Collegial Think Tank

McKinsey & Company Canadian Headquarters, Toronto, Ontario

Taylor Hariri Pontarini Architects

It’s not often that an architect and critic gets to watch an important building being created in his own backyard, but that was my recent experience as witness to the construction of the new McKinsey & Company Canadian Headquarters on Charles Street West in Toronto. I live around the corner from this project and, naturally, I am curious about the activity that goes on in my neighbourhood. Here, a construction boom is under way, but unfortunately, much of the new work is less than great. Left, right, and centre buildings are being demolished or eviscerated, and architecture’s power to make place is being numbed. For example, in recent years the venerable Windsor Arms Hotel has been disassembled and then reassembled with a finial-encrusted, exclusive residential condo towering above. The University Theatre, long the centre of Toronto’s Film Festival, is now but a memory; its faade will be reconstructed, incorporated into a mixed-use complex, sadly without any cinemas. And there are other even less attractive condominiums under construction. So the activity on the grounds of Victoria University at the University of Toronto caught my attention.

The boundary between city and campus plays itself out in different ways at the University’s periphery. While in other places along the U of T edge the transition is often rough–new buildings are cheek by jowl with 19th century Victorian houses–the transition is more gradual, and certainly studied, at Victoria University, one of U of T’s oldest and most architecturally distinguished enclaves. Victoria has long been a patron of architecture and a prudent manager of its land holdings. Gordon S. Adamson and Associates’ 1960 E.J. Pratt Library is currently being renovated by Kohn Shnier Architects with Shore Tilbe Irwin and Partners, and Lett Smith Architects’ Isabel Bader Theatre is nearing completion. The Colonnade, designed in 1964 by Gerald Robinson Architect, is an elegant mixed-use building on Bloor Street, immediately northwest of McKinsey, where views over an open space to the south have been preserved. The walkways within Victoria are gentle, with subtle shifts in grade and scale through green courtyards providing a respite from Bloor Street’s din. In this context, the elegant McKinsey & Company building is a welcome addition. New vistas and pathways of discovery have been created, but old sight lines remain and the sequence of open and enclosed spaces has been reinforced.

Over a period of close to two years, I witnessed the development of this building from the outside. As the concrete frame took shape it described a three-storey mass pulled apart into two wings, sitting perpendicular to the street. Within these wings, the axes slip by each other, reinforcing the linkages to site and establishing interior circulation paths and sight lines. The lower scale street-related pavilions, politely coming almost to the sidewalk edge, give definition to the building on its south side along Charles Street and mark entrance and address. Similar attention and care were given to all sides: a curved, glazed brick wall creates a dynamic edge to the parking garage ramp, which slips beside the building on its east side before descending to the basement parkade. The north entrance on Sultan Street is equally well mannered, with canopy-covered connections from Bloor Street and adjacent sidewalks.

Then came the cladding. There was considerable excitement in the neighbourhood as the iron-rich grey Owen Sound stone arrived on plastic-wrapped palettes. As the stone was laid, its rough- and smooth-cut surfaces resonated with the venerable faades of adjacent University residences and academic buildings. The composition was complete as the windows were put in place; the deeply coloured teak and mahogany frames, with their dark, reddish tones, set off the subtle ferric colouring of the stone, and their thin vertical mullions create a rhythm along the faade.

As the building was closed in, the ground floor remained visible through large, floor-to-ceiling windows. Raised a half metre above grade, the building’s ground floor becomes a platform on which interior life is played out, and this life can be glimpsed from without. Cherry wood office furniture, rusticated fireplaces and elegant conference rooms, sometimes only half-revealed behind sheer curtains, are the visible setting for this life. But in spite of this transparency, the perimeter remains protected, affording occupants the necessary privacy. Low garden walls set boundaries and enclose exterior courtyards which create intermediate outdoor rooms.

At last, one day, occupants began appearing. The construction life of the building was ending and its real life was about to begin.

It was not until I entered the second part of my discovery of this building–through a recent tour with the architect and owner–that I came to learn how McKinsey & Company’s offices are a good place to work. Buildings have a life centred on their inhabitants (something architects often forget) and at McKinsey & Company this is certainly the case. While the hum of the place is evident to passers-by, the real pulse can only be felt inside.

McKinsey & Company handles some of the world’s most important and sensitive management issues; to do so effectively, it seeks to hire the best and the brightest talent available. In the shifting marketplace of management consulting, and for its Canadian Headquarters, McKinsey sought to create an environment that would not only be up to their standards as a first-rate company, but would also meet the expectations and needs of a valued staff. McKinsey began this project as an exercise in research and development, whereby ideas in workplace design were identified, evaluated and assimilated into the requirements for their Toronto offices. Within this process, partner-in-charge Siamak Hariri and his design team played a significant role. A number of models were examined, and from these a set of philosophies developed. (This process is documented in Arlene Gould’s DX Case Study VI: McKinsey’s Ideal Workplace, Design Exchange, Toronto: 2000.)

First, there is the idea of the importance of the client, balanced with the importance of human capital within the company. While the client is certainly the exterior life force of and raison d’tre of the company, this is balanced with the interior life force, namely the employees. Thus, equal but different attention is paid to the design of working places for client meetings and spaces for employees to consider and develop management strategies on behalf of these clients. In the Toronto headquarters, a very important public zone exists at the building’s entrance. Here, at the street edge, are located large and small conference rooms in street-related pavilions and support areas for interactions with clients. This zone spills into the interior through an informal area fitted out with fireplace, pool table and casual seating. For the most part, this is the zone where client and staff interact. Beyond this, the inner sanctum of McKinsey & Company unfolds, and the second part of the company philosophy is made manifest.

At McKinsey emphasis is on the workplace, where the potential for interaction and the resulting development of ideas are all set within a collegial environment. The centre of the workplace is a three-storey high meeting space, the “hive,” which is the locus for company-centred presentations, meetings and gatherings. The feeling is informal and communal. A huge Jumbotron screen hangs on one side of the space and is used for presenting ideas and the latest analysis of one of the company’s research groups. The ground floor is reserved for the most part for client meetings, the library, the hive and related services. The workplaces of McKinsey staff are located on the two upper floors. Shared functions and breakout rooms are located at the centre of each floor adjacent to the three-storey hive.

To encourage collegiality, and in keeping with the ethos that interaction he
lps fuel creative solutions, workstations are clustered in groups. Only partners have enclosed offices, strategically located amid the workstations. The upper floors are viewed as working spaces in every sense: corridors are essentially eliminated, with circulation space flowing between office clusters. The staircase, which creates the main connector between floors, is discontinuous, and the generous landing between second and third floors encourages informal meetings and impromptu conversations.

In no place are materials spare or skimpy. Flooring of dark, Brazilian jatoba, counters of marble, and cherry wood workstations custom designed by the architects and Unifor SpA of Italy give McKinsey a sense of solidity and permanence. The material palette and detailing are consistent with other projects by Taylor Hariri Pontarini, particularly the firm’s luxury residential work. The vocabulary is consistent with this larger body of work that has become increasingly refined from project to project. At McKinsey the translation from residential to office environment is successful and quite fitting.

This project also bears scrutiny as a model for future public-private partnerships. In its search for new headquarters, McKinsey & Company set clear objectives: fiscally, not to spend more for space than financial-district office rentals, and corporately, to create an environment conducive to creativity. Initially taking on the project as a research exercise, Taylor Hariri Pontarini identified the criteria for good working environments, which translated into the plan and form of the building. At the outset, however, no specific site was identified. According to Ron Farmer, a McKinsey Senior Partner in Canada and one of the company’s stewards for this project, until the conceptual model was clarified, the company did not want to be constrained by a site. As the project developed, however, and the idea crystallized, it was the architect who suggested the site. Meeting with Victoria University on another project, Hariri mentioned his work with McKinsey. The fit seemed ideal: a corporate client seeking an academic setting, willing to take a long-term lease on this well-crafted building, with the opportunity in future for Victoria to take over the building for its own use once McKinsey’s lease expires. For Larry Kurtz, Bursar at Victoria University, the McKinsey Headquarters is a college building “in waiting.” The University could not have produced a building of this quality under current fiscal conditions. In the long term, Victoria will get a building it could not otherwise afford, while receiving in the interim significant rental income. Good stewardship meets good business practice.

Even though I am an architect, I retain my private rights as an amateur sidewalk superintendent. Watching McKinsey & Company’s Canadian Headquarters take shape, and finally appreciating the interior as much as the exterior, has been very satisfying. Not only is this a beautifully crafted building, but it succeeds as a good neighbour, as a good place to work, and as a model for academic and business partnerships. This building is a great moment of contemporary architecture in Toronto, and reaffirms architecture’s potential to make meaningful places and spaces.

George Thomas Kapelos is an architect in private practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Architectural Science and Landscape Architecture at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.

Client: McKinsey & Company, Victoria University

Architect team: Siamak Hariri (partner-in-charge), Sara Tetlow, Michael Boxer, Jillian Aimis, Peter Lloyd-Jones, Ama Chisholm, Liming Rao, Jim Forster, Daniel Klinck, John Cook, Rita Kirakis, Lisa Linkovich, Isaac Mac, Nicholas Choy, Jaegap Chung, Evan Webber, James Bruer, Scot Laughton, Dieter Janssen, Edward Kim, Dana Broadbent, Geoff Hodgetts, Colin Ripley, David Snell, Scott Valens.

Structural: Yolles Partnership

Mechanical: Smith & Andersen

Electrical: Mulvey & Banani Inc.

Landscape: The MBTW Group

Furniture: Taylor Hariri Pontarini (Siamak Hariri, partner-in-charge), Unifor SpA

Specifications: Gary T. Banks

Life safety: Hine Reichard Tomlin

Acoustics: Valcoustics

Audio-visual: Engineering Harmonics

Parking: BA Consulting

Signage: WD Design Inc.

Contractor: Vanbots Construction Corporation

Completion: June 1999

Area: 75,000 ft2

Budget: $15 million

Photography: Mario Carrieri