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2006 06 02
Which Waterfront Design Do you Choose - Reprised
We learned early today that the winner of the TWRC's waterfront design competition is the team called West 8. We are delighted that the jurors took this step towards making Toronto's waterfront as vibrant as any city's anywhere. The following story on the competition ran in May, 2006.


The Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation is living up to its name. On Monday, five finalists in the corporation's waterfront design competition unveiled their solutions for an enthusiastic crowd. After having a chance to review the offerings, here's my brief overview of the projects. Just a note: they are all very well considered and compelling - some are just better suited to Toronto than others.

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At one end of the proposed design spectrum is a project reminiscent of a slightly less dystopic "Clockwork Orange." At the other, is a formalism that imposes Dubai-like solutions on Toronto's harbour. Both assume that there is no there there (or here) and a sense of place must be created. WASAW's scheme is reminiscent of sixties super-graphics. Coloured ribbons snake their way along the waterfront and turn into folded, ribbon-like buildings, one with vaguely disturbing images hovering above it. While I like the proposal from an architecture school's design class perspective, it imposes itself across the waterfront in a way that is ultimately tiresome. There are, after all, some good things about the waterfront that can be saved and enhanced. We don't need a singular design vision that dominates every aspect of the harbour. Toronto's waterfront is not the tabula rasa offered to Tschumi for the Parc De La Villette, no matter how much the designers want it to be.

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Similarly, the Foster scheme seems to have escaped from the computer of the designer who last worked on a Foster Dubai project. The three massive and seemingly identical piers, terminated by multi-storey buildings, while iconic in a grasping Sydney Opera House kind of way, demote the rest of the waterfront to the level of background noise. There just isn't enough Toronto left in this scheme. Maybe the intent is to bring an international flavour to the city. There are parts of the scheme that work but the broad strokes are too contrived for the context.

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Somewhere in the middle is the Williams Tsien scheme. Unfortunately, the designers further reduce Toronto's harbour by dropping yet more fill into it. While the designers maintain this is reminiscent of Venice, it negates the existing harbour's edge and will almost certainly ensure that in the short to mid-term (two generations) some government will get the bright idea that they can make money by filling in the gap and selling property. In addition, the scheme paradoxically brings the thing we hate most about the waterfront - elevated concrete structures - down to the water's edge. We don't need or want more concrete canopies near the waterfront even if they do generate electricity from attached solar panels. If we need solar generated electricity why not just add collectors to nearby, unused rooftops. The electricity generated can be sold for credits - they don't have to have one-to-one physical relationships with the harbour. That said, it is easy to see how the designers got swept away by an historically influenced vision of the harbour. Their scheme is bold and unique but they lost a fine-grained focus somewhere along the way.

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In contrast are the schemes premised on knitting together existing elements in a way that both enhances and unites them. West 8 and P.O.R.T. 's schemes fall into this camp. P.O.R.T. was plagued by some technical glitches during their public presentation but if it can happen to Bill Gates it can happen to anyone. Their solution is probably the most sensitive to local conditions although the point columns that terminate Toronto's major north-south axes are a strong urban gesture. Some design elements, however, are not quite as believable as they should be.

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Of the two, West 8's is more convincing possibly because of its unabashedly Canadian iconography. On closer inspection, they seem to have the site-specific details right as well. The timber-frame bridges do offer a distinct Canadian design flavour. Their decision to shift car traffic north of the existing light-rail lines allows for a continuous, tree-lined boulevard from one end of Queen's Quay to the other. West 8 also gets rid of the Gardner Expressway. It's about time. I am not convinced about the floating, biomass maple leaf in the centre of the harbour but, then again, it's probably a perfect symbol to help attract foreign visitors to the city.

The organizers want our feedback. Which scheme do you prefer?


[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 06/02 at 02:52 PM

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