Contextual Modernism

District Lofts and Ideal Condominiums, Toronto, Ontario

Architects Alliance

When Le Corbusier published his Manual of the Dwelling in his 1923 book Vers une Architecture, he did so in response to what he saw as hidebound architectural traditions that prevented architects from innovating in the way that engineers were addressing new industrial and technological realities. “Eradicate from your mind,” he implored, “any hard and fast conceptions in regard to the dwelling-house and look at the question from an objective and critical angle.” The inevitable result would be “the mass-production house, available for everyone, incomparably healthier than the old kind (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same sense that the working tools, familiar to us in our present existence, are beautiful.”

Those words, published 80 years ago, have inspired generations of architects to struggle with–and against—modernist notions of housing. As early as 1932, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, writing in The International Style, accused Modern architects of designing for “a typical family. This statistical monster, the typical family, has no personal existence and cannot defend itself against the sociological theories of the architects… The idealism of the functionalists too often demands that they provide what ought to be needed, even at the expense of what is actually needed.”

These conflicting views of Modernism resulted in an ongoing and polarized debate: on one side, praise for its salutary delivery of the masses from unhealthy slums; on the other, disdain for its engagement in oppressive practices of social engineering and the eradication of traditional urban fabric. This polarization, however, has waned in recent years in the face of projects that have begun to chart a more fruitful middle ground.

Two such projects are recently completed buildings in downtown Toronto, District Lofts and Ideal Condominiums. Designed by Architects Alliance for Context Development, each is clearly inspired by Modernist preoccupations with light and air, efficient planning and spare detailing, but equally concerned with response to context and the maintenance of traditional urban fabric.

Of the two, District Lofts is the more emphatically Modern. Located on a particularly tough urban site on Richmond Street (a one-way street with minimal sidewalk space and scant retail activity–and hence, little pedestrian traffic) immediately east of Spadina in Toronto’s historic fashion district, the condominium is surrounded by converted warehouses, mixed-use and large-scale residential buildings ranging from the late 19th century to the recent building boom, and is just one block south of the city’s vibrant Queen Street West retail and entertainment strip. The immediate context is predominantly one of massive masonry buildings built out to their lot lines, and District Lofts adopts a similar response to site, with its south face forming an emphatic street wall along Richmond. Although the building is extensively glazed and otherwise almost entirely clad in pre-cast concrete panels, a brick screen along Richmond Street makes clear reference to the surrounding formal vocabulary. That it is detailed as a screen emphasizes its rhetorical nature, distinguishing it from, while at the same time paying subtle homage to, its neighbours. This device is most successful at the west end of the building, where the masonry is clearly expressed as a screen proud of the underlying structure, but is slightly muddied at the southeast corner where it transforms into a masonry mini-tower identifying the entrance.

District Lofts is arranged in the form of two narrow slabs perched atop a base that accommodates retail at grade plus two levels of parking, with residences first appearing on level four. The deep floor plate on this level accommodates two banks of single-storey units facing north and south, with exercise and party rooms occupying the internalized central space. Immediately above, through units open onto terraces on the podium roof; above these are stacked more two-storey through units with corridors on every second level facing into the courtyard. The slabs culminate in two-level penthouses that bring the total building height to 14 storeys.

The building is essentially U-shaped in plan, with two distinct slabs unified by a central elevator tower at the east end. In expression, District Lofts unapologetically professes its Modernist pedigree. The slender slabs are adorned with continuous rows of projecting balconies at both the north and south sides; monopitch roofs sloping toward the interior courtyard add a dynamic touch. Most dramatic are the four exterior bridges linking the two slabs at the west end, essential parts of the exiting system which also contribute to the building’s resemblance to the proposals for residential buildings put forward by the Italian Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia in his Citt Nuova of 1914. Inside, the building’s signage, including suite numbers on the apartment doors, use Le Corbusier’s signature stencilled lettering, a tribute to the influence on the design team of the Swiss master’s revolutionary ideas about housing.

Unit types vary from narrow and deep studio apartments on the fourth floor, which receive ample light thanks to extensive glazing and 10-foot ceilings. This generous height is standard across unit types (with the exception of the upper penthouse level, which is taller), a feature that architect Peter Clewes and Context Development President Howard Cohen concede would be difficult to duplicate in the current inflated construction market.

One of the slab type’s essential features is that the narrow floor plate allows for a skip-stop elevator system and through units. The skip-stop system–pioneered by Le Corbusier in his Unit d’Habitation projects and only occasionally replicated since–allows for the creation of through units and reduces the amount of circulation space, creating significant efficiencies in net-to-gross ratio. Vertical circulation within the units is by means of internal stairs, reducing the overall usable space within the apartments but offering the higher degree of privacy inherent in multi-level living spaces. In some instances, including the penthouse level, the units are inverted, in that bedrooms are located on the lower, entry level, with primary living spaces above benefiting from the through units’ dual aspect.

In an altogether different part of downtown Toronto, Ideal Condominiums defers more overtly to context. Located at College and Markham Streets, just a few blocks east of the city’s popular Little Italy strip along College and a few blocks west of Kensignton Market and the University of Toronto, Ideal Condominiums is immersed in an area of vibrant street life. College Street boasts successful small retail, restaurant and nightclub activities, and is flanked to the north and south by well-preserved neighbourhoods of traditional single-family residential streets.

Taking its cues from nearby converted warehouses, Ideal Condominiums strives to maintain the urban street wall by adopting the massing and material strategies of its historic surroundings. A rusticated masonry base topped by six storeys of red brick help tie the building into the immediate fabric. Above this, curtain wall-clad two-storey penthouse units, ample glazing and crisp details clearly identify it as a contemporary building–minus the rhetorical flourishes that characterize District Lofts. Another significant difference is that at Ideal, the deep floor plate precludes the use of the skip-stop through-unit strategy, so apartments are designed to be wide and shallow to benefit from ample frontage.

Both these projects respond to the surrounding fabric to different degrees by borrowing some of their neighbours’ material palettes and patterns of fenestration on lower, street-related floors. However, by experimenting with plan and section to optimize conditions within the units, they embody the innovative spirit behind the Modernist drive to create better housing. Part of a new generation o
f condominium design, they represent a certain coming of age in the Toronto housing market, where apartments are no longer designed to simply be a second-rate stopgap on the way to the eventual dream of single family home-ownership, but to be commodious, beautiful and desirable in their own right. These buildings also suggest that, despite their architects’ obvious affection for Modern architecture, the lessons of Modernism’s shortcomings have not been lost. They seem to have taken to heart Corb’s entreaty to “Eradicate… hard and fast conceptions in regard to the dwelling-house and look at the question from an objective and critical angle.” The result is housing that addresses the Modernist pledge to deliver improved living conditions, while alleviating some of the Modern movement’s critical failings by making serious and sympathetic gestures to the streets, the neighbourhood and the city.

District Lofts

Client: Context Development

Architect team: Peter Clewes, Prishram Jain, Mara Nicolaou

Structural: Halsall Engineering

Mechanical/Electrical: CBM Engineering Group Ltd.

Area: 2, 596 m2/146 units

Budget: $20 million

Completion: Fall 2001

Photography: Ben Rahn, Design Archive

Ideal Condominiums

Client: Context Development

Architect team: Peter Clewes, Prishram Jain, Robert Cadeau

Structural: Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical: ENSO Systems Ltd.

Area: 6,300 m2/68 units

Budget: $9 million

Completion: Spring 2002

Photography: Ben Rahn, Design Archive