Editorial: BIG Ideas

Bjarke Ingels’ proposed development in downtown Toronto stacks Habitat-like cubes atop heritage brick warehouses on King Street West.
Bjarke Ingels’ proposed development in downtown Toronto stacks Habitat-like cubes atop heritage brick warehouses on King Street West.

In February, Bjarke Ingels of Danish firm BIG revealed Toronto’s most audacious highrise proposal since Frank Gehry’s super-tall sculptural towers. Dubbed “Habitat 2.0” in a talk by Ingels, the design consists of 12-foot-cube modules stacked in hills rising above and around a string of heritage warehouses on King Street West. A central courtyard is accessible through alleyways from King Street to the north and Wellington Street to the south.

Similar concerns are arising as with Gehry’s proposal, just a few blocks away: are heritage buildings on the property being properly handled? Is the scale appropriate for this area immediately west of downtown? Should the central core continue to be densified with upscale condos?

Then there’s that pestering question: does Toronto need international starchitects?

Within the architecture community, there’s a justifiable tinge of professional envy behind the inquiry. Canadian architects can, and have, produced equally original and innovative work (including, of course, Moshe Safdie’s original Habitat 67).

But outsiders enjoy certain advantages. They are relatively unencumbered by local rivalries and planning politics. This allows them to bring a fresh eye to existing situations. Perhaps more important, their time and opinions are often accorded a premium value by clients and municipal bodies—including those who must provide approvals to execute out-of the-box commissions.

Bjarke Ingels, in particular, has a flair for building a compelling narrativetold through massing diagrams, clever spatial logic and humorous anecdotesto back his firm’s projects. On stage, he strikes a charismatic presence, speaking with disarming candour. As Richard Sommer, Dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto notes, “These strategies are important for capturing support in a diverse society.”

The Toronto project is one of three that BIG is working on in Canada—the others, towers in Vancouver and Calgary, are also for developer Westbank.

While starchitects such as Ingels are important as public spokespeople for architecture, local partnerships are crucial to this trio of Canadian projects. As anyone in the profession knows, built architecture is rarely the work of a single genius, but comes from the insights, frictions and cooperative efforts of diverse teams.

In Vancouver, BIG is working with DIALOG (whose predecessor firm, Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden, built their urbanism cred with such landmark projects as the redevelopment of Granville Island) and with James KM Cheng (pioneer of the podium-tower typology). BIG is also working with DIALOG in Calgary. In Toronto, Diamond Schmitt Architects is the executive architect, and Westbank has teamed up with developer Allied REIT—which assembled the King Street West properties over two decades. Allied recently demonstrated the success of a building-on-stilts approach for a commercial property on Richmond Street.

As for the King Street West project, the proof will be in the pudding. At present, the project seems to be little more than a beguiling series of renderings and a foamcore model. What is the structural support system? How will the unit layout work? What will be the scale of the openings into the courtyard? How will thermal bridging be averted? Such details—developed with the broader team—will merit scrutiny when they become available.

For now, the project deserves applause as a provocation to the rote developments in Toronto—and a move towards raising the bar of quality and design innovation for all.

UPDATE: The name of the executive architect for the King West project, Diamond Schmitt Architects, was added to the online version of this story.