The City on a Lake
Toronto today is a microcosm of Canada: a young, evolving cultural formation; heterogeneous, diverse, complex, open, and democratic. The city is bounded by Lake Ontario, and two rivers - the Humber River and the Don River. Toronto’s major nineteenth century institutions – including Old City Hall, the Connaught Building, the Grange– are all sited in green space “voids” and oriented to face south to the lake. A system of expressways ---Highway 427, the Gardiner Expressway, the Don Valley Expressway, and Highway 401-the Macdonald-Cartier Trans-Canada Highway---define another framework that orders the city.
Grid: A Veneer of Order, and the Ordinary
Toronto has been criticized for appearing boring. The innate geography of the city is a rising terrain which contains valleys, ravines and watersheds carved through the landscape. In 1788, Gunther Mann devised a gridiron plan to organize the city, leaving a legacy of conservative order, a veneer over the deeper, more complex, more wild and organic foundation of the city. Today’s supergrid of arterial streets - mostly north and south, east and west – is interwoven with zones of institutional, commercial, and residential uses. Many of these zones have evolved into ethnic neighbourhoods – such as Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy - embedded with the richness of culture and individuality. To know the city, like the ravines and valleys, you have to go deeper, beneath the surface of its order, into the neighborhoods and the streets.
A Matrix for Creativity and Diversity
Toronto’s urban fabric – the supergrid - is directly connected to the city’s ability to evolve into a culturally and ethnically diverse centre. It acts as a matrix, or crucible, for individuality, creativity, innovation and invention. In Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, a team led by Professor Meric Gertler at the University of Toronto analyzed Canadian cities adapting the methodologies used for U.S. cities. The results indicated that Toronto ranks very high on the three indices---the Talent index, accounting for the number of people with post-secondary education; the Bohemian index, accounting for the number of artists, designers, musicians, architects, etc. in the urban population; and the Mosaic index, accounting for the number of people who were born somewhere else. According to the DIAC Design Industry Study issued in 2004, Toronto has the largest design workforce in Canada, and the third largest design workforce in North America after New York and Boston.
photo credit: Robert Hill
Studio / Site
We work in a loft on the north-east corner of King Street and John Street. Located just west of Toronto’s Financial District in the downtown core, our studio is located on a site that acts as a hinge between the city’s media and entertainment districts. John Street is a north-south arterial which terminates on axis with Grange Park to the north, and the SkyDome to the south. Grange Park was the original property and home of the Toronto’s founder, John Graves Simcoe. The Georgian-style house is now a part of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Eventually the John Street terminus will be crowned by Frank Gehry’s expansion to the AGO. In the last 15 years John Street has developed into Toronto’s media corridor and is now lined with major media and tourist destinations such as CITY-TV(home of programs such as Much Music and Bravo!), the National Film Board, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) which was designed by Philip Johnson, the SkyDome, the CN Tower, and commercial venues and restaurants such as the Paramount Theatre, Chapters bookstore, and others.
King Street reflects the British origins of the city and is also one of the arterial streets that forms the large scale matrix that organizes the city. In the last twenty years the west end of King Street has evolved into a culturally dense district, and is lined with major theatre and music performance venues such as the Princess of Wales Theatre, the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and Roy Thomson Hall as well as strips of restaurants and cafes, hotels, and residential developments.
The north-west corner will be the site of the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival building that KPMB is designing.
The building we work in is an industrial loft constructed of exposed load bearing masonry walls, and heavy timber columns and beams made of Douglas Fir. The hardwood floors are Maple. The ceilings are very high and the windows are very large, filling the studio with lots of natural light. The building, built in 1907 after the Great Fire that destroyed so much of this part of Toronto, was named the Eclipse Whitewear Building which was later adapted as the initial home of the Toronto Sun newspaper, and renovated in the 1970’s by two architects, Barton Myers and Jack Diamond, to create office workspace. This building has been KPMB's home since the firm was founded in 1987.
While Toronto’s urban fabric eludes an easy reading, I believe there is a distinct Toronto Style of architecture. Style is not just a look, but a way of being, thinking, and doing things out of which comes an expression. Toronto Style is elusive because it is more about a way of practicing architecture, making architecture than it is in about a coherent, singular legibility. This conception of style is discussed by Detlef Mertins in his essay “Toronto Style” in our recent monograph by Birkhauser.
Toronto is fragmentary but the arterial grid creates a net that absorbs difference and allows this diversity to percolate through the city, catalyzing fusions of cultures. Also consider the Tibetan Munks – who established a temple in Caledon – just outside of Toronto. They wanted to come to Toronto because they saw it as a place that would allow them to be themselves. The ethnic diversity of the city has improved the cuisine; the cultural organizations and festivals have embedded the city an innate civility, the urban gird and the interweaving of residential and commercial districts has created a culture of walking.
So…if you are looking for a singular style, you won’t find it. But you may find that it is a city that makes it possible to find a way of doing things that is dynamic and open-ended. Our practice is a reflection of what is going on – and our identity, even my own, is influenced by living here and embracing the complexity of a remarkable, contemporary city.
The last significant era of architectural production that transformed the fabric of the city was in the 1960s and early 70s by modernists such as Peter Dickenson, Ron Thom, and international architects Mies Van der Rohe, Viljo Revel, and I.M. Pei. The projects of this era – the Toronto Dominion Centre, the City Hall, the former O’Keefe Centre and First Canadian Place – have maintained their legibility within the development and evolution of the city.
Against this legacy, I’m interested in the specific form of neo-modernism being practiced by the current generation architects here. Their form of neo-modernism is rounded out in the urban cosmopolitan matrix – this modernism is warmer, more tactile and expressed as a fascination with material that is more artisanal, and, at least at street level, more responsive to the urban context – using strategies of integration distinctive yet sympathetic with what already exists. You begin to look around and the discreet interventions – portals, facades, storefronts, courtyards, laneway houses etc. are gaining a critical mass, and establishing a distinctive character for Toronto’s architectural fabric.
I believe Toronto is as a broad cultural experiment that allows the contemporary to constantly be introduced. The current reshaping of the city – with all the cultural renaissance projects, residential developments, the explosion of retail shops, restaurants and galleries in the neighbourhoods of the city – is reinforcing a civil society in which architecture is playing a significant role.
Today, you see local architects creating projects side by side with international architects such as Gehry, Libeskind, Alsop, Foster, Maki and others, as well as each other. The renewal of the Royal Ontario Museum is framed by simultaneous renewals of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and the Royal Conservatory of Music. The partnership between a cultural institution, the National Ballet School, and a private residential developer, Context will revitalize the historic Jarvis street district. The new centre for Toronto International Film Festival will be located just down the street from Gehry’s AGO and Alsop’s OCAD. The local and global are generating new and dynamic relationships of the existing urban fabric - dynamic in that it is a revitalizing relationship of architecture and the city that hasn’t occurred since the 1960s.
By 2008, we should all plan to re-read Toronto.