If you build it…

Is Toronto entering a new phase in its ability to offer its various communities a chance to build upon the city’s cosmopolitan framework? This past fall, the community of Christian Copts in Toronto held a very ambitious and interesting design competition that intends to develop a 12-acre greenfield site north of Toronto, on the border of Scarborough and Markham.

The 12-acre greenfield site is located on Steeles Avenue East near Warden Avenue and the surrounding context is challenging for what it lacks, rather than for what it offers. The plan is to build a 2,500-seat cathedral, 1,000-seat church, daycare centre, retirement home, school, community centre, museum and commercial space. The project is intended to provide a cultural anchor to the several hundred families that comprise the community of Christian Copts living in Toronto. The 4,000-member congregation of St. Mark’s Coptic Christian Orthodox Church is empowering itself by developing its own piece of the city’s urban fabric. The big question that remains is if the Coptic community will build itself a gated community that is sequestered from the rest of the city, or if their development will act as a catalyst for a new urban future that is dynamic and inclusive. The build-out period for the project is expected to take at least 15 years and cost upwards of $200 million. The vision for the site originated with Father Marcos, Protopriest of the St. Mark’s Coptic Christian Orthodox Church.

The situation of the Coptic community is in many respects, no different from Toronto’s multicultural communities. As these communities have gained influence within the city and have established roots through multiple generations of families, they have moved into a phase where they can influence the architecture of the city through built works and urban design.

At present, the community is deciding on its next step. In the fall of 2003, an international competition was held that attracted 64 proposals from 20 countries. Eleven finalists were selected, ranging from a monolithic design solution to one that addresses the mechanisms of urban development that will ultimately influence the architecture of Markham. The jury for the competition comprised George Baird, Larry Richards and landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, recipient of the Order of Canada. Also on the jury were two leading members from the church: Father Marcos and Mofeed Michael, Chair of the project. Michael is an architect, planner and former Commissioner of Planning in Durham Region. Roger du Toit of Roger du Toit Architects Ltd., served as the advisor to the jury.

Proposals for the site ranged from a stylized Noah’s Ark surrounded by water to a pair of ovals representing the faces of the Madonna and Child (only to be understood from an airplane approaching Pearson International Airport). Other designs included the requisite dome, singularly expressed and enhanced with light. From the shortlist of 12 the jury selected two leading contenders — the 13 Fonts of Markham, submitted by David Choi of CDP/TWC of Boston, and Metropolitan Coptic Church Toronto 2003 by Robert Levit and David Oleson of Toronto.

The next phase of study, design and development involves the formation of a consortium along with church members to undertake more detailed site planning before the design begins the approval process in Markham. The church already owns the land and is determined to raise the money to begin the construction of a cathedral and community centre, followed by other program elements that will entrench the site and eventually connect it to its surrounding context.

Robert Levit and David Oleson’s proposal which received one of the two second prizes (there were no first prizes), is noteworthy for the strength of its phasing strategy and the ultimate ability to avoid the tendency to create a religious centre that is singular in urban appeal and sequestered from any future growth in the surrounding area. The scheme calls for a large sloped plaza for the Coptic Cathedral. The siting of the cathedral will form a visual anchor to the site and be visible to drivers along Steeles Avenue. Sloping the plaza will accentuate the experience of entry into the church and heighten the sacredness of the space. The cathedral will be visually supported by various institutional buildings to be built around public plazas, treed boulevards and landscaped open areas.

The site is essentially divided into thirds which contributes to the successful phasing of this development. The residential component occupies the most northerly third of the site and includes 50 units for independent senior housing and an assisted-housing element for those requiring varying degrees of nursing care. While members of the congregation will be given priority for the units, housing will be available to the wider community, thus serving as a source of revenue for the complex. The institutional and residential/commercial components of the site will be connected by a tree-lined boulevard which will also serve to organize ramped access to an underground parking garage for 1,900 cars. With this boulevard, one might even hope that it could be extended beyond the site’s boundaries, thus offering an opportunity to urbanistically stitch the site to the neighbouring context. The street will also form opportunities of public access throughout the site that will move southward toward Steeles and encourage greater pedestrian access in the future.

The site is fissured with additional points of public access. Pedestrians can reach various components of the site through crosscuts in the scheme. A slightly different approach to achieving pedestrian access was proposed by the Where Everything is One proposal by the Italy/Canadian team of i&sd architecture + design. Here, a vaulted cruciform colonnade connects buildings and courtyards that permit the vastness of the site to be broken down into more digestible spaces.

For the Levit/Oleson proposal, the cathedral itself is positioned atop a plinth rising from street level and continuing directly into the cathedral’s interior. Access to the cathedral from the underground parking is made possible through a sequence of naturally lit spaces that will break down the aesthetic and architectural encumbrances of emerging from a parking garage. The logistics of the project means that it is difficult to ignore the presence of the car on the site, so measures must be made to ensure that the dilemma of establishing transitions from “sacred” to “profane” must include “parking.”

The St. Mark’s Coptic Canadian Village Competition was an example of a daring and interesting design process that should be encouraged. As of yet, no decisions have been made on how to proceed. The project is ambitious but necessary for the Coptic community in Toronto. If this endeavour is successful, it could signal an exciting new era of community development and architectural representation in a suburban, if not ex-urban context.

Images from Robert Levit Studio with David Oleson unless otherwise noted. Design team includes: Alan Tse, Yusef Frasier, Zhao Pei, Kirsten Thompson and Duo Yu.