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2005 12 07
A Model Building for the City: Beautification is Possible
Anyone close to the city’s corridors of power knows that Torontonians are losing patience with failed attempts to beautify the city.

Our frustration is understandable. Repeated efforts to revive the waterfront resulted in a string of tarnished political careers, millions of lost public dollars, and spotty results. Not surprisingly, public support for government beautification schemes is fading.

Civic leaders seem to share the public’s malaise. Many, we assume, secretly believe that difficult planning issues are not solvable within our city’s political system.

Yet, difficult planning and development problems are solvable. The history of an exquisite new building in downtown Toronto illustrates how.

Many recognize the McKinsey & Company office on Charles Street near Avenue Road as one of the city’s best examples of quiet, street-enhancing design.

The building’s aesthetics influence an evolving neighbourhood. A new theatre designed by Lett/Smith Architects went up across the street. Developers rebuilt the Windsor Arms hotel. The adjacent Gardiner Museum is undergoing a major renovation.

But, more than just enhancing the streetscape, the McKinsey building’s design enhances the lives of the people who use it. For those and other reasons, Architect, Siamak Hariri, received numerous awards for the project.

In order to create this building, McKinsey, the architect, and the landowner overcame obstacles as challenging, in there way, as any faced by the city. They succeeded through a combination of desire, applied intelligence, and skill. The rational, considered way they did it is inspiring.

Ron Farmer, McKinsey’s managing partner at the time, had a decision to make. Their office lease was expiring. Either they could lease another office or they could build their own.

Farmer appointed partner Mehrdad Baghai, to manage the project. According to Mehrdad, their first step was to acknowledge, “they didn’t know what they didn’t know,” about good architecture.

McKinsey scheduled ninety minute information sessions, one a week for six weeks. The session leader was to be someone, Baghai explained, “young, hungry, and talented–with a very successful future.” “We chose Hariri.”

Hariri showed the McKinsey partners hundreds of slides of great places, spaces, offices, and buildings. They talked. They went on a retreat. Together they decided on the key design principals that would inform McKinsey’s new office.

Some principles were environmental–like natural light and operable windows for support staff. Others were functional. They decided on a public front of house and private back of house scheme with a slow transition in between.

The back house plan, they decided, should include a gathering place influenced by the patterns of an Italian piazza. There was an assembly area in the middle with “shop and street-like” amenities defining its edge. They call this space the hive.

There were tough constraints. To meet McKinsey’s budget, the entire building with furniture could be no more expensive than a twelve-year lease of prime office space. In addition, to help attract the “best of the best” employees and clients, it had to be part of an academic precinct somewhere in or near the University of Toronto.

Anyone who has tried to develop on university lands–especially on a limited budget–knows that the process can be a long and difficult one. Hariri identified a potential site on Charles Street and spoke with Victoria College Bursor, Larry Kurtz, about developing the property.

“We were fortunate,” says Harari. Kurtz was willing to consider the McKinsey proposal as long as they designed the building to be convertible to academic use at the end of its business life. In the end, they agreed on a thirty-year leasing term.

“There are times I wonder how people can manage to build a doghouse in Toronto, considering the commitment and energy that’s required to get these things to happen.” Kurtz later told a university newspaper.

With a site in hand, Hariri began his design. The client, he remembers, wanted a building so beautiful it would, “weaken your knees.” “The McKinsey team pushed my thinking on all levels of the design.” In return, Hariri showed them how to use design to encourage interaction and how inspirational settings allow for breakthrough thinking.

The collaboration worked. Visitors immediately recognize the quality craftsmanship throughout the building. Materials like Owen Sound limestone and copper are rich, details are elegant, and spaces well conceived. The building, many say, works well on every level.

McKinsey & Co. is an internationally recognized management consultancy known for the way its staff solves complex problems. The way they approached designing their Toronto office is a model for the way we can approach and overcome Toronto’s seemingly intractable development problems.

First, they knew they didn’t know; Second, they gave responsibility to key people and expected them to perform—McKinsey is a meritocracy; third, they learned from experts who knew more than they did; fourth, they identified their goals; fifth, they made strong business/institutional partnerships that benefited all parties.

Finally, the client believed in the people chosen to make the project a success and let them do their job. The result speaks for itself. Can we apply the same approach to our waterfront?

This story cross-published in Tuesday's National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 12/07 at 08:36 AM

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