hatched about 30 years ago. It was at about 1980 that art galleries, boutiques for the stylishly alienated urban young and chic, cheap restaurants and bars began to appear on the old skid row along Queen west of University Avenue. Since that long-past day, of course, the commercial revival of the once-shabby shopping street has swept out to the threshold of Parkdale and beyond.

       Residential real estate developers caught up with this surge in the 1990s, and they've been moving with the trend ever since – transforming sturdy warehouses and other industrial buildings into condominium stacks, and putting up new blocks of (mostly) small condos for a (mostly) kid-free, first-time market.

       The bulk of this recent activity, however, has occurred far west of the Queen Street renewal's birthplace between University and Spadina avenues. Developers and investors, it appears, have been daunted by high land prices there and, not least, by a vociferous citizens' group mobilized to defend the neighbourhood's dense Victorian fabric down to the last red brick.

       Daunted until now, that is.

       With the launch in the next few weeks of the condo project known as 12° – I'll explain how it came by its curious name in a moment – this historic stretch of Queen Street will get its first important glimpse of inventive, high-density architectural modernism since the current Toronto real-estate boom began.

       Designed by core architects for Tarek Sobhi and Tyler Hershberg, partners in the new development firm BSäR Group of Cos., the 11-storey building is slated to rise immediately north of the intersection of Queen and Beverley streets.

       For the record, 12° will contain 90 units ranging in area from 450-square-foot studios to 1,700-square-foot suites with three bedrooms. The large sizes of top-end suites and the prices – from the mid-$300,000s for the smallest unit up to about $1-million – suggest that the block's market will probably be somewhat older and more affluent than the usual Queen Street West home-buying crowd. The buyers will likely be people who have decided to retire downtown or, on the young end of the scale, people who have moved on, demographically speaking, beyond the singles' club scene just south of Queen and are now high-earners rearing families.

       In that regard, 12° promises to be yet another building, among a few other new residential projects in progress along Queen, with places for children. This is a step in the right direction, for until Queen Street and the rest of Toronto's west-side core attract families, these areas will remain entertainment zones for tourists from suburbia. The project's 10 three-bedroom units and 20 two-bedroom corner suites (the latter selling for about $550,000 each) are evidence that developers these days are betting at last on the willingness of some Torontonians, including the most well-off workers, to start families, rear children and grow old in inner-city apartments.

       This variety of dwelling spaces is surely one of the attractive things about 12°. Another is the building's jaunty overall composition.

       The façade starts its climb to the 11th storey tamely enough, with five two-storey townhouses and a couple of condo levels laid out parallel to the street. Tall limestone piers or buttresses interrupt what would otherwise be a boring expanse of townhouse fronts and create a rhythm the architects believe will mimic that of the antique house-fronts up and down the street. I'm not convinced by this treatment. Something bolder and stronger was necessary at grade, and it hasn't been delivered here.

       Designing above this very modest foundation, however, the architects get their nerve back, dropping on the townhouses a glassy four-storey slab of condominiums smartly canted 12 degrees off the building's north-south axis (hence the name). The structure corrects its orientation to the street over this gesture of urbane pizzazz, going upward in a sequence of great stacked blocks that are roofed with a terrace and seasonal swimming pool.

       While such dramatic play with volumes is unusual in a residential design, it's hardly out of place in a district that already sports Frank Gehry's revised Art Gallery of Ontario and the soaring tabletop, by Will Alsop, of the Ontario College of Art and Design's Sharp Centre. These precedents called for something out of the ordinary, whenever somebody got around to raising new condominium towers on the vivid stretch of Queen nearby. I'm not happy with what happens at street level but, in most other respects, core architects has met this architectural challenge with vision and verve.

I COVER THE WATERFRONT; Developer Peter Freed's grandiose vision for the Toronto harbourfront features a giant boardwalk across the water. It may have flaws, but bravo to a private citizen for floating such an ambitious plan

16 April 2010

       For the past several years, Toronto real-estate developer Peter Freed has been watching the revitalization of the city's inner harbour inch slowly forward, and he has not liked much that's happening by the water's edge. “It's a typical, boring, Canadian version of what could be,” he told me. “There's nothing earth-shattering about it, nothing globally impressive about it.”

       But unlike most Torontonians who dislike the painstaking handiwork of Waterfront Toronto – the Crown corporation overseeing the renewal of the industrial harbour lands – Mr. Freed has taken the time to contribute something new to the discussion of the inner shoreline's redesign.

       His idea, unveiled last week, is grandiose. It's more extravagant than anything proposed so far by the urban planners and architects working for Waterfront Toronto. And it's certainly the most unusual harbourfront scheme anybody's come up with since local people began to think about uniting the city and Lake Ontario 200 years ago.

       Mr. Freed suggests throwing a linear green park over the railway corridor that runs across inner-city Toronto (not a bad notion, in my view).

       This park, with its biking, jogging and rollerblading paths, would then connect, probably at the foot of Bathurst Street – this is where the proposal gets interesting – with an immense boardwalk jutting out into the harbour just east of the island airport. The boardwalk, perhaps 50 feet wide, would bend around the harbour in a great arc, meeting the linear park again somewhere on the east side of downtown. (Mr. Freed hasn't decided where this eastern connection might take place.)

       In this vision, the pedestrian walkway out into the water is supplied with restaurants, cafés and places for picnicking. At the point where the arc swings closest to the Toronto Islands and farthest from the mainland, Mr. Freed foresees “a huge entertainment space … for symphonies, concerts. … Statue-of-Liberty-size statues of people from all races and cultures, from Toronto's past or whatever” stand in the water near the concert podium. “This is the only way for Toronto to take full ownership of its waterfront, by putting you right in the bay,” Mr. Freed said. “It doesn't have to be overwhelmed with programming. It could be nice places to eat, walk, run, sit down and enjoy the view.”

       Also in this scenario, the Toronto Islands would no longer be accessible only by the ferry and water taxis that run from the foot of Yonge Street. The boardwalk, Mr. Freed said, could touch the islands at various points, opening foot and cycling traffic from the mainland for the first time in more than a century.

       Mr. Freed has not presented his idea to city officials or to anyone at Waterfront Toronto, nor has he sat through any of the intense public planning sessions that have been going on throughout most of the past decade. “This is a fresh concept that has been in my head,” he said, “and I thought we could throw it out there for some debate, to see if it can catch wind with the forces that be.”

       The developer has anticipated some immediate objections to his plan – the way it would seem to block the passage of the island ferry, for example, and interfere with the free manoeuvring of pleasure craft in and out of the harbour and commercial shipping to the Redpath Sugar refinery. His reply: The boardwalk would rise at its western and eastern extremities to allow boats to pass unobstructed, and other accommodations would be made for Great Lakes ships. “There is nothing that could not be worked out here. People flew to the moon in a space ship, so I'm sure we could figure out how to get a ship or two in and out of the sugar plant. If we can't we should all be embarrassed.”

       My own problems with this controversial scheme include all the ones I just mentioned, plus an aesthetic consideration. The small lagoon framed by the archipelago of islands and the dense fabric of the downtown towers is, as it stands, one of Toronto's most attractive natural features. I can't see how filling it with an enormous boardwalk and with towering statues would enhance the beauty of this expanse of water or the already fine views of the city from the islands.

       Logistics and aesthetics aside, however, the notable thing about Mr. Freed's proposal is that a private citizen, on his own initiative, took the trouble to make it. We should hope that other people in the city will follow his lead, and launch similarly ambitious waterfront ideas into the public debate about what's to become of Toronto's Lake Ontario edge.

Stellar, but is it special enough? The Bloor and Yonge location demands a big architectural statement. One Bloor raises the bar, but the details have to be right

9 April 2010

       The art of skyscraper design came of age and matured in the first half of the 20th century, roughly the period between Louis Sullivan's Gilded Age masterpieces in Chicago, St. Louis and Buffalo, and the completion, in 1958, of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York. Except on the computer screens and in the imaginations of some contemporary architectural dreamers, it has languished ever since.

       The reasons for this fall-off in design creativity are not hard to figure out.

       Tall buildings have become very expensive propositions. If investors are to receive substantial profit from a tower venture these days, every aspect of the building's realization, from engineering and construction to outfitting and marketing, must be streamlined and rationalized as much as possible. Mass-market popularity, not artistic ingenuity, therefore becomes the most urgent assignment of architects who work for mainline developers. These business folk reason that nobody will pay for top-flight design, so why bother? The results of this dismal realpolitik are familiar to all Torontonians: soulless condominium stacks heaped up on streets across the city in the last 20 years, so many mediocre boxes and cylinders devoid of flair or delight or thoughtful urbanism.

       But a city gets the architecture it deserves. Gradually over the past few decades, though with gathering speed since around 2000, Toronto has acquired a sizable population of affluent homebuyers who know the difference between a well-designed tall building and a poor one, and who are prepared to put down money for the privilege of living in a tower with style, sophistication and excellent location. Some suppliers of Toronto housing have responded eagerly to this new, smart market – no surprise there – and a few local architectural offices have shown that they are up to the job of creating attractive dwellings for it.

       Among these offices, Hariri Pontarini Architects is a relative newcomer to making tall buildings: The firm has been best known, until now, for its distinguished single-family luxury homes and handsomely crafted institutional projects. With the recent unveiling of its inventive tower scheme for the southeast corner of Bloor and Yonge streets, however, Hariri Pontarini has joined the select league of advanced Toronto designers who are now defining the city's 21st-century skyline.

       Called One Bloor by its developer, Great Gulf Group of Companies, this building is slated to soar 65 storeys over the historic intersection in the heart of Toronto. Nearly 700 suites are for sale, ranging in area from 530 square feet to 1,727 square feet, and in price from $390,000 to $1.5-million and up. The interior appointments will be done by the Toronto-based office of Cecconi Simone, and landscaping will be in the hands of Janet Rosenberg + Associates. The designer of the tower is David Pontarini, founding partner and principal in Hariri Pontarini.

       Mr. Pontarini's plan calls for a tall shaft rising from a six-storey podium containing two levels of retail outlets at the bottom. While Toronto has seen many tower-podium arrangements, we have never had a tall building with One Bloor's kind of strong architectural romanticism.

       The basic form of the building is a steel-framed box – no fancy structural shimmies or wiggles here. The facades, however, sweep toward the sky in broad, flat curves sculpted from undulating balconies and expanses of sheer glass. If renderings are anything to go on, this treatment of One Bloor's tower surfaces should produce a moment of high and urbane visual drama in its otherwise dowdy neighbourhood and raise the artistic bar for the future high-rise development of mid-town.

       That said, I do have one hesitation about the project. It's about what happens at the base.

       An earlier proposal for the site, done for another developer by another architect, featured four levels of retail above ground (including a large cinema complex), as opposed to Mr. Pontarini's two (with no theatres). Four sounds right to me; two seems skimpy – though I suppose it could be argued that one- or two-storey shopping is what's ordinary along the nearby Bloor Street corridor. But the intersection of Bloor and Yonge is not ordinary. Whatever is built there should be extraordinary in every sense, at grade as well as in elevation – a magnet for tourists and citizens alike, an unusual place full of urban excitement. Mr. Pontarini's podium could be put anywhere in the downtown core. It's just not special enough.

       But this flaw isn't large enough to detract from what's genuinely interesting and promising about David Pontarini's One Bloor: its recovery of architecture's admirable early 20th-century ambition to make skyscrapers, not only efficient, but beautiful and inspiring as well. That's good news for Toronto, as our architects and developers continue to reach for the sky.

LOVELY IN LEASIDE; A Leaside reno gives a house a modernist makeover – but respects the streetscape

2 April 2010

                                                             The success of a residential renovation often depends on everyone's knowing when to stop. Architects, builders, clients – the good ones understand when to quit trying to force an old residence to become something it really doesn't want to, and how to move with the grain of both the streetscape and the house layout to pleasing effect.

       I saw an overhaul in historic Leaside last week that has been done with this kind of artistic restraint and commonsensical urbanism. Designed by Toronto architect Cindy Rendely, the work brings a modern lift to a traditional suburban street without violating the long-established rhythm of houses up and down the block.

       The house on Donegall Drive began its career, probably some 90 years ago, as a two-storey, two-bedroom family dwelling.

       It had a small, becolumned front porch and a three-sided bay window. In common with all the other houses on the street, the front façade was capped by a pitched roof. Ms. Rendely wisely kept the roofline intact in her intervention (thus reinforcing the streetscape) and even extended it at the rear to cover a two-storey extension of the interior volume.

       Gone, however, are the porch and bay window. In place of the romantic veranda, there is now a flat slab supported by simple posts. And replacing the window frame is a box made of Corten steel, an industrial alloy whose surface is engineered to weather down to a reddish-brown rust. Ms. Rendely's modernist, spare treatment freshens up the façade while refraining from making it look very different from its neighbours: The Corten at the front, especially, blends well with the original brick fabric and the robust character of the little building.

       Corten steel makes another appearance at the rear of the house, where expanses of the stuff frame the large windows and doors that open from the sunken living room toward a deck and paved terrace. This back façade has more formal and material richness than what we find round at the front. In addition to the weathering metal, it features much glass in windows and doors, and also in the enclosure of the balcony off the master bedroom, on the second level. For whatever reason, most unrenovated Toronto houses built before the 1950s are blocked up at the rear, and usually devoid of all but the stingiest windows. Ms. Rendely has kicked out the walls and replaced them with glass, a move that strongly links interior and exterior, and that creates a highly attractive architectural backdrop for the family's hours in the garden.

       The inside space of the house has been broadened and brightened by the 15-foot addition at the rear (which contains the living room below, the master bedroom suite above), and by the establishment of a clear view from the front door to the back wall of the terrace. Interior walls have been eliminated, and the whole downstairs plan given a graceful sweep from the dining room behind the front window, through the handsome kitchen (with its beautiful Jerusalem limestone countertops), to the light-filled living room in the back.

       I do have one problem with this project, having to do with the super-abundance and variety of finishes, not all of which match up well with each other. In the master bedroom, for example, the stained oak floors do not harmonize with the cherry cabinetry. And in both the living room and master bedroom, the exposed brick walls clash, in terms of both colour and texture, with the stacked slate fireplace surrounds.

       So it goes throughout the house. It's as though every available deluxe material somehow had to be used in outfitting the interior, but without sufficient regard for how the whole ensemble would hang together. A reduced material palette, of the kind Ms. Rendely has successfully deployed in other residential designs I have reviewed in this column, would have been more appropriate for a house of this one's small size and modest bearing.

       Apart from this caveat, I take no issue with what Cindy Rendely has completed in a neighbourhood threatened by the blight of monster homes. That threat is real, and thoughtful renovations offer real alternatives. We are reminded here, for instance, that one need not demolish a sturdy family house, which has done its duty for most of a century, and put a gargantuan new palazzo in its place in order to obtain gracious living space suitable for a large family. (Six people are living full-time or part-time in the Donegall Drive house.)

       Of monster homes, I suppose, there is no end in sight. But this renovation offers several good examples of the creative things that can be done with the elderly buildings in our midst.

Traffic above, playground below; Architect Greg Smallenberg has come up with a thoughtful scheme to bring new life to the wasteland under an elevated highway

26 March 2010

       You may remember a column I wrote a few weeks back about River City. This condominium project by the Montreal office of Saucier + Perrotte is the first development in Waterfront Toronto's West Don Lands to be launched into the local housing market. In that column, I remarked on River City's architectural virtues (which are numerous) and also on the oddest thing about it: the fact that the site is chopped into two parcels by the elevated traffic decks of the Eastern Avenue flyover across the Don River. We were left wondering exactly how Waterfront Toronto, the Crown corporation charged with revitalizing the city's old port industrial properties, planned to bridge this yawning gap between the two parts.

       We need wonder no longer. The managers of the West Don Lands have unveiled a strikingly thoughtful and ambitious $5.3-million scheme for turning the wasteland under Eastern Avenue into a playground and passageway for people of all ages.

       Designed by architect Greg Smallenberg, partner in the Vancouver firm of Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, in association with the Toronto-based Planning Partnership, the 2.5-acre Underpass Park will feature recreational spaces and play areas, community gardens and a public art project by Toronto artist and architect Paul Raff. And, if the plan lives up to its promise, it will create a remarkably pleasant link between River City and the new 17-acre Don River Park.

       Last week, I caught up (by telephone) with Mr. Smallenberg in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the architect was leading a student workshop.

       Building a park under the flyover, he told me, was a distinct challenge from the outset. Successfully solving the problem “was not a certainty right away. There was not an aha moment to say we can do something here. But we knew we had to provide a connection between the north and south portions of the West Don Lands, otherwise it was going to be a really compromised community. How do you make this connection through this crazy mix of highways and stuff?”

       Answers to the question began to emerge when Mr. Smallenberg decided to “take advantage of what other people might see as a constraint, primarily the weather protection this place was offering. In so many park developments, among the first things that go are the fantastic built-form ideas that cost too much money. But in this case, the built form was there.”

       This industrial concrete structure also suggested that whatever was built underneath it should be “about the everyday,” Mr. Smallenberg said. “The park is not trying to be something overly special … We also recognized that there is strong community interest in having flexible space that unrolls serendipitously. In the design, there is quite a bit of flex space that anticipates a future that could include a flea market, a farmers' market, an impromptu, edgy street performance. This is not cathedral-like space. It's not going to attract a large civic event. But I do think it will be very appropriate for a community-level event.”

       One community asset that especially excites the architect is the allotment garden he has built into the scheme. Detailed shadow studies done by his office have shown that, despite the traffic ramps and such, gardening can be done. “There are areas where people can get dirt under their fingernails, growing some stuff,” he said. “It's a pretty wonderful component. In the cases I've seen in Boston and Portland and back in my home town of Vancouver, these become very active places from spring to fall, from morning to late afternoon. … So this idea gained traction, because it was one way to keep the park activated by people who live around the park and provide interest and beauty for other people who might be living there.”

       Of the things that people like to do in parks, eating is one that exercises the imagination of landscape architects. Mr. Smallenberg envisions a place set aside for what he calls “very upscale hot dog stands.” One example is a self-contained concession that “you drop onto the site, much like you would do with a container. Then the button is pressed, the walls come down, the ceiling goes up, the stools pop out, and the sandwich-maker is standing inside. At the end of the day, they press the button and it rolls up.”

       Such mindful attention to human needs, extended to the whole project, could result in a successful urban park, and one that sets a precedent. There is nothing quite like Underpass Park in the world this side of Japan and China, Mr. Smallenberg said. It won't be long before Toronto begins to see the outcome: Construction begins in May.

A pitchman for architectural humility; Writer Paul Goldberger takes a temperate view, and invites an undogmatic appreciation for the living reality of the city

19 March 2010

       Nobody in North America writes about city-building with more acute good sense than Paul Goldberger. His columns for the New Yorker, where he has been architecture critic since 1997, are public-spirited mixtures of vivid commentary and solid reporting. Their topics are as wide-ranging as the city itself: preservation and architectural loss, urban planning and the failures thereof, chances for metropolitan improvement variously grabbed and missed, good buildings and bad ones.

       What his columns don't feature, however, is the full-throated “huzzah!” for architecture that some architects and architectural fans would like to hear.

       “I get tired of architects' belief that the whole world revolves around architecture, and that's the only thing that matters,” Mr. Goldberger told me last week during a short trip up to Toronto from New York, his home town, to address a breakfast gathering organized by consultant Bob Ramsay. “Architecture does not bring world peace. It does not heal the sick, feed the hungry, cure cancer. It doesn't sustain life, but it does an awful lot to make the already-sustained life more meaningful and more pleasurable, so in that sense architecture matters.”

       Mr. Goldberger's temperate point of view extends beyond individual works of architecture, moreover, to the city itself. Because we were in Toronto, it was perhaps inevitable that our conversation would turn to Jane Jacobs, and to the ideas she left us about the city.

       “There have been many comparisons made between Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring,” Mr. Goldberger said. “I'd put a third book in: Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. All three books appeared at more or less the same time; they were all written by women who did not have traditional bona fides in their field; they were all dismissed as crazy at the beginning; and all three turned out to be right and changed the course of history. The way we see cities has been profoundly changed by Jane Jacobs, and that is not going to change back.”

       But Jane Jacobs's widely copied attitudes toward the city – the value of direct citizen participation, which she encouraged in both New York and Toronto, for example, and the suspicion of sweeping top-down transformation of the kind done 50 years ago by New York superplanner Robert Moses – have produced some unforeseen obstacles to getting on with urban development.

       “Planning a city democratically is slower and more complicated, so there's enormous frustration with process today,” Mr. Goldberger said. “There's a certain nostalgia in New York and elsewhere for the days when Robert Moses would just decree something and it would happen. The frustration is understandable, and I feel it myself.

       “Some of that, though, has to do with the political system in the United States, which is getting more and more dysfunctional, and some of it has to do with larger forces. I think it's important to remember that when Jane Jacobs wrote Death and Life, the city kind of naturally happened in a pretty good way. The Greenwich Village that she loved and wanted to protect was not the product of planners. It had grown up organically, and the challenge was to prevent interventions of an inappropriate sort. Today, however, the natural process doesn't give you something as likable and appealing as that; it gives you something at a whole different scale, much less economically diverse, much less physically diverse.”

       Diversity is a key word in Mr. Goldberger's vocabulary. While he doesn't know exactly when the idea of becoming a writer hit him, his diverse preferences in architecture were definitely shaped by his undergraduate years, in the late 1960s, at Yale.

       While still in high school, “I had known a lot about the modern architecture built on the campus in the fifties and sixties by Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph and Eero Saarinen. I was excited about seeing those buildings and living around them. When I got to Yale, I found they were nice, and I did like them. But I wasn't prepared for the fact that, at least as much, I was attracted to the traditional old Gothic buildings of the campus, which architects had great disdain for and which you weren't supposed to like. They were supposed to be sentimental clap-trap. All that nonsense turned out to be really quite wonderful.”

       So, where does saving our cities start? There is no single strategy, but Paul Goldberger is doing one thing that's valuable: inviting, through his popular books and columns, a seriously eclectic, undogmatic appreciation for architecture and the living reality of the city.

An artful addition to Queen West's changing landscape

12 March 2010

       I am of two minds about the gentrification of Queen Street West between Dovercourt Road and the Gladstone Hotel. On one hand, the condominium projects rising on the south side of the avenue will bring more people into the once-desolate strip, boost local businesses, make the streets more lively by day and night – all good things, in my view.

       On the other hand, the residential development of what's left of the industrial zone south of Queen is helping drive up neighbourhood real-estate prices from cheap to dear, to the detriment of the gallery owners, designers, artists and artisans whose presence made Queen West interesting in the first place. Add to that the poor artistic quality of the new architecture we've seen so far down there – for example, Baywood Homes's faux-Victorian edifices now under construction across the street from the Gladstone – and you may find yourself thinking, as I often do, that the spiffing up of Queen West is turning into a sad affair.

         Which leads us to Art Condominiums, the latest addition to the mix of residential projects on the go along this short stretch of Queen. Viewed with a weary eye, Art is just another instance of the intensification that is already making life too expensive for the long-time creative citizens in the area.

       That said, it's impossible simply to write off this 11-storey building on Dovercourt south of Queen.

       For one thing, I've rarely seen a new, developer-driven Toronto apartment block that tries harder to distance itself from the run-of-the-mill conglomeration of tiny condos typical of Hogtown. Art features 148 suites, only half of which are studio or one-bedroom units. The rest contain two or three bedrooms, and the largest apartments (1,615 square feet) have dens. Prices range from $213,000 for a 460-square-foot studio to about $700,000.

       These layouts and prices suggest that the target market is not merely the first-time buyer (though there is plenty in this project for a would-be new homeowner to look at). Couples with one or two children could be comfortably housed here. This fact alone makes Art worth noticing. For, though Toronto is not yet ready, it's only a matter of time until we get used to the idea of families living throughout the adult life-cycle in a downtown apartment. If Art is a success, its popularity could prompt other developers in the inner city to devote large swatches of their buildings to family-sized accommodations. This is something everyone who cares about Toronto's downtown vitality and diversity should wish for.

       Another thing that's attractive about Art – though I have certain reservations – is the architecture. Designed for developer Gary Silverberg by David Oleson, principal in Oleson Worland Architect, and Sandro Zanini of Hariri Pontarini Architects, the north-facing building rises in three movements: a stout base, over which floats a glassy, terraced shaft, and a cornice line that acts as a lid on the whole composition.

       In an interview, Mr. Oleson told me he means to clad the four-storey, “very robust, elemental, simple” base in stone as a nod to the gruff industrial buildings that once stood round about the site. But if the historical context is important enough to merit a gesture of recollection, it's surely worthwhile to get right what one is remembering: The older structures were humble brick, not high-toned limestone. Brick makes sense in this area of the city; stone just doesn't.

       At ground level, Mr. Oleson said, the base will contain 1,000-square-foot live-work units, each opening directly onto the street, each with 15-foot ceilings. On the second level will be a business centre. Both the live-work suites and the business centre are intended to attract the entrepreneurial people who have made Queen Street West the vivid place it is.

       As the building goes upward from the base, the shaft steps back on the north face, creating terraces off some units up to 15 feet by 20 feet in size. In this move, we again see the developer's objective at work: to draw in families with children who could enjoy what amounts to a back yard, along with the many freedoms and conveniences of condo living.

       I hope children will be born and grow up in Art. I also hope these children will find Queen Street the enjoyable place it is today, and not the overpriced, mediocre tourist wasteland that Yorkville (to cite another Toronto place that began as an artists' hangout) has become. Perhaps Art Condominiums will set Queen Street housing in a new direction, one more welcoming to the best that's already there. But like so many aspects of Toronto in this transitional moment, everything remains to be seen.

To dream the attainable dream house; Architect Richard Librach's model home is a proud product of ‘off the shelf thinking'

5 March 2010

       Every home show that aspires to be more than just another platform for mop salesmen features a dream house. So it was that last week's National Home Show presented a 3,072-square-foot prefabricated dwelling, called Mod 256, to dream on.

       Designed by Toronto architect Richard Librach in close collaboration with Brendan Charters and Jim Cunningham, owners of Eurodale Developments, the builder, Mod 256 is a low-slung cluster of 12 modules, each 16 by 16 feet. The profile of the project is modernist, with flat or slightly tilted rooflines placed over each component.

       The interior, on the other hand, has none of the open-plan flow now standard in contemporary residential layouts. Instead, the modularity of the construction, simply adding piece to discrete piece, means that each little room is very distinct from the next, giving the interior the choppy, cozy spatial sense of something much older – an unrenovated Victorian townhouse in downtown Toronto, let's say.

       But “old” is a word that holds no fear for Mr. Librach. In an interview, the architect said he really was not interested in advanced technologies or building methods – that Mod 256 embodies “off-the-shelf thinking” and entirely conventional, common-sense solutions to the problem of providing safe, comfortable, sustainable living quarters in both town and country.

       “We thought about what makes this a dream home, and [Mod 256] is not something that you would associate with the unattainable, as in a dream,” Mr. Librach said. “Dream homes in the past were too fantastic or too lavish. … This house is more an imagination home than a dream home.”

       If there is nothing radically new about the design or construction of Mod 256, the house has come on stream at a time, Mr. Librach believes, when attitudes toward prefab are changing from tolerance to outright fascination.

       “With the advent of the readership of things like Dwell magazine [a popular U.S. design journal], people are looking to dwell differently now. It may be that we're not pioneers in the thinking about prefabricated and modular housing, but I think our timing coincides with a new mentality about living, about spatial needs, about the ways people respond to their residence.”

       With a modular housing system, for example, a young couple might start off with just three or four units. More could easily be added as children come along, then just as easily eliminated when the children move out. What this flexibility means is that a family can grow up and grow old on the same plot of ground, adding and subtracting units of housing as the times or taste dictate. Mr. Librach believes there is a market for such a scheme.

       But modular living won't necessarily be less expensive than dwelling in a custom-built house. Mr. Librach estimates that Mod 256, in the configuration exhibited at the National Home Show, would cost about $200 a square foot, or about $600,000 in total. (The house has found at least one buyer undaunted by the cost: At the end of the show, Mod 256 was scheduled to be dismantled, then reassembled on a large private property in Caledon, northwest of Toronto.)

       “We're not saying it's cheaper, but that it's obviously more controllable. We can take more care to build it in the way we want to, and it can be deployed easily within two months, once it's onsite. That's a huge saving, since the average house takes between 10 and 12 months. So the issue is speed, but also control of the program. It's a functionalist approach to living.”

       While generally comfortable in the world of prefabrication – Mr. Librach said he is ready to start designing just as soon as he and Eurodale start getting orders – the architect is critical of certain trendy developments in that world. One has to do with the residential use of shipping containers, those clunky steel boxes traditionally used for intermodal transportation (usually ship to truck or train). It's best to stick to the tried and true.

       “The idea of putting shipping containers together is very cute,” he said, “but once you start modifying them too much, they lose their history. What I'm doing here is not unusual. People can relate to it. The materials aren't weird, it doesn't look that weird, it doesn't have tentacles or antennae coming out of it. I take great pride that I'm creating something people can connect with. I'm not interested in alienating people. I don't think we're super-cutting-edge here. I just want to create something that doesn't look like a huge departure from what people see every day.”

A bird's-eye view of add-on housing; The Perch provides an interesting precedent in the ongoing intensification of downtown living spaces

26 February 2010

       Residential density in downtown Toronto comes in several sizes. At the largest end, there are new condominium towers, changing the skyline and inviting many thousands to live in the core. Then there are the conversions that have transformed many a hulking old factory or warehouse into dwellings for hundreds.

         While not as conspicuous as high-rises and loft overhauls, single-unit additions are also playing a part in broadening the housing options for people who want to live downtown. In this category are Victorian laneway workshops that have been changed into homes, and the often architecturally exciting new houses one can also find in the city's alleys.

       One of the smallest and least obtrusive expansions of our luxury building stock that I've come across, however, is the one proposed for 34 Rowanwood Ave., on the Yonge Street edge of Rosedale. This pleasant development is called the Perch, and it's exactly that: a modernist 1,600-square-foot crow's nest resting on a three-storey, century-old condominium building. It is now for sale, fully finished, for $1.8-million.

          Designed by Toronto architect Jennifer Turner, the rectangular suite is pulled back from the parapet that runs around the building, a move that gives the Perch a retiring look from the street. The interior layout is basically that of a two-bedroom apartment with a den, with an emphasis throughout on light and views.

        A sweep of floor-to-ceiling glass on the south façade opens toward the deck and the treetops of Rosedale's urban forest, while the tall windows on the north side, where the master bedroom is, give on to the trees of a nearby tennis club. Skylights and clerestory windows brighten the apartment, and panes of translucent coloured glass around the top of the fire escape admit sunshine into the middle of the suite, always the darkest part of a Toronto house.

       The Perch provides an interesting precedent for intensifying the margins of Rosedale and other built-up parts of the city. While we probably wouldn't like to see self-contained flats such as the Perch sprouting on top of most dignified family homes in Rosedale, the revenue-earning power of numerous low-rise condominium and rental apartment buildings in the neighbourhood could be enhanced by such an addition. I certainly don't think the Perch is the last proposal of its kind that we're likely to hear about.

       Speaking of intensification, and switching to the large-scale end of the matter: Many observers of the Toronto real estate scene are keenly awaiting news about what the Toronto architectural firm of Hariri Pontarini is planning for the southeast corner of Bloor and Yonge streets.

       As you may recall, an 80-storey tower was proposed for the site by Bazis International, the Kazakh-based real estate developer. Citing financial difficulties, Bazis pulled out of the project last year, and the place eventually passed into the hands of the Great Gulf Group of Cos., which now aims to put up a 65-storey tower designed by Hariri Pontarini. (A hotel, which was to have been part of the Bazis tower, has been eliminated in Great Gulf's plans.)

        According to a schedule submitted by the developer to the city earlier this month, the building will feature 687 units on top of a two-storey, 104,000-square-foot retail podium. But renderings of the structure have still not been released by the architects. Until they are made public, we wait and wonder.

       The site, at the centre of Toronto's urban geography and historical sense of itself, is far too important to waste on another routine condominium building. Not that Hariri Pontarini has a reputation for doing routine things. On the contrary: The office has an impressive record of making buildings that matter architecturally and artistically, and we should expect nothing less than that at the intersection of Bloor and Yonge.

       Indeed, Toronto deserves nothing less than that. Though the city has not been the beneficiary very often, we live in a remarkably inventive, fertile moment in the international field of skyscraper design. New imaging and construction technologies have made possible tower schemes more daring than anything so far attempted in the history of tall buildings. It is time for Toronto to reap the benefits of these advances in design. Before too long – perhaps as early as next month – we will be able to see the tower Hariri Pontarini has in mind for the city, then decide for ourselves whether it measures up to the prominence Toronto has achieved in so many realms of the mind and spirit.

Thompson, Freed's latest, is a standout addition; New luxury hotel and condo complex shows how a 12-storey building can retain a human scale

19 February 2010


      Rendering courtesy Saucier + Perrotte  

        Some 20 years ago, young Peter Freed found his way south from the posh Forest Hill neighbourhood in which he grew up, and discovered the grungy strip of King Street West between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street.

       The bars and nightlife were the immediate attractions, but the district had other allures: hulking, half-empty warehouses and garment factories, small and lonely streets, the forlorn greensward of Victoria Memorial Square.

       If the area is no longer so dilapidated, that's largely because Mr. Freed never lost his affection for it, and recognized its commercial promise. So far, he has developed six condominium buildings near the intersection of King West and Bathurst, and, he recently told me, there are six or seven more in the works. One of the newest condo stacks (designed by Toronto architect Peter Clewes) contains the Thompson Hotel, which is almost ready to welcome the demographic – young, affluent and nomadic – that Mr. Freed hopes to attract.

       The hotel project is closely related to yet another condominium complex, called Thompson Residences, that will go on sale in the next couple of weeks. This 310-unit building is slated to rise near the Thompson Hotel on the King Street site of the old Executive Motor Hotel, an attractive piece of popular modernism that was aesthetically ruined by renovation a few years ago. (Had Mr. Freed sent in his demolition crews when the motel was still in its original state, you would have heard outcries from Toronto's modernist preservationists, including me. But given the grievous changes wrought by the motel's previous owners, the loss of the Executive is no loss at all.)

       In terms of the advantages homeowners will enjoy, Thompson Residences will be no ordinary apartment block: In addition to the usual condo amenities – a health club and so on – residents will have access to the hotel's room service, cleaning staff and valet parking. Mr. Freed intends to install a 140-foot pool atop the building. Some of the penthouses will have private poolside cabanas. Suites will range in size from 400 square feet to 2,500 square feet, with prices starting at $200,500 and going up to $2-million.

       It's the architecture, however, that makes Thompson Residences stand out with special brightness, not only among Mr. Freed's earlier, more routine projects in the area, but also among most other condominium buildings that have gone up in Toronto over the past several years.

       Designed by the distinguished Montreal office of Saucier + Perrotte, this 12-storey structure is composed of two long parallel buildings, one facing King Street West, the other fronting on little Stewart Street. The King Street façade rises in two phases. At the bottom is a platform, featuring restaurants and shops, that stands two storeys high and is set forward hard against the sidewalk, thus keeping to the two- and three-storey stature and tough feel of retail establishments in the neighbourhood. Toronto architects of tall buildings seem to have problems making their towers hit the ground with clarity and authority, but not Saucier + Perrotte: Their podium is strong, resolute and very urbane.

       As it goes up above this platform, and slightly behind it, the rest of the building shows a lively, beautifully rhythmic face to the city. The units are clearly expressed by their black aluminum frames, which boldly contrast with the white curtains veiling each apartment from the street. The poetry of this alternation of black and white is further reinforced by the dodging in and out of the clearly articulated units themselves, like drawers pulled out of a chest or pushed in, which makes the façade three-dimensional and vivid.

       Last week, I spoke by telephone with Gilles Saucier about his firm's interesting artistic strategy of Thompson Residences.

       “Instead of creating a big block with windows, we decided that each [suite] would be an individual unit that you pile up to create a building,” Mr. Saucier said. “The building communicates at two scales: the big block at 12 storeys, and the individual unit. This creates a sense of individuality in the building, which is still 12 storeys, but with a grain that corresponds more to human scale.”

       When an area of the city is becoming dense, Mr Saucier continued, buildings can speak at only one scale – the immense – declared by expanses of windows in featureless facades. “We tend to lose the sense of the individual unit, and everything tends to have a texture of windows. Our idea was recognizing the individuality of each person living within the building. It's a functionalist expression we did for the building – the whole idea of being able to see each unit formally, individually represented. You can refer it back to the modernist project – a certain way of living together.”

Despite tough times, prefab home design continues to surprise and delight

12 February 2010


        The century-old dream of providing architecturally sophisticated, sustainable, factory-built housing for the millions took a serious hit with the shuttering of California designer Michelle Kaufmann's factory and studio.

       For several years before her operation closed down last spring, Ms. Kaufman's clean-lined prefabricated schemes were deluged with praise in the architectural press. Some fans believed that the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and other 20th-century apostles of prefab would be fulfilled at last.

       Then came the perfect storm that blew away Ms. Kaufmann's office: the severe slump in the U.S. housing market, the credit squeeze and,most important of all, the failure of designer prefab to find a sizeable niche. (The Kaufmann studio found buyers for only about 40 homes.)

       But architects are resilient folk, and they keep dreaming even when hard times make the going difficult. I am quite sure we haven't heard the last of Michelle Kaufmann. Nor does there appear to be any shortage of designers who, despite economic difficulties, are thinking up houses constructed with assembly line materials and methods. Here are a few that I've come across.

       Homestead House is the handiwork of acclaimed Los Angeles artist/designer Michael Jantzen. Inspired by the agricultural structures scattered across the American corn belt, this scheme explores the use of commercially available steel building systems to create innovative housing. The basic modules in these systems are the flat panel and the semi-cylindrical arch. Variously cut and bolted together in any configuration the client likes, these elements add up to something that is strikingly contemporary in appearance, and low-cost, strong and readily recyclable to boot.

       In keeping with a recent trend in residential prefab thinking, Mr. Jantzen proposes Homestead House as an off-grid dwelling, reliant on photovoltaic cells and a small wind turbine for its energy needs. But the house need not be as survivalist as all that. One can easily imagine this project in well-wired cottage country, or on a weekend farm not far from the city - wherever, in fact, the goal isto combine modern living and modern design with a touch of nostalgia for the traditional architecture of rural North America.

       There's probably not a prefab home on Earth more different from Homestead House than Madrid architect Antón García-Abril Ruiz's Hemeroscopium House. (The Greek word means, I am told, the place where the sun sets.) Constructed in just seven days from immense prefabricated concrete beams, this building perhaps gives the same pleasure a Torontonian feels when walking under thehighest elevated traffic deck of the Gardiner Expressway: There's something wonderful about all that weight hoisted into the sky, one feels the air is brighter and clearer beneath it. So it is, I suspect, with this house: A great, unique calm prevails in the glass-walled interior under the colossal I-beams that compress and define it.

       Concrete has occasionally been touted as a cheap, readily available, mass-manufactured building material for prefab architects.

       But despite the popularity of the stuff with early modern architects - Mies van der Rohe designed a splendid concrete country house in the early 1920s - it has never really caught on (except in tall building construction).

       Concrete has been considered too massive, perhaps too proletarian in character for single-family residential use. What's interesting about Hemeroscopium House is its architect's exploitation of these very properties that have long made concrete unattractive. While not everyone would like to live under a roof with the heft of an elevated highway, Mr. García-Abril's experiment is bold and exciting.

       But so much for avant-garde prefab. The old idea of inexpensive, high-quality factory-manufactured houses for the masses lives on in the well-known Philadelphia office of Kieran Timberlake.

       Last year, the firm inaugurated its LivingHomes series of prefab dwellings, starting at around $200 a square foot, which doesn't include shipping, installation or foundation costs.

       Style has been sacrificed to efficiency - the units are boxy and flat-topped - but the efficiencies of LivingHomes are considerable. Green components include recycled steel, glass tiles and window frames and water-saving fixtures. According to its promoters, this prefab system features reduced water and energy consumption and less construction waste.

       Living in such a house could surely make one feel moral and modern. But whatever happened to beauty, which was also part of the promise of the historic prefab ideal? Michelle Kaufmann never forgot about beauty, and built it into every house she designed. It's also heartening to note that, even in the midst of tough economic times, prefab architects such as Mr. Jantzen and Mr. García-Abril are remembering that green and beautiful belong together.

A Subtly-moulded Modernism

5 February 2010

       There's an interesting book to be written about the deluxe modernist houses that hover over Toronto's lovely, deep ravines.

       The available ravine-side building sites are often awkward in shape and small in size. They are hedged about by restrictive city codes and environmental regulations. But despite the difficulties, more than a few architects have risen to the challenge of designing for these places, and produced houses that are among Toronto's most engaging examples of the residential building art.

       Any book of the kind I'm proposing would probably feature the handsome north-Toronto ravine residence recently crafted for a busy family of five by Siamak Hariri, principal in the firm of Hariri Pontarini Architects.

       Situated on a street of traditional luxury homes and slightly curved, the house's pale French limestone façade rises at the front like an exclamation point – abrupt and certainly too imposing for its genteel streetscape.

       But behind this bold introduction, the house reaches out to embrace the nature nearby, and unfolds in a series of expansive vistas that beautifully frame the sky and the ravine forest. Light is welcomed into the interior from all directions through great windows, banishing the shadows that often afflict large homes.

       This L-shaped house is indeed large by any measure. There are 8,000 square feet of liveable space above grade, and another 3,000 square feet below the street level. (A four-car garage has also been tucked under the building.) But any hint of chilly vastness has been avoided by the careful modulation of the interior spaces.

       The sequence of living room and dining room, the most ceremonial part of the house, for example, is arranged in one flow that sweeps from the front façade to the terrace and swimming pool, on the edge of the ravine, at the rear. Continuity is also maintained by the calm, simple palette Mr. Hariri has employed throughout the project: warm wood frames on the windows, cream-tinted plaster on the wide walls, oak and limestone flooring, touches of walnut and teak.

       Yet here, as in other places in the building, the space is moulded subtly to create differences in mood and atmosphere. In the living room, the ceiling is very high, and the warm wood floors are washed by light entering from a skylight following the curve of the streetside façade, and from broad windows opening on the front garden. The sense here is formal, or as formal as this gracious house ever gets.

       As the space moves into the dining area, the ceiling drops, suggesting intimacy, and the view shifts from the front of the house to the terrace and forest in back. By following this wide architectural gesture through the house from street to terrace, the visitor leaves the city behind, and comes close – or as close as any sensible Torontonian wants to come in the city – to wild nature.

       All formality is discarded, however, in the adjoining spatial sequence of kitchen, family dining area and, down a couple of steps, the television room. The kitchen area is arrayed around a wall unit and island executed in black granite, but this rather stern, sombre ensemble is softened by the light floors and appointments in the rest of the zone, and by the large windows opening toward the forest and terrace.

       You may think: This is where everyone really lives, this is the heart of the house. But, as far as I can tell, you would be mistaken. While outfitting and furnishing the home are going slowly, there is no part of it that looks unlived-in. A third-storey loft that could some day become a home office or exercise room is currently in use as a pad for the slumber parties the couple's teenaged daughters like to host.

       The below-grade component is dominated by a basketball court that sees frequent use by father and son, and their friends. And the couple enjoys entertaining on a grand scale, making even the living and dining area, the most ample and dignified space in the house, regularly come alive with the comings and goings of neighbours and friends. Every place in this house, that is to say, gives evidence of a very active, energetic programme of use.

       Mr. Hariri's response to this programme, as we have it incarnated in stone and wood, is at once generous and rigorous. The geometry and general conception of this house – apart from its surprisingly ostentatious front – are staunchly modernist, and so is the refined sensitivity of its interior to nature, air and light.

       While Toronto's ravines have attracted the attention of numerous architects, few other interior treatments, I suspect, have more appeal than this one.

Architectural variety within a framework of sober-sided urbanism

29 January 2010

       For adventurous home-buyers looking for digs in Toronto's old industrial zones, the junction of King and Queen Streets East, just west of the Don River, is one of the city's last frontiers. But don't wait too long. The gruff brick factories and warehouses that dot the area, and the Victorian storefronts along King and Queen, are being rapidly changed into chic dwellings and offices for people who don't mind, or actually like (as I do), the rugged streetscapes left to us by the great Machine Age.

       But along with the overhauls, much new housing is coming on stream in the district. Waterfront Toronto, the crown corporation conducting the transformation of the city's harbour lands, will shortly see the first residential development in the desolate 80-acre West Don Lands go to market. It's called River City and, when built out fully, it will contain 950 units. For the record: 330 units will go up for sale in February. They will range in size from a tiny 349 square-foot studio apartment to 1,050 square-foot two-bedroom suites on two levels, and are priced at $500 a square foot.

       If River City lives up to its promise, this very fresh, intelligent project will probably raise the bar of architectural excellence for innovative multi-family residential work in Toronto.

       Designed by the celebrated Montreal firm of Saucier + Perrotte Architects for Urban Capital Property Group, the development will occupy a long rectangular site bounded, on the north, by King Street East, and on the south by River Square, a public meeting place lined with cafés and restaurants, adjacent to Waterfront Toronto's new Don River Park. The eastern limit is the Don corridor, with the little Don River flowing alongside traffic and train routes. On the west side, the boundary will be a southward extension of River Street, which currently stops at King.

       All the old construction on the location has been bulldozed, except for one mighty thing: the elevated traffic deck of the Eastern Avenue flyover, which cuts right through the middle of the River City site. This large, obtrusive piece of infrastructure, I imagine, would have daunted some architects. But not Saucier + Perrotte. Their proposed solution to the problem takes the form of a graceful ribbon of mid-rise architecture and courtyards that extends south from a 14-storey building on King Street, gives way to new parkland and recreational facilities below the traffic decks, then resumes on the other side, flipping up into a tower 20-odd storeys tall.

       River City's five buildings, to be phased in over the next few years, are expressions of architectural variety within a framework of sober-sided urbanism. Nothing here shouts. The mid-sized profile of the structures north of Eastern Avenue strikes the right scale in a district of warehouses and factories. (The taller tower south of the flyover will be a good match for the development schemes Waterfront Toronto has in mind for the land around Don River Park.) The expanses of grey-tinted glass in dark aluminum frames, the balanced opacity and transparency of the facades, the hard geometry of the buildings – all these design moves help ease the way of River City into its architecturally tough neighbourhood, and give it aesthetic unity.

       But this complex is hardly demure. While maintaining the concord of the project by means of colour and glass textures, and an overall stringent modernism, Saucier + Perrotte have carefully chiselled each building into a distinctive form. In plan, for example, the shorter tower on King Street is an irregular pentagon, creating interesting suites with strong, raking angles and wide views of the surrounding city. The row of four connected, short condominium cubes at the centre of the site, in contrast, is sturdy and resolute in general shape, but the ensemble is enlivened by the gently playful sculpting of their facades. Each building, in its turn, has been uniquely imagined, but matched in style and appearance to every other to make a coherent whole.

       There are many ways to construct a city, of course, some of them downright awful, others merely mindless and uninspired. By assembling some of the best architects, planners and urban designers in the world to give advice and direction, Waterfront Toronto has apparently avoided the worst ways of making new urban landscape, and found ways of doing so that work well. The structures and green spaces in River City add up to thoughtful city-building at a high level, and provide a testament to Waterfront Toronto's careful oversight of the land in its keeping.

Why mow and rake, when you can harvest? Architect Fritz Haeg wants to change the way homeowners think about their yards.

22 January 2010


 Photo of Fritz Haeg courtesy Annette Borger

      For millions of Americans and Canadians, the front lawn is a sacred place. It symbolizes home ownership quite as forcefully as the house itself does. Kept vividly green and neatly clipped throughout the summer months, the open space between front door and street expresses for all to see the pride and care of its owners. Most importantly, it advertises a dream of prosperity and stability.

       But the lawn has its enemies. One of them – a gentle, thoughtful foe, indeed – is Los Angeles architect Fritz Haeg, who was in Toronto yesterday to speak at the World Without Oil symposium held at the Design Exchange in conjunction with the Interior Design Show. (The trade fair continues through Sunday at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.) For the past five years, Mr. Haeg has been teaming up with museums in several regions of the United States, and in London, to transfigure carefully selected front lawns into kitchen gardens. The results of this gesture have been written up admiringly in Time Magazine and The New York Times, and numerous design magazines in the United States, Europe and the Far East.

       So what has captured the imagination of arts journalists around the world? I tried to find out during a telephone call last week to his home and studio in the hills outside Los Angeles.

       Mr. Haeg certainly doesn't think what he's doing is all that startling. “Planting the garden takes only about three days,” he told me. “The larger part of the project is telling the story of what happens through videos, weekly visits by a local photographer, exhibitions and workshops and websites and the book.” (Mr. Haeg's documentary account of the first few gardens, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn [Metropolis Books, $16.27], appeared in 2008. A second edition will appear in April.) “I'm not doing anything new. I think it's hilarious when people write about the project as radical or crazy or new.”

       But however ordinary and simple Mr. Haeg's garden venture seems on the surface, it touches a deep place in the contemporary psyche, and therein lies its appeal. Many people are worried these days about the high cost of consigning millions of arable acres to purely symbolic use. Some are concerned about suburban loneliness and alienation, and share Mr. Haeg's vision of the front yard as a new place of sociable micro-farming, a zone that could help reconnect neighbourhoods around a topic we're all interested in: food.

       “There's something very American about it,” he said, “but everybody globally is already thinking about the issues – how we are living together, how we're making cities, how we are dealing with cities that already exist…. Instead of starting over with some new, grand, top-down kind of utopian plan, I am starting from the bottom up, thinking about reappropriating, reconsidering spaces that already exist.”

       As things happened, the initial impulse that led to the garden scheme had nothing to do with gardens at all. It was the 2004 U.S. presidential election, which revealed painful fault lines in the American political landscape, and got Mr. Haeg thinking about what he could do to help heal the situation. That's when doing something with the lawn occurred to him.

       “There's something iconic about it,” the architect reflects, “but if you dig deeper into the story of it, it's quite an insidious space, the way it pollutes and wastes water. I wanted to do a series of gardens throughout the country, each one in a different region, showing what's possible in different neighbourhoods, by different families, in different climates. Not a perfect garden, but a simple, cheap, quick, easy garden anyone can do themselves. It's about how we choose to live, and hopefully every one of these gardens creates this chain reaction of thought. You realize we have choices about how we live in these cities we've inherited.”

       The first front-yard conversion was in Salina, Kan., and featured squash, tomatoes, beans, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables suitable for a harsh summer climate. Since Salina, Mr. Haeg has taken his idea (and the museum exhibition that accompanies it) to Texas, New York City, New Jersey, California and Maryland, and to a council-housing estate in London.

       What inspires Mr. Haeg to keep seeking out new venues for his conversion program is his sense that we are in the midst of an environmental emergency that requires bold moves, but also very small ones, at the scale of the neighbourhood.

       “I think people are realizing that the systems that we're trapped in, that we're born into, now are leading us to places that are neither pleasurable nor sustainable. Food production, transportation, energy, city-making, building construction. It's all inherently flawed and we're all looking for ways to change it. The question is: Will we be able to do it in time?”

From humble beginnings; Like others who have discovered Toronto's machine-age architectural heritage, Peter Fleming and Debbie Adams looked past a humdrum exterior and saw the opportunities that lay within

15 January 2010


image courtesy Levitt Goodman Architects

       The condo conversion of old industrial edifices has been one of the best aspects of Toronto's downtown real-estate story for the last 20 years.

       Dozens of big-boned factories and warehouses have been saved from the wrecking crews and given new lives as chic apartment blocks. And countless smaller structures – Victorian workshops in laneways, mom-and-pop corner stores, century-old manufacturing works on quiet residential streets – have become pleasant single-family homes or little multiunit complexes. It's all been a boon to dyed-in-the-wool urbanites who like the hard edge of life-without-lawns.

       For an example of how interesting life on the edge can be, take the west side Toronto house of Peter Fleming and Debbie Adams. (He's head of furniture design at Sheridan College in Oakville; she's a graphic designer and a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design.) Their dwelling began some 50 years ago as a plain steel-framed industrial box, stretched over two ½ residential lots along a street of ordinary houses. Until it was bought by Mr. Fleming and Ms. Adams about eight years ago, the building sheltered a contractor's workshop and warehouse.

       Like many other people discovering Toronto's machine-age architectural heritage at the time, the couple looked past the humdrum exterior and saw the opportunities that lay within. Here was a one-storey space, free of interior supports, with a 13-foot ceiling, large windows and handsome horizontal steel beams supporting the roof. And the building was fairly spacious: 40 feet wide and 50 feet deep, with an ample weed patch out back that would later become a garden.

       To transform the big shed's possibilities into realities, Mr. Fleming and Ms. Adams turned to architect Janna Levitt, principal in the Toronto firm of Levitt Goodman. Ms. Levitt's attractive renovation proceeded in two phases. The first, completed in 2002, involved outfitting the structure with the basic equipment of living. Grey concrete floors, with embedded heating elements, were poured.

       A kitchen was built, along with a dining room and living room, each area flowing into the next without interruption by doors or walls. The wholly enclosed master bedroom suite, raised up a few steps from the living room level, was installed, and the back of the house was opened to the garden by huge windows.

      In the second phase, done in 2008, Ms. Levitt created a light-filled attic on the roof that provides the couple with studios where they can work at home. Taken together, Ms. Levitt's two architectural interventions add up to an elegantly spare but inviting revival of the old building's fortunes. (The beautiful quarter-sawn oak cabinetry, designed and constructed by Mr. Fleming, and the pine frames on the tall windows, help warm up the interior atmosphere, which might otherwise be chilled by the building's austere geometry.) Because she was able to refashion the space with almost complete freedom from structural constraints, the architect could easily accommodate her clients' unconventional requests.

       For example, upon entering the house by the front door, the visitor almost immediately finds himself, not in the living room, but in the ample kitchen. One does not linger here; there are only two chairs, and the eye is quickly carried beyond, into the dining area, with its fine table and chairs by the mid-20th century American designers Charles and Ray Eames. At a right angle from the kitchen-dining continuum, and parallel to the great windows on the garden, lies the living room, which is dominated by a fireplace surrounded by massive plates of iron. This bright L-shaped spatial arrangement, focused on the dining room table in the elbow of the L, generates an atmosphere of informal hospitality, of generosity toward the house's guests and toward the city beyond the windows.

       The mood immediately changes, however, when one steps up from the living room into the master bedroom. The light that floods freely into the more public areas of the house is here reduced to a trickle. There are no views on to the exterior world from this small, very quiet inner sanctum, and the city, which seems close in other parts of the house, is as remote as the moon. Such is the concentric character of Ms. Levitt's skillful, highly effective scheme: The still, secluded bedroom at the heart of the project, the larger, brighter sphere where work, entertaining and most of life take place, and, finally, beyond the building itself, the pulsing realm of urban reality.

Designing a perch to witness nature; New portfolio of vacation homes shows the world's best – including one Georgian Bay beauty

18 December 2009


Image courtesy Agathom Co.      

  For thousands of Torontonians, the oncoming winter is but a long prelude to the all-important Victoria Day weekend, when cottages open and the Friday night treks up the 400 begin.

       Most cottagers already know where they're going to spend their summer holidays. But for those who are still dreaming of acquiring a getaway or who are thinking of involving an architect when they build their dream cottage, I've found an interesting book worth leafing through during the holiday season. It's called Arcadia: Cross-Country Style, Architecture and Design).

       This 260-page annotated portfolio offers a panoply of new and recent hideouts, bunkies, farm houses, country villas, chalets and secluded luxury resorts, and the furniture to go in them, by 136 architectural and design firms in Europe, Asia, Australia and North and South America. The breathtaking places where these creative people have worked similarly span the planet, from the magnificent drowned landscape of Ontario's Georgian Bay, through the Rocky Mountains and the Alps, to the deserts of Spain and the forests of Japan, Scandinavia and New Zealand. Whatever the merits of this or that project portrayed in it, this collection is a remarkable overview of the ways contemporary architects are responding to the long-standing human desire to find a safe, comfortable perch from which to enjoy the beauties of raw nature.

       As you may expect to find in such an omnium-gatherum, these responses vary widely in their appeal and applicability. I really don't like the flamboyantly experimental house by Japanese architect Kotaro Ide, for example: It looks like a big chicken wrap dropped in the woods. Nor do I have much time for the Swedish forest hotel that resembles a corner of a mirrored-glass skyscraper stuck halfway up a tall tree.

       The more successful buildings here are by architects who take seriously the contexts (both natural and cultural) of their projects and who avoid making any greater impact than necessary on the shoreline or mountainside or forest glade where their buildings stand. The Scandinavians, by and large, are good at respecting both human nature and nature in general. So are the Canadians and many of the Americans.

       I was struck, for example, by a curious extension to an existing cottage deep in a Swedish nature preserve, for which the architects used cedar shingles to create a low, billowing roof that blends in perfectly with the forest floor. The same respect for surroundings is evident in a Norwegian coastal cabin, “shaped,” a note tells us, “like a mountain fox curled up to avoid the wind.” Local building traditions are echoed in this structure and with good reason: The same harsh gales that battered the old villages along the coastline also sweep over this handsome contemporary house, which is ready for them.

       But nothing in this book embodies more wisdom about its environment and its occupants than the featured Georgian Bay house known as Molly's Cabin. (Reporter Carolyn Ireland visited the cabin and wrote about it in these pages earlier this year.)

        Designed by Adam Thom and Katja Aga Sachse Thom, principals in Toronto's Agathom Co., this fine 1,000-square-foot building occupies a stony island thrusting out from the shoreline toward open water.

       Instead of springing the cottage wide toward Georgian Bay, where the savage storms come from, the Thoms have turned a largely featureless wall in that direction. The cottage's other three sides allow views of the more docile nature round about, though the emphasis throughout is on protection from the elements, not the provision of natural spectacle. A sharp plunge in the roof edge – it looks like a tent flap pulled down – allows a peek, but not a panorama, beyond. Even the widest prospect here, off across the channel toward rough bush above sheer stone drop-offs (with a glimpse of Georgian Bay), is still framed mindfully.

       The result is a humble Muskoka cottage that's had a complete makeover by a sensitive modernist beautician. The rustic simplicity, the solid build, the straightforward manner that everyone found so attractive about her in the first place have not been styled right out of her. But she's contemporary now, with everything updated – the cut of her profile, her posture in the landscape – to suit the best sensibilities of the present age.

       The Thoms's excellent reinvention of the old cottage-country house is something many designers could learn from. Arcadia: Cross-Country Style, Architecture and Design is full of still more hints and suggestions for building wisely and beautifully in the wilds. It's a book to put on a bedside table and occasionally dream on until summer and Victoria Day arrive at last.

An artful stitch in Toronto's evolving urban fabric; Moshe Safdie's playful design for Parkside is a crucial step in bringing life back to the eastern waterfront

11 December 2009

Rendering courtesy Waterfront Toronto
       The regeneration of Toronto's desolate industrial shoreline took another bold step forward last week, when Waterfront Toronto, the crown corporation overseeing the transformation, unveiled its first private-sector development in the 55-acre East Bayfront district. The $200-million project by Great Gulf Group of Companies will go up just south of the Gardiner Expressway, on the east side of the new Sherbourne Park, and a critical piece of a new urban neighbourhood will be in place.

       Called Parkside, the proposed mixed-use building will contain some 540,000 square feet of residential and commercial space, distributed throughout two elements: a tower rising to about 36 storeys beside the Gardiner and a six-level podium extending south from under the tower to Queens Quay.

       What makes this plan important, however, is neither its substantial size nor its basic configuration: The tower on a podium is, after all, a familiar – perhaps too familiar, too routine – way to pack maximum population density into a restrictive site. Parkside's real significance lies in its design.Great Gulf has chosen world-renowned designer Moshe Safdie as its architect.Parkside is his first residential commission in Canada since Montreal's famously innovative Habitat opened in 1967.

       The exact appearance of Parkside is unknown. Once Mr. Safdie has submitted schematic designs – something that has not yet happened – the project will undergo rigorous scrutiny by Waterfront Toronto's design review panel. That body's decision is crucial to how the building will look in its dense downtown location.

       But at this early point, Mr. Safdie's artistic intentions are clear. As depicted at last week's press conference, Parkside's base will be a massive affair of glass in precast concrete frames fronting on Queens Quay and lying alongside a leafy promenade that separates the building from the adjoining park.

       The monotony possible in this arrangement of a long promenade and a tall, long façade will be relieved, at least during the summer months, by shops and cafes spilling out of the bottom of the structure. The stolidity of the base will be further offset by a couple of notches in the façade above the fourth level, and the addition of a recessed three-storey penthouse block (topped by a garden and swimming pool) at the podium's south end.

       In contrast to its serious base, Parkside's sturdy tower is almost playful. Long panels of concrete frames, projecting outward from the building's skeleton and alternating with recessed expanses of glass, slash diagonally across the east and west facades of the condominium stack. This surface treatment on two sides creates an attractively jaunty effect on the south façade, which looks like so many short and long slabs of perforated masonry piled on top of each other.

       Parkside incorporates some design moves I've noticed in other recent high-rise projects, notably the avoidance of vast stretches of energy-wasting glass and the adoption of more opacity in the skin of the building.

       Parkside does not make a stylistically daring gesture against the skyline, nor should we expect it to. There is surely room in the city for flamboyant monuments – skyscrapers that radically depart from the cereal-box designs of Modernism's yesteryear and that embody exciting new advances in building and design technology. (We can hope the skyscraper Great Gulf will be putting up at Bloor and Yonge will be such a marquee project.) But, at least for the moment, the Toronto waterfront is probably not the place for such experiments.

       What's needed there is solid urban fabric, serviceable structures and parks and transportation systems that serve the common good and contribute to the making of sound neighbourhoods. Mr. Safdie's Parkside promises to be the kind of building the East Bayfront area requires: a solid piece of city, and another fulfilment of Toronto's long-standing desire to be reunited with Lake Ontario.

       That reunion, which is the central mission of Waterfront Toronto, is now moving forward. Construction of 1.4 million square feet of office and institutional space in the Dockside tract of East Bayfront is in progress. The 450,000 square foot office and broadcast centre called Corus Quay, home of Corus Entertainment, is nearing completion. Waterfront Toronto expects work to begin this year on George Brown College's Health Sciences Campus, which will attract 3,500 full-time students and 1,000 part-timers to the area.

       Some prophets of doom still say it can't be done – that the will and investment needed to extend Toronto's urban fabric to the water's edge will never materialize. The announcement of Parkside is just the latest sign of how wrong they are.

Harry goes back to school; After a string of successes, developer Harry Stinson left Toronto under a cloud. He has re-emerged in Hamilton, with a project reminiscent of the Candy Factory Lofts that launched his career

4 December 2009

Photo of Stinson School courtesy Harry Stinson


       Following the ups and downs of developer Harry Stinson's career has long been a favourite spectator sport among observers of Toronto's real-estate market.

       Mr. Stinson scored big in the 1990s with his pioneering, successful loft conversion of the Ce De Candy factory on Queen Street West. He scored again in the following decade when he put up the tall, graceful condominium-hotel complex known as One King West. We thought we'd lost him a couple of years ago, however, after his ambitious plans to raise an enormous residential tower in the heart of downtown Toronto collapsed, and he fell into a bruising court battle with his partner in the One King West venture, theatrical impresario David Mirvish.

       But Mr. Stinson is back – in Hamilton, where he now lives – with a conversion scheme as exciting as anything he's undertaken since the Candy Factory Lofts.

       The project is called Stinson School Lofts. As it happens, the Stinson recalled by the project is the unrelated Victorian merchant and developer Ebenezer, not Harry. In the 19th century, Ebenezer Stinson laid out a streetcar suburb below the escarpment that looms over downtown Hamilton and allowed a street there to be named after himself. The thoroughfare, in turn, gave its name in 1895 to Stinson Street School, the gruff, handsome Richardsonian Romanesque building (and two additions) that Harry Stinson bought last summer for $1.05-million and now proposes to transform into 68 condominium suites.

       The coincidence of the name, Mr. Stinson told me, is one thing that drew him irresistibly to the school. But the structure's august, grand-manner architecture was another factor – “there was something cosmic about it” – that prompted him to place the winning bid on the 1.5-acre property.

       The three-building cluster of Stinson School is composed of the principal 1895 edifice, designed by Hamilton architect A.W. Peene; a companion piece erected in 1913; and, between these two, a modernist link done in 1959. Everything that gives the school its imperial Victorian character and strength will be retained in the renovation by Hoordad Ghandehari, principal in the Toronto firm of Icon Architects Ltd.: the stately, slightly frowning brick and stone façades with their rainbow arches, the tall windows and high ceilings, the peaked slate roof. The drama of the main entrance – stone steps leading up through a massive archway to great wooden doors and a spacious lobby – will also be kept intact.

       Cinder-block partitions, flimsy dropped ceilings and other embellishments accumulated by the school over more than a century of educational use – it was abandoned by students and teachers only last March – will be swept away, and its brick load-bearing bones sandblasted back to their original appearance. Ranging in size from 700 to 2,600 square feet, the condos are to be inserted into the school's classrooms and cloakrooms, washrooms, gym, basement, attic and other spaces. All the internal systems in the building will be modernized, though certain frills common in Toronto condominium developments will be absent in the finished product: There will be no concierge, for example, and no swimming pool or workout facility.

       By prevailing Hamilton standards – where ample old houses on quiet streets can still be had for a fraction of what Torontonians pay for equivalent properties – prices are high: about $170,000 for the smallest suites, up to $400,000 and beyond for the largest units. But such prices still compare favourably to Toronto. Mr. Stinson thinks his buyers will be mainly greying residents of suburban Burlington and Oakville who are ready to downsize from their large family homes and who want the convenience of condominium living but are not prepared to pay the steeper Toronto prices to get it.

       If a hitch develops in Mr. Stinson's plans, it will probably be the neighbourhood. The area around Stinson School is one of those old urban places that are politely called “transitional.” It may be comparable to Toronto's Cabbagetown district in the 1970s: a zone of fine-looking structures that long ago declined into so many rooming houses, group homes and cheap digs for a disadvantaged population, but that has already caught the eye of people willing to put sweat and money into improvement. The Stinson School neighbourhood is coming along, Mr. Stinson said, but whether it's changing fast enough for prospective condo buyers from suburbia remains to be seen.

       That said, Mr. Stinson's investment of money and energy in the school building is a vivid vote of confidence in a postindustrial city that needs all the support it can muster and an admirable attempt to save a piece of Hamilton's architectural heritage.

Architecture for today, made in Japan

27 November 2009


      Photo courtesy Design Exchange

                                                                                                                  When Japan's booming postwar economy hit the wall in the late 1980s, the shock struck deep into the country's architectural and urban design communities.

       They had long been accustomed to generous public patronage; it suddenly dried up. Architects had luxuriated for many years in a buoyant atmosphere that encouraged vivid formal experimentalism. Then, in radically straitened circumstances, the design extravagance that had rolled out with Japan's once-expanding market looked excessive, outré. Japanese designers found themselves not only without commissions, but also without a clear artistic direction.

       But in the two difficult decades since 1990, Japan's creative people have struggled back to their feet and forthrightly tackled the realities of their country's post-crash condition. The steep decline in regional jobs and inner-city real estate prices, for instance, have drawn millions from the countryside and provincial cities into the high-density centres of the Tokyo, Nagoya and Kansai regions – prompting fresh thought about the design and building of both the large cities and the deserted small ones.

       As if financial woes weren't bad enough, Japan's birth rate has been falling and its people are aging, leading designers to apply themselves energetically, for example, to crafting innovative facilities for the elderly and infirm. Architects have also rediscovered sources of inspiration, strict in tone and environmentally sensitive, in Western modernism and home-grown traditions of construction. Despite many uncertainties in society and culture at large, Japanese architecture and urban design have enjoyed a renaissance during a period when we might least have expected one.

       Such is the persuasive argument of Parallel Nippon: Contemporary Japanese Architecture 1996-2006, the appealing exhibition now on view at Toronto's Design Exchange. Organized by the Japan Foundation and the Architectural Institute of Japan, this illuminating show features 112 projects completed in the troubled decade under review. A few are by foreign architects working in Japan (Renzo Piano's splendid Maison Hermès in Tokyo, for example), and some are museums in the United States by Japanese architects (Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban, Yoshio Taniguchi). Most schemes on display, however, are by Japanese architects designing for cities and towns in their native land.

       These architects are represented by buildings of several types and scales. At the large end, there is Hiroshi Hara's vast train station in Kyoto, significantly – in light of Japanese architecture's rekindled interest in reusing older structures – a dramatic renovation and extension of an existing terminal. There are kindergartens and elementary schools that can be transformed into housing for the elderly, as changing times dictate. There are art galleries, Buddhist temples and Christian churches, attractive hospitals, a glistening Louis Vuitton boutique in Nagoya, a wonderfully serene crematorium by Fumihiko Maki, and Toyo Ito's radiantly glassy Sendai Médiathèque – what used to be a library in the pre-Google age.

       But this show asks to be considered as something more than a collection of beautiful objects. As chief curator Riichi Miyake notes in his introduction, Parallel Nippon is intended to depict architecture as a “composite activity that straddles culture, technology and economics, and, regardless of the size of the project, represents a concentration of human creativity.” The context of that creativity is the complex modern city. Each project here has been chosen with a view to demonstrating contemporary Japanese architecture's engagement with the urban and cultural dynamic of the era, and with new (and sometimes old but neglected) artistic and engineering strategies.

       This engagement is nowhere more effectively illustrated than in the show's gathering of residential commissions. Houses have always been test sites for modern ideas and materials, and so they are for Japanese architects at the present time.

       For an example of what I'm talking about, take the stylistically modern Tokyo house by Hiro Yamashita and Atelier Tekuto. Filling its tight lot in a jumble of low-rise structures, this very handsome three-storey residence is made almost entirely of load-bearing glass bricks. Light floods the interior and internal supports are eliminated, a moment of modernist clarity has been inserted into the aesthetic chaos of Tokyo – all the result of advances in glass technology and the architectural will to make living in the very dense fabric of Tokyo an experience of both beauty and serious efficiency.

       This show has come to Toronto at exactly the right time. Many in Hogtown's creative class are thinking about how best to build densely and sustainably in the downtown core, and how to respond with verve and ingenuity to the changing conditions of metropolitan life. Parallel Nippon is full of hints about urban living with both style and conscience.

       Parallel Nippon continues at the Design Exchange (234 Bay St.) until Jan.10.

The race to build a Pan Am Games village has begun

20 November 2009

Rendering courtesy regionalArchitects

       With the recent announcement that Toronto will host the 2015 Pan American Games, the ongoing transformation of Hogtown's lakeside wastelands into living urban fabric may have gotten a serious kick in the right direction. Or maybe not. A great deal remains to be seen. I'll set out my apprehensions in a moment. But here are the facts.

       Staging the event will require a secure central location where 8,500 athletes and officials from across the Pan American world can live comfortably, train, practise and relax for the duration of the games. The winning bid included a scheme, drafted by the Toronto firm regionalArchitects, for a new, purpose-built village to house this large group of people. (The designers estimate that the Pan Am village will house a population three times the size of the crowd of competitors expected to turn out for Vancouver's 2010 Olympics.) This mixed-use development will go up in the now-vacant West Don Lands, one of the parcels overseen by Waterfront Toronto, the crown corporation charged with turning former industrial properties into livable pieces of city.

       Crafted by regionalArchitects' John van Nostrand and Drew Sinclair, the village plan is interesting in its attempt to offer workable solutions, in a single architectural package, to two different problems. The first is the housing of athletes and staff for the short time of the games, and the second is the long-term provision of dwellings for Torontonians.

       The village scheme features buildings of two general types. One is temporary, and will cost about $50-million. The large common dining hall (a tented structure), the welcome centre and other components useful only during the games will be demolished after their conclusion. A 50-metre swimming pool will be relocated elsewhere in the Golden Horseshoe after the event, and a swatch of playing fields and practice areas located south of the east-west railway corridor, which bounds the site on one side, will be returned to Waterfront Toronto for future development as a residential neighbourhood.

       The other construction in the West Don Lands – the main focus of the estimated $1-billion in public financing to be poured into the site – is to be permanent. The mid-rise apartment blocks and townhouses, stretched along an extension of Front Street East that will end at the new Don River Park, will shelter the athletes and staff during the games. Afterwards, Mr. Sinclair said in an interview, the bunks in the buildings will be converted into apartments priced across the “spectrum of affordable housing.” After the athletes have moved on, there will be room for about 4,000 permanent residents.

       I appreciate the ambition that went into the plan prepared for the Pan Am Games committee. I like the team's renderings of what their Pan Am village might look like, with raking, saucy rooflines and colourful facades.

       My hesitation about this scheme comes partly from the fact that, at the present time, nobody knows what the village will look like. Mr. van Nostrand and Mr. Sinclair only prepared a proposal that helped Toronto's pitch to win; they will not be in charge of the execution of the village.

       “Individual parcels will be let out to different developers and providers of affordable housing, with their own architects and planners,” Mr. van Nostrand said. These architects will probably not create something truly awful, since Waterfront Toronto will be guiding the design process according to rules that have been painstakingly worked out over the past several years. (Waterfront Toronto's guidelines regarding height, size of footprint, building envelope and other technical matters were honoured in regionalArchitects' plan, Mr. van Nostrand said.)

       But those rules were meant to be implemented over decades – not in a scant five years. What's to prevent haste from making a mess of things? In the rush to have everything in the village ready for 2015, design quality could be sacrificed on the altar of expediency. With the pressure of time on them, the yet-to-be-named architects and builders will surely be tempted to trim the construction budgets to the minimum, eliminating refinements that should be part and parcel of every new development on the waterfront.

       The West Don Lands territory is an immense asset and opportunity that must not be squandered by quick-build developers interested only in reaping a windfall off the $1-billion public investment in the Pan Am village.

       In the run-up to the Pan American Games, Toronto has been given something new to worry about: a possible hitch in Waterfront Toronto's efforts to bring urban vitality to the water, which have seemed so promising until now.

Streetside shutterbug; Patrick Cummins has spent 30 years cataloging the humble homes of Hogtown

13 November 2009


140 Boulton Avenue (September, 1980). Image courtesy Patrick Cummins.

       A new style of understanding and enjoying urban reality has recently emerged in Toronto among certain artists, architects, writers and persons without portfolio. I am thinking particularly of the circle of young people around Spacing magazine, but lone-wolf explorers of the city such as Patrick Cummins, 52, also belong to this company.

       These people can be recognized by their careful gaze at what most others ignore – the clutter of sidewalk signage and graffiti, construction sites, alleys – and by their meditative interest in odd rips in the city fabric, such as vacant lots, condemned buildings and other places where the smooth skin of urban propriety has been torn or worn away. They are all walkers, and many take photographs.

       But none of these urban investigators, as far as I know, has undertaken the documentation of unimportant Toronto architecture with more energy or more interesting results than Mr. Cummins.

         On many weekends over the last 30 years or so – he works during the week for the Toronto Archives – Mr. Cummins has taken the TTC to a place in Toronto's downtown core, then carefully photographed the pre-war houses and stores he finds there. So far, he has created some 50,000 images of ordinary buildings. And I do mean ordinary: His subjects include shabby corner stores on residential streets, old garages in laneways, Toronto's Victorian Gothic cottages, with their sharply pitched peaks atop symmetrical facades, shopfronts on busy arterial avenues, and so on – so many instances of the vernacular picturesque. (Important buildings, Rosedale or Forest Hill mansions and such, and most things postwar, do not interest him.)

       For the first 10 years of this documentary project, which began in 1978, Mr. Cummins attempted nothing more ambitious than accumulating evidence of Toronto's everyday architecture, one building at a time. This treasury of design was being speedily diminished by development, and the thousands of negatives Mr. Cummins made during this early period constituted an archive of popular heritage in danger of being forgotten forever.

       But in 1988, when the photographer catalogued his collection, he got a surprise. He discovered that, while not meaning to do so, he had snapped some buildings more than once. Lining up image after image of the same address, he found that, more often than not, interesting changes had occurred in the passage of time. A very plain, tattered bungalow he had depicted in 1980, for example, had bloomed by 1988 into a Chinese shop selling firewood and offering tree removal under a jaunty sign hoisted above a large new window.

       Suddenly, his storehouse of architectural documentation had taken on the character of a cultural narrative. Mr. Cummins then made up his mind to turn his accidental re-photographing into a deliberate activity. So it has gone since 1988 until the present: a systematic retracing of steps, the re-finding of buildings photographed years earlier and the making of fresh images that now tell engaging little tales of the city's ceaseless transfiguration. (The bungalow from 1980, incidentally, has gone through several more changes, the latest into a general contracting agency with a garage door where the large window once was.)

       One house on Richmond Street West, we see in Mr. Cummins's pairing of images, underwent few changes between 1983 and 1998, though its porch roof became a little more dilapidated and the sapling out front grew into a full-sized tree. But continuity is an exception. More common is the kind of thing captured in pictures (1983 and 1999) of a dowdy two-storey storefront on Berkeley Street, where the former plain-faced shop has been gentrified by the addition of a florid little pediment on the roof, a fancy striped awning and landscaping.

       As you might expect, Mr. Cummins often returns to the site of an earlier photograph and finds his original subject has vanished. A well-proportioned Gothic cottage found in 1988 on Kintyre Avenue – a curious building, its windows filled in and completely shrouded in what appears to be fake brick cladding – had been replaced, by 2002, by a stolid brick house. In such images, we catch glimpses of cultural memories that Toronto has lost. Not significant monuments, of course, or even instances of architectural beauty – just places that make up the ordinary fabric of the city, and hence worth remembering.

       Mr. Cummins has gone about his work with an attractive modesty that matches his topics, shooting with a simple 35-millimetre camera he bought in the 1970s. The individual images, most of which are black and white, are not arty or cleverly composed. But taken together, they comprise a huge, remarkable record of urban process and of the places in which Torontonians have lived and worked. “I document the constant rewriting of the city,” he says; “a work that's never done.”