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2007 03 19
Innovating College Street West

In the world of architecture it is often said that great clients allow for great architects. While notable practitioners may publicly argue otherwise, in their private moments they thank their good fortune for clients who pay to bring well-designed buildings to life. Ask Frank Gehry.

The developer behind a provocative new project on College Street West is just such a client to architect Roland Rom Colthoff. Together, their design vision for a small urban site in a popular downtown neighbourhood may just change our expectations of what a Toronto home should look like.

Jim Neilas is a financier who funds building projects through his company, Waterview Capital. Realizing he would soon be in the market for a new home, Neilas explored Toronto's available housing stock and upcoming condo projects searching for a building he liked -- fruitlessly it turned out.

"Generally," Neilas concludes, "people in this city don't believe in good architecture."

"Everywhere I looked I found buildings that were not built for living as much as they were built for sales brochures."

Neilas -- who trained as a lawyer but went into the financial world -- had wanted to become a developer of well-considered, modern buildings. Here, he thought, was his opportunity.

That is how Neilas Inc. started. "The philosophy behind this company," says the developer, "is to build for people who enjoy living, who take the time to consider how they will actually inhabit the space they choose to live in."

The proposed eight-unit College Street project, named N-Blox, is proof of sorts of those ideas.

In developer terms, the site is miniscule. Measuring just 50 feet wide and 110 feet long it is a challenge to any developer. Neilas decided to take on the difficult site and while doing that build the home he longed for.

Challenging sites and supportive clients bring out the best in architects. Rom Colthoff of Quadrangle Architects responded to the task.

"Jim is influenced by complex, modern projects he has seen in New York and elsewhere," reflects the architect.

"He wants to build living environments that are pleasurable and many of his references were from European architects practising abroad -- such as Herzog & de Meuron's 40 Bond Street project."

One of Neilas' requests was for two-storey-height units with internal stairs. This model, he argued, acknowledges Toronto's typical two-storey housing. He also wanted the building to respond to some unique site conditions that other architects probably would just ignore.

For example, there were windows on an adjoining property wall that meant a standard boxwalled solution would not work. What is a creative response to the demands of a client's vision and an awkward site condition? Use a steel framework to give the building a setback on the lower floors away from those windows and cantilever the upper ones.

As well, because of its "Main Street" frontage, zoning demands a setback at the fourth floor level. That requirement adds another step in the building's overall envelope.

Architect Rom Colthoff describes the resulting building as spatially complex and "Tetrislike." More than that, and as a nod to Neilas, he says the condominium design represents "the design aspirations of an ambitious client."

What is remarkable about this proposed building is not only the client-architect relationship - though that clearly helps -- but their joint commitment to a "form follows function" belief in design.

That approach creates a well-composed building that is unique to a specific place and time. The various oddities of Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood that are the result of thousands of small changes over the years provide a complimentary backdrop to a building that also acknowledges there are many different ways people can choose to inhabit a home.

There is another thing to like about this building. Architect Rom Colthoff says that he sees Toronto's housing stock getting better as a whole. "Design does go a long way to distinguish buildings in a crowded marketplace." It also shows that good design can make under appreciated sites attractive to developers.

After many years of accepting the complacent design standards of the status quo, Torontonians may well be on their way to becoming the clients every architect hopes for.

Originally published Saturday, March 17, 2007 in the National Post.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 03/19 at 11:44 AM

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