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Why is Toronto’s condo king Peter Clewes so worried about the emerging shape of downtown?

Richard Warnica – National Post

Peter Clewes, Toronto’s most acclaimed condo architect, avoids his own work sometimes.

He’ll be driving downtown, on his way to the office at 5 a.m. say, and he’ll make an extra turn. He’ll loop around to skip certain buildings. Or, if he’s walking, he’ll keep his head down and not look up at the structures he would rather not remember.

“I like maybe 20% of what we do,” Mr. Clewes said. Which means that, after more than 30 years in the industry, there’s a lot he doesn’t like.

There are buildings that didn’t work out, visions sacrificed to budgets or bureaucracy. And each of those eats at him, in its own, painful way.

“I think about it a lot,” he said. “It really, really upsets me.”

His career is as a kind of contradiction. For decades he has sought to bring art to a form — the condominium—most deride as artless. And for all his fretting, he has, in the eyes of most critics, succeeded many times.

20 Niagara Street
But in the midst of Toronto’s unprecedented condo boom, when he could be forgiven for taking a kind of extended professional victory lap, he is instead beset by worries, about his own work, yes, but also about condos more generally, about how they’re being built here and why, and what it will mean for the city if things don’t change soon.

“We don’t take the public realm seriously,” he said, on a recent weekday morning at his office in downtown Toronto.

“We don’t invest in it. We don’t think it’s important, collectively… And I really think that’s tragic.”
Mr. Clewes himself is an accidental Torontonian. He was born in Montreal and grew up there just outside the downtown in the heady, booming 1960s and early 1970s.

“It was really a coming of age of Montreal, from a parochial French-Canadian city to a truly international city,” he said.

In 1973, he moved to Ontario to study architecture at the University of Waterloo. In a 2008 interview with The Toronto Star, he called that city “stunningly austere and lonely and vacant.” But he met his wife there and, after graduation, they began to plan their lives together.

Originally, he intended to go to grad school in California, at Berkeley, then move somewhere exotic or set up permanently in the United States. Toronto was not on his radar.

“It wasn’t the kind of place I imagined spending my career and my life,” he said.

His first job was with Arthur Erickson, the famed Vancouver architect credited with creating the West Coast style. After an interning with Mr. Erickson in Vancouver, the architect offered Mr. Clewes a place in his yet-to-be-opened Hong Kong office.
Ice Condos
The plan was for Mr. Clewes to work from the Erickson office in Toronto, while the Hong Kong business was being set up.

“At that time, Arthur was an amazing architect and his office was very vital,” Mr. Clewes said. So he and his wife packed their bags and moved, temporarily they thought, to Toronto.

Once here, they spent hours at the library, researching Hong Kong, which they believed was going to be their permanent home. But Mr. Erickson, whose design genius always outstripped his financial and practical one, never opened an office there. So Mr. Clewes worked out of Toronto instead, primarily on international projects.

“I was there for about six years and I just started to get antsy, ” he recalled. “His office was starting to fail at that point … and he was never going to take on partners.”

In the early 1980s, Mr. Clewes and a partner went solo, a young, unproven team.

“So I immediately approached people who I thought would be prepared to take a chance,” Mr. Clewes said. That meant developers, especially those who worked in multi-unit housing.

“You can say a lot of bad things about them. But they are essentially optimistic and they get a kick out of building.”

Early success in that field led to more work, which in turn led to more success and a growing reputation as a the go-to firm for housing and condominium complexes.

“Any architect, once you find an aptitude for something, whatever it is, you find your career goes along that way,” Mr. Clewes said.

Donnelly Centre U of T
Today, he is the sole principal of architectsAlliance, a 45-member firm that operates from a Spartan office on the second floor of an old commercial warehouse on the southwest end of Toronto’s downtown.

Under his leadership, the company has done dozens of large projects, including well-reviewed condo developments like Ice, at the foot of York Street, and 20 Niagara, a complex built to feel and operate like single-family housing.

But for all his success, Mr. Clewes has great reservations about the pace of condo development in the city generally.

In his eyes, many of the towers now popping up through Toronto’s core are depressingly similar.

A “frightening” number of them — about 70% he believes, — are the product of developers who won’t add anything to a project unless it contributes directly to the bottom line. But the real villain, in his view, is the city and its planners, who have a myopic focus on individual lots, instead of entire blocks.

Comment: Hear, hear. That sums up the whole problem so very well.

“We’re attempting to codify what a building should be as opposed to what a city should be,” he said.

“And when you codify what a building should be, you start to get a lot of buildings that look an awful lot the same.”

He wants the city to create a binding policy to govern intensification in the core.

“Just be bold and do it in a way that creates very robust streets and blocks,” he said.

Comment: Oh god, yes.

Right now, Toronto “is exempting itself from regulating its own fate.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can have better buildings and better streets, he believes, coherent, livable blocks, instead of random clusters of identical towers pockmarked throughout downtown.

“It’s never too late,” Mr. Clewes said. “We think something’s done and it’s never done. The interesting thing about cities is that they’re never finished.”

As for his own work, the older he gets, the simpler he wants his buildings to be. “Less based on fashion and more based on timeless architecture,” he said.

As he looks back on his career, he’s proud of some projects — Ice, the Donnelly Centre at the University of Toronto. But he’s also happy with the accidental direction it took.

“I’m just proud that we’ve engaged in the practice of condominium work when it’s been very difficult and at a time, when it wasn’t considered something that proper architects did,” he said.

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Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.
He did not write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who
are interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.

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Summary
Why is Toronto's condo king Peter Clewes so worried about the emerging shape of downtown?
Article Name
Why is Toronto's condo king Peter Clewes so worried about the emerging shape of downtown?
Description
Peter Clewes, Toronto's most acclaimed condo architect, avoids his own work sometimes. There are buildings that didn't work out, visions sacrificed to budgets or bureaucracy. And each of those eats at him, in its own, painful way.

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