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Tag Archives: piazza

Architecture of the Times

Torontoist.com

Looking back on the need for a landmark building, William Thorsell of the ROM writes of the attraction to international starchitects like Daniel Libeskind: “they could express themselves personally; they could bring in poetic aspects to buildings that were there for reasons that had nothing to do with efficiency or form. They have to do with function, and in a broader sense of what function really is. It is partly the function of major buildings like the ROM to be a symbol.”

Love it or hate it, the ROM’s overhaul is certainly symbolic, demonstrative of the best (or worst) in contemporary architecture in Toronto. It and the other big ticket, high-profile projects of the “Cultural Renaissance” like the AGO or the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts figure prominently in Margaret and Phil Goodfellow’s A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Toronto, just published by Douglas & McIntyre. But these comprise just one small portion of the architecture that’s transformed the city between 1992 and 2010. The pocket-sized book’s sixty or more entries—each illustrated by miniature photos, renderings, or floor plans—are organized by neighbourhood, letting the reader plan their own walking tour.

The expected entries are here, such as Santiago Calatrava’s galleria at Brookfield Place, National Ballet School, and Will Alsop’s tabletop at OCAD. But so are some gems: smaller, unexpected projects and public spaces that you might not ordinarily stumble across unless you knew to look for them.

The Thomas L. Wells Public School, in out-of-the-way Morningside Heights, for example, is the school board’s pilot green school—designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects—and it is presented here as “a leader and model for the future direction of educational design.” Also here are the Laneway House on the back alley of Croft Street and the Leavitt Goodman House on Euclid Avenue.

Two- to three-paragraph blurbs place each project within the context of their neighbourhoods, such as the way the McKinsey & Company–designed Isabel Bader Theatre blends traditional materials and stonework, which acknowledge the Neo-Gothic traditions of surrounding Victoria College, with contemporary design.

Beyond buildings, parks and public spaces like the Village of Yorkville Park and HTO Park on the waterfront are included. Even Yonge-Dundas Square is recognized: the square, designed by Brown + Storey Architects, has undoubtedly changed that neighbourhood and brought it to life. Nevertheless, would many locals consider it as a significant architectural achievement for the city, “an urban piazza framed by commercial activity and striking billboards”?

Yonge-Dundas Square’s inclusion makes it surprising that other significant and controversial projects are not even mentioned—for instance, the largest residential development in the city’s history.

CityPlace’s workmanlike, generic architecture—even Concord Adex’s websites don’t prominently list their towers’ actual architects, apart from KPMB’s Montage tower—and its suburban-esque streetscape would make it a controversial inclusion from a design point of view. “At present,” the Goodfellows note, this “area is characterized by a series of imposing but nondescript residential developments along an incongruous public realm.”

But if you compare an aerial photograph from the 1980s to the present, as Shawn Micallef does in the book’s closing essay discussing the city’s changing skyline, you’d be struck by how orphaned the CN Tower and SkyDome seem, surrounded by parking lots and rail yards. CityPlace, and high-rise residential developments in general, have been central to the city’s real-estate renaissance. As a book ostensibly for cultural tourists and local explorers, the Guidebook is not really intended to engage debates, but CityPlace’s exclusion makes you wonder about where we place tall condos in the architectural imagination of our city.

The handful of condo projects that are included are mid-rise buildings, the majority of which are designed by Peter Clewes’s architectsAlliance for Context Development, such as 20 Niagara, District Lofts, and Radiocity. With through-units for wall-to-wall daylight and cross ventilation, and community-scale design, these are certainly the upper echelon of condos in the city—and the reason why Christopher Hume has called Clewes “the leading condo designer of his generation.”

Also in the residential realm are the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s recent projects like 60 Richmond, and 246–252 Sackville Street (the first completed project of the Regent Park redevelopment). Like these, among the merits cited for the inclusion of Evangel Hall (which architectsAlliance designed for the Presbyterian Church) is that the social housing project “masks [itself] in the skin of a market condominium.”

It’s perhaps more interesting to wonder, as Bruce Kuwabara does in one of the book’s introductory interviews, just who is transforming the city more: international sources like Gehry or Libeskind, “invited to Toronto for a single project,” or local firms like Teeple Architects, ERA Architects, KPMB, and Kohn Shnier Architects.

Taken as a whole, does A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Toronto suggest a distinctive architectural style to the city? If anything, the Goodfellows suggest, it is adaptive reuse of existing buildings and infill development. “The contemporary wave is appropriating the spaces in between,” Micallef adds, “filling in streetscapes and neighbourhoods. What this gives Toronto is an extremely heterogeneous typology. Toronto does not have a uniform look, but is this urban mix that may, in fact, be the signature style.”

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