Light, Air and View

Writing in this magazine over 40 years ago, late Toronto architect Peter Dickinson rebuked his colleagues for turning their backs on housing as a field of architectural endeavour (CA, September 1959). Dickinson brought the same spirit of experimentation and innovation to his residential projects as he did to his institutional commissions. The results are evident in projects like the Massey Medal-winning skip-stop slab towers of Regent Park South, and the Benvenuto Apartments, the transparency and clean horizontality of which were unprecedented in the city. (Both projects were designed when Dickinson was with Page and Steele Architects.) Arguing that “it is the architect and not the developer who is responsible for the very poor standards in residential buildings,” Dickinson accused architects of abdicating control over the design of housing.

According to Peter Clewes of Architects Alliance, things haven’t changed much in 40 years. While Toronto has been undergoing a boom in condominium construction in recent years, Clewes notes that the majority of what’s being built doesn’t challenge any precepts of basic housing.

Like Dickinson–whom Clewes cites as an influence–the architect speaks from direct experience. Architects Alliance is developing a reputation as the designer of the most innovative and adventurous housing in the city. Formed in 1999 from the merger of Wallman Clewes Bergman Architects and van Nostrand DiCastri Architects, Alliance brought together two firms with a strong background in both middle-class market and social housing and a portfolio of institutional and urban design projects.

Most of the firm’s built work predates the recent merger. Wallman Clewes Bergman were best known for landmark condominium projects like the Indigo tower (CA January 1994) and Twenty Niagara (CA October 1998). Scarborough Citadel Non-Profit Housing (CA December 1993), apartments at Kingston and Main (CA August 1997), the St. George Street Revitalization (in joint venture with Brown and Storey Architects; CA April 1998) and York University’s Computer Science Building (in association with Busby + Associates; CA January 2001) are representative of van Nostrand DiCastri’s pre-Alliance work.

Although projects begun since the new firm was established are either under construction or in design, they suggest that Alliance is continuing to explore housing as a significant architectural activity. Much of this work has been undertaken on behalf of Context Development, whose president, Howard Cohen, first worked with Clewes on Twenty Niagara. Cohen, whose background is in architecture and city planning, expounds on the need for good urban housing. “If you can’t produce good housing in the downtown, no-one will want to live here and the bias toward sprawl will continue.” While he confesses to a taste for Alliance’s Modernist aesthetic, Cohen argues that this alone isn’t enough; what he values is Alliance’s ability to produce what he describes as “really good housing. The margins in residential construction are very tight; the trick is to do quality architecture that offers a high level of amenity but that also addresses the developer’s marketing and business needs.”

The projects that Architects Alliance is currently designing for Context vary significantly in response to site and neighbourhood issues, but, with a few exceptions, they fall into two broad types: the low-rise slab and the point tower. 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 adopted by Dickinson at Regent Park, not only allows for the creation of through units, but also reduces the amount of circulation space, creating significant efficiencies in a building’s net-to-gross ratio. This is the basic strategy used by Alliance for the District Lofts and the MOZO (Modern Living Zone) condominiums, both located in different areas of Toronto’s historic downtown.

Both these projects are surrounded by 19th century warehouse buildings, and respond to the existing fabric by borrowing some of their neighbours’ material palettes and patterns of fenestration on lower, street-related floors. Above–and in the case of MOZO, at the rear–they are clad in a more transparent skin of glass and metal, in keeping with the Modernist tradition of maximizing access to light, air and view.

Two other current projects defer more overtly to conditions of site. Ideal Condominiums at College and Markham Streets take their cues from nearby warehouses. In this case, the deep floor plate precludes the use of the skip-stop, through-unit strategy on all but the topmost floors, so units are designed to be wide and shallow so as to benefit from plenty of frontage, rather than narrow and deep like many contemporary apartments. The Bloor-Ellis Townhouses overlooking High Park in the city’s west end consist of a series of stepped two-storey units. Circulation is single loaded and located on the Bloor Street side, providing a buffer from the noisy street and establishing the units’ primary orientation to the south, overlooking the park.

In addition to these variations on low-rise multiple housing, Architects Alliance is currently designing several residential point towers, including three for the Concord Adex development near the Toronto waterfront. Two other high-profile projects, again for Context Development, have recently generated considerable media attention; in both cases, they represent market residential condominiums intended to finance the construction of related institutional projects. In the case of Radio City, a pair of residential towers and a row of street-related townhouses form part of a larger development that includes new facilities for the National Ballet School designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. Located on the former site of the CBC’s headquarters on Jarvis Street (hence the name Radio City), the site is planned such that the two towers and the townhouses combine to form two landscaped courtyards that mediate between the residential component and the ballet school.

A 25-storey tower engages a row of townhouses along Mutual Street scaled to reflect the heights and lot divisions of the street’s existing Victorian fabric, while a taller, 30-storey tower is free-standing and set back from the street within one of the landscaped courts. Both display Alliance’s signature lightness and transparency.

Although the proposed towers have met with some opposition from neighbours, the architects argue that the impact of the development will be less problematic than feared. They maintain that towers are suffering from a bad reputation thanks to some very poor development in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly with respect to grade conditions and building skins. Alliance partner Adrian DiCastri observes that as a result, Modernist planning in general came under attack by a reform movement that replaced it with “a reactionary Parisian perimeter block model–the ‘squash and spread’ model. What about access to light and view?” He argues that the shadow conditions created by an eight-storey slab are worse than those of a 30-storey tower–the tower’s shadow may be long, but it moves over the course of the day, while the eight-storey slab blocks the sun from neighbouring properties without relief.

Howard Cohen agrees that “in the right circumstances, towers produce better housing. They offer better access to light, air and view.” Peter Clewes adds that “once you’re above grade, you might as well be in a tower and really benefit from the height.” He argues that height limits can force inferior residential design. “That’s one reason you end up with deep, narrow units.” Clewes cites the example of Vancouver’s West End, where slender point towers are strategically located relative to one another to maintain views to the mountains and to English Bay. “This kind of strategy could work here, based on the Toronto block size.”

A few blocks south and west of Radio City, the firm is working on a scheme f
or a new residential development that is generating considerable controversy. St. James’ Cathedral, the city’s flagship Anglican church, is looking to develop a condominium to finance the redevelopment of its parish house. Opponents of the plan are concerned that, among other things, the project would compromise views of the historic church.

Although the project’s opponents believe that no development should occur on the site, which borders a park, Church authorities maintain that they have no alternative means of financing the improvements needed to deliver their expanding outreach programs. And while the fundamental argument between the project’s proponents and its critics is over whether any development at all should occur on the site, another issue for discussion, assuming that the Church does go ahead with the project, is what form the development should take.

Working with Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, Architects Alliance are exploring the implications of a variety of housing models for the property. These range from a seven-storey “squash and spread” perimeter building surrounding the cathedral on three sides–which existing bylaws would allow the Church to build as-of-right–to a free-standing 34-storey point tower that would limit the building footprint to 6,500 square feet, with a variety of permutations in between. The free-standing tower option recalls the pure forms of Utopian Modernism, with a minimal, transparent lobby freeing up the ground for green space and establishing a view from the north of the cathedral’s apse, a view currently obscured by the existing parish house. One concern is that, at 34 storeys, the tower would dwarf the cathedral’s spire–the second tallest in North America after St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. As a result, if the project ultimately does proceed, its most likely form will be a hybrid building, with a street-related slab along Adelaide Street linking to a shorter tower.

As pressure mounts to increase residential densities in the downtown to accommodate a huge projected population growth and to counteract the propensity for sprawl, these types of controversial projects are likely to multiply as land becomes scarce. As architects and developers are challenged to create high density housing that provides a high degree of amenity, the innovative projects discussed here may serve as useful models for future development.

Despite Architects Alliance’s reputation as residential architects, housing only accounts for about one third of the firm’s current work, the balance made up of roughly equal parts institutional and urban design projects (some of which are conducted under the firm’s other identity, Planning Alliance). One of these, a master plan, 50,000 square foot expansion and 200,000 square foot renovation of Seneca College’s Newnham Campus in Toronto’s northern reaches (a commission won as the result of an invited design charrette competition) will include classrooms, student lounges and computer laboratories. It also provides an opportunity for the firm to pursue sustainable design strategies: part of the renovation work will introduce a second skin of glazing overtop existing masonry walls, creating an interstitial space to help heat and cool the building. Asked why these strategies don’t appear in the firm’s residential projects, DiCastri claims that it’s difficult to accommodate green technologies in condominium design because of the tight market margins, but observes that “it could work for rental properties where the owner’s investment is more long-term.”

In the area of urban design, the Fort Erie Gateway Master Plan brings together a variety of stakeholders in an effort to develop a unified concept for a major gateway from the U.S. to the Niagara Region. The project has the delicate task of satisfying a wide variety of interests and integrating a varied program, accommodating tourist facilities, commercial enterprises, scenic landscapes and one of North America’s oldest and most important First Nations archaeological sites.

Also in the early stages of design is a new student residence at the University of Toronto on a prominent site at the corner of Bloor and St. George Streets. Coming on the heels of the controversial residence by Morphosis and Stephen Teeple Architects (CA December 1998), the architects anticipate that this project will come under close scrutiny. Citing their admiration for the courtyard scheme of nearby Woodsworth College (designed by Barton Myers/KPMB), they are considering a street-related courtyard building for about one third of the residences, with a point tower housing the remaining two thirds. This would certainly make for a complex urban agglomeration: the three remaining corners are occupied by Moriyama and Teshima’s Bata Shoe Museum (1995), the masonry pile of Marani, Lawson and Paisley’s Medical Arts Building (1929), and the Richardsonian George Gooderham House (now the York Club) by David Roberts Jr. (1892). A very mixed context in which to design, but Peter Clewes welcomes the challenge: “it’s the exceptions that inform the urban environment.”