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2006 12 22
Surviving Modernity

Torontonians exhibit an odd way of celebrating the city's great modernist buildings: We carefully protect them until wrecking crews can knock them down.

Look around our streets and consider the carnage. We bulldozed the Inn on the Park on Leslie Street. What happened to the much-loved Bulova Clock Tower at the CNE? Declared unsafe, its dismemberment made way for the Indy Car race.

Will the Bata Head Office on Eglinton Avenue survive the city's modernist purge? No. A beautiful symbol, its days are numbered. What happened to the tiny perfect bank pavilion at Wellington and Church streets? Its fate is worse than mere destruction. Now a pizza parlour, the building is a kitsch-like parody of its former self.

There are many more stories of lost modernism.

That is why when Toronto developers recognize the economic value of good modernist designs and invest to enhance them, we need to applaud their vision.

Malen Capital now owns the modernist apartment-hotel, One Benvenuto Place. Built in the Fifties, the building's position on the crest of the old Lake Iroquois shoreline offers extraordinary, panoramic views of downtown Toronto. In fact, the Benvenuto estate was first home to William Lyon Mackenzie.

Designed in 1951 by young architect Peter Dickinson -- then of Page and Steele Architects -- the building may well be the finest example of International Style architecture in the city. Its strong horizontal composition together with the expansive glass facade long ago fixed its place as an architectural landmark.

The building's exclusive perch also means thousands of people see the building every day as they speed along Avenue Road. Many of those car-bound travellers appreciate its simple, horizontal lines and some may even remember the building's suggestive modern promise. After all, modernist architecture's mission was for a better future if not a utopian one.

The Benvenuto's role as an epicure's destination also cemented its place in local legend. Zagat-rated Scaramouche restaurant is a long-time tenant in the southeast corner of the building.

In spite of this pedigree, one suspects that if Malen's Mitchell Abrahams had wanted to tear down One Benvenuto -- the fate of so many other modernist icons in the city -- he could have come up with a reason. Abrahams understands the market value of buildings. He once managed a $3-billion portfolio for a major real-estate firm.

To the city's great fortune, Abrahams concluded that there is real value in modernist design and he set about reviving the admired but ageing building.

In the first phase, Abrahams converted 40 of the building's 116 suites to condo units. That process continues. He also renovated the building's common areas to enhance the building.

Interior designer Bryon Patton removed one apartment unit opposite the north-facing lobby so arriving visitors now experience the full southern view over downtown Toronto. Former Dickinson colleague Gordon Ridgely worked on the condo unit layouts.

"Purchasers of the units range from typical empty-nesters," says Abrahams, "to design-savvy young people who appreciate how rare the building is."

Les Klein of Quadrangle Architects came in to design a glass-walled, rooftop exercise pavilion offering eye-peeling sunset views. Klein is a MITtrained architect well versed in the ideals of modernity.

"Dikinson's building is a classic piece of modernist iconography," says Klein. "We weren't going to Victorianize it."

Instead, Klein and partners recognized how masterfully the building's simple materials and horizontal proportions enhanced the condo units "million- dollar views."

"We work with the structure not against it," stresses the architect.

"One Benvenuto is a building that feels metropolitan -- it is part of the city's cultural legacy." That feeling is generated by many modernist buildings in the city.

Developers often prefer green-field sites when planning projects.

Why worry about legacy constraints when city regulatory agencies will approve most anything if pressed?

Some argue that heritage designations can stifle urban renewal and growth. And we do want to promote strong urban development at the expense of building unviable suburbs.

Still, if a building like Benvenuto Place can provide a worthwhile return on its investment then other buildings of its genre have the same potential. Maybe money can save modernity.

This story also published in today's National Post

[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 12/22 at 12:10 PM

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