Canadian Architect

Feature

Practiced Poise

A Taoist temple on the edge of Toronto is delicately balanced atop two dramatically cantilevered platforms.

January 12, 2017
by Katherine Ashenburg

A 10-metre-long cantilever elevates the temple over the large parking area required by the municipality, allowing the building to fit on its site.

A 10-metre-long cantilever elevates the temple over the large parking area required by the municipality, allowing the building to fit on its site.

LOCATION Markham, Ontario
ARCHITECT Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
TEXT Katherine Ashenburg
PHOTOS James Dow, unless otherwise noted

It should not be possible for a building to hang in the air—even when the building is a sacred space. But long before the Wong Dai Sing Temple’s defiant post-tensioned concrete cantilevers took shape on paper, the very existence of a Taoist place of worship at the southern edge of Markham, Ontario, was dubious. “ It was either an act of sheer will and determination—or simply a miracle,” said Brigitte Shim, FRAIC, in September 2016. She was accepting the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture, on behalf of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, for the now-realized project

Shim’s intimation that the temple might have been birthed through divine intervention hints at the fact that this is no ordinary building.In 2007, the Fung Loy Kok Institute, whose members follow a blend of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist ideas, with tai chi an important part of its practice, bought land on Steeles Avenue. Their membership (which is predominantly non-Asian) was growing in the suburbs and beginning to plan a new temple. Unfortunately, by then organized religion had become a fly in the ointment of Markham’s real religion: parking. A large Buddhist temple, a mosque and a synagogue lined up in a row on Bayview Avenue had brought a glut of cars into the neighbourhood, and Markham responded by drastically upping its parking requirements for new buildings.

On the opposite side, a 5-metre cantilever provides a raised entry courtyard to the building.

On the opposite side, a 5-metre cantilever provides a raised entry courtyard to the building.

Ironically, a religion devoted to peace, charitable works and the silent practice of tai chi became the target of ferocious NIMBYism, supported by the town councillors. (A typical claim, in an attempt to deny their charitable status, was, “ You’re not a religion, you’re a fitness club.” ) What followed was an epic of municipal obfuscation and opposition. Shim says the neighbours were “ horrible” and the city “really rotten.” That’s strong language from a woman known for her diplomacy. Stubbornly taking the high road, the Fung Loy Kok people refused to drop the project. Three years into the torturous process, the city rejected a Shim-Sutcliffe at-grade design by demanding that the building, which was smaller than most single-family houses, provide 30 parking spaces on a modest lot of 304 square metres, instead of the 18 that the city had previously necessitated. “ We felt bloody and bruised,” says Chris Farano, the Fung Loy Kok director. He went home from that meeting and told his wife about it. She was the one who suggested elevating the building to provide additional parking space underneath.

Custom luminaires lend a red glow to the skylit interior, and are designed for suspending incense coils.

Custom luminaires lend a red glow to the skylit interior, and are designed for suspending incense coils.

The sacred space sits on a two-way concrete slab integrated with slender piers, tied to a robust raft foundation.

The sacred space sits on a two-way concrete slab integrated with slender piers, tied to a robust raft foundation.

That serendipitous idea needed design finesse by Shim and her partner, Howard Sutcliffe, FRAIC, and the engineering brilliance of David Bowick, from Blackwell Structural Engineers. It also needed approval from the city, which the councillors refused in spite of a recommendation from city planners. Finally, Fung Loy Kok went to the Ontario Municipal Board, which does not usually concern itself with such small projects, and they gave it the go-ahead.

The result, finished in 2015, is an abrupt departure from the super-sized suburban mansions that line Steeles Avenue’s five lanes. On the left as you face the temple is a gigantic Second Empire fantasy; on the right is a more generic but equally vast house. Serenely self-possessed in this incongruous setting, the Wong Dai Sin Temple balances on a major 10-metre cantilever to the west and a minor five-metre one to the east. David Bowick’s tour de force 10-metre cantilever, said to be one of the longest in North America, supports the temple itself, using a concrete slab, seven concrete piers and a stout raft foundation. The building is clad in a warm, rust-coloured weathering steel, with irregularly spaced fins punctuating floor-to-ceiling windows that give light and ventilation to the main worship space.

The memorial hall is a bamboo-lined space within the temple, where congregants leave offerings and incense in memory of loved ones.

The memorial hall is a bamboo-lined space within the temple, where congregants leave offerings and incense in memory of loved ones.

Depending on the light and the observer, the building resembles an off-centre shield, a lantern, a spaceship, a modernist ceramic by Hans Coper. Shim says modestly, “ We were just trying to solve the parking problem and not have to rely on a bunch of crappy columns.” But one of the tai chi adepts in the congregation recognized something close to home. When he saw the temple for the first time, he cried out, “ Single Whip!” Sometimes called the centerpiece of tai chi, the Single Whip relies on one bent leg, one straight, both arms outstretched with the hands in different positions—asymmetrical but in balance, ready to meet opposition. For Shim and Sutcliffe, who claim they know nothing about tai chi, it was one more piece of serendipity.

The interior was inspired by traditional temples Shim and Sutcliffe had visited in Hong Kong and mainland China. Stirred by the memory of filtered light and the smell of burning incense, they wanted to create something that accommodated both ancient and modern, that acknowledged the passage of time while aging graciously. With a limited budget, they bought five off-the-shelf, motorized skylights, and placed them irregularly to give a “ cosmic” feeling. They designed red light monitors, which they inserted into the skylights to shape the way light enters the space. Shim likens the glowing red lights against the dark blue ceiling to “ a series of constellations in the sky.” But there’s practicality as well as poetry here: large, traditional incense coils hang from the monitors and the concrete floor makes it a simple matter to sweep up the fallen ash.

The parking area was designed to double as a sheltered area for community gatherings, and for practicing tai chi outdoors in the summer months—although neighbour complaints have curtailed such activities for the time being. Photo: Shim Sutcliffe Architects.

The parking area was designed to double as a sheltered area for community gatherings, and for practicing tai chi outdoors in the summer months—although neighbour complaints have curtailed such activities for the time being. Photo: Shim-Sutcliffe Architects.

The most purely contemplative space is the memorial hall, a slim, rectangular temple-within-the-temple where ancestors are honoured with offerings, burning of incense and plaques inscribed with their names. Most new memorial halls have growing pains that go on for decades, as bare walls wait for the usual marble or granite plaques. Shim-Sutcliffe’s solution was to line the walls immediately with plaques made of bamboo, a material that not only is sustainable but has cultural connections with Taoism. Then, when someone dies, the family buys a plaque and has the ancestor’s name inscribed in gold leaf on the bamboo.

It would be nice to report that Markham has seen the light and welcomed their new neighbours. But there remains one more hurdle. No sooner had the congregation discovered that the space under the large cantilever was superb for tai chi in the warm months, when someone complained and they were threatened with a fine. The zoning bylaw that allowed the temple specifies no outdoor activities—even silent activities, as infrequently as once a month. After Shim pleaded their case to several councillors and the mayor, the temple has applied for a minor zoning amendment. The hope is that by June, the quiet courtyard will see yellow-clad members perfecting the Single Whip, asymmetric but poised.


Katherine Ashenburg is a Toronto-based writer, speaker and teacher.