Making New Tracks

PROJECT Artscape Wychwood Barns, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Joe Lobko Architect Inc./Du Toit Architects Limited
TEXT David Steiner
PHOTOS Tom Arban

Among century-old houses, just west of Toronto’s core, are the Wychwood Barns–a collection of brick-clad former industrial sheds, converted into artists’ housing and cultural facilities. It is an amalgamation of covered public space, tiny rental apartments, offices for non-profit organizations, a greenhouse and a park. With its long, low profile, a restored brick faade, new glazing and well-considered park amenities, the building is a complement to the surrounding well-established single-family neighbourhood. The design and reconstruction incubated for eight years from the time a local councillor announced his intentions to keep the site from being sold off to private interests until construction was completed in 2008. In that time, the brownfield site was cleaned, a post-industrial relic was preserved, and the municipality set a new standard for achieving a creative redevelopment and bureaucratic cooperation.

At the beginning of the last century, St. Clair Avenue and Christie Street–where the Barns are located–was a largely residential area near the edge of the city. At the time, streetcars were a private enterprise. An operator would own the tracks, the cars, a yard and the service barns where the cars could be repaired, marshalled and stored. The Wychwood Barns were constructed between 1913 and 1921, occupying about one acre of a five-acre site. In 1921, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) bought up all of the private streetcar operators in the city and became the sole owner of the transit system. But as the transit lines extended west alongside the growing city, the Barns lost their purpose. By 1973, the TTC used them as a storage facility and in 1985 they were vacated and boarded up.

Their rehabilitation began when Joe Mihevc, the municipal ward’s City Councillor of 18 years, made a campaign promise that the site would remain public space and not be sold off to conventional developers. Mihevc was the crucial gear that enabled this complicated process of rehabilitating a contaminated industrial site in an urban neighbourhood, negotiating what he calls the “institutional silos of the municipal government.” After the city bought the site from the TTC, they hired Artscape, a non-profit developer of cultural projects, to manage every part of the redevelopment from fundraising and tenant agreements to design and reconstruction. Artscape had been a pioneer of sorts in Toronto regarding the conversion of urban buildings and brownfields into cultural facilities. They learned how to attract the appropriate tenants, raise capital, and navigate the bureaucratic rapids required for approval. For a company whose primary source of money is from government, charitable foundations and non-profit organizations, a lot of political support was needed to transform the Wychwood Barns. Twenty-two million dollars in project costs ($14 million for construction) were collected from the three levels of government, private donations and financing. Leased for 50 years at one dollar per year, Artscape is responsible for all of the upkeep, tenants, repairs and fundraising.

Despite an industrial building’s origins, the shell, once stripped of its industry, is malleable and able to accommodate a variety of activities. As obvious as this may now seem to the general population, it wasn’t apparent to the immediate community nearly a decade ago. When Joe Lobko, the project’s architect, won the request for proposals in 2003, he had already completed a feasibility study and conducted an intensive round of community meetings that began in 2001. A majority of locals wanted to preserve the existing structure, though many needed assurance as to how it would be transformed.

Lobko’s firm (which has since merged with du Toit Architects Limited) set out to preserve as much of the building as possible, “exploring the intrinsic use of the barns,” he says, and to make a seamless integration with the park. The five-storey smokestack, a bay of the original five-metre-high wood doors, and much of the brick faade was retained. They used the existing layout of the structure to organize the program. As such, the building is laid out in five rows–labelled from one to five–arranged according to different functions: housing, public space, food, open space, and administration.

All 26 live/work units in Barn One face onto Benson Avenue where one-bedroom studios occupy the top floor, and tiny bachelor apartments are located on the ground floor. There are five two-level family units with a double-height entry which have the living space on the ground with bedrooms above. Masonry bays in front of 20 units were removed and replaced by a new faade, clad with milky green recycled plastic panels, built a metre or so back, thereby creating a narrow arcade. On the opposite side of the apartments are 15 small artists’ workspaces that face onto the second barn or onto the east entrance plaza.

Barn Two is empty. It was imagined as a covered street that would be the public heart of the facility. The concrete floor pattern and full-height glazing at either end are reminiscent of the trains that used to occupy the buildings. Offices and work studios in the adjacent barns line the skylit space, and a farmers’ market takes place every Saturday. The original steel trusses, scrubbed down to remove lead remnants, were repainted grey and left exposed.

Smaller offices for non-profit ventures are located in the third barn. Spread over two floors (with light and views coming from Barn Two), Barn Three also houses the mechanical rooms and a small theatre that opens to the park. In the fourth barn, The Stop–a non-profit food organization–occupies the entire space, comprised of a greenhouse, a commercial kitchen and a sheltered garden. Mike Dixon, a University of Guelph professor who worked for NASA researching food production on the moon, helped design the greenhouse system.

Built specifically for The Stop, a small office and eating area–two storeys high and adjacent to the kitchen–are probably the finest spaces in the project. Lobko and project architect Megan Torza designed aluminum window walls on both sides of the office, providing a view to the greenhouse on one side, and to the kitchen on the other. From the eating area, you can look out in three directions: to an enclosed garden, to the greenhouse, and to the park beyond.

The fifth barn has been stripped of its roof and most of its walls, leaving it open to the sky above. An arcade of columns and a low wall are all that remain, making for an easy transition from the rehabilitated facility to the adjacent park. David Leinster from The Planning Partnership–the landscape architecture firm hired by the city–designed a number of simple and distinct areas on the site: a beach volleyball court, an enclosed dog run, a jungle gym, and a few grassy mounds. Concrete paving and rows of Hackberry and Kentucky Coffee trees were planted to the east and west, creating forecourts on either side of the building. To encourage public transit and reduce traffic, on-site parking was entirely omitted.

A small but fierce opposition objected to losing the extra acre of park occupied by the building that they preferred to be completely razed. Additional concern was raised over government-subsidized tenants moving in; many felt the renovation might be too successful, bringing excessive traffic and commotion. All parties involved wanted to prevent the city from selling any of the land to a conventional developer who would inevitably build speculative houses at the maximum density allowable.

From the initial design meetings and community consultation, locals made it clear that the renovation should be energy-efficient. Mike Godawa and Nuno Duarte, mechanical and electrical engineers from Stantec (Keen Engineering at the time), focuse
d primarily on minimizing the consumption of water and heat. A concrete cistern, 1.5 metres in diameter and 50 metres long, is set beneath Barn Two to collect roof run-off and stormwater overflow. The reservoir feeds all facility toilets, the park irrigation system and the greenhouse.

A geothermal field provides the building’s primary heat. Fifty boreholes, dug 130 metres deep and spaced five metres apart, circulate food-grade polypropylene glycol. The pipes dispel heat into 85 metres of thermally stable bedrock. To cool Barn Two, dampers in the roof vents open when the temperature and humidity reach a certain level. Ventilation fans provide the minimum necessary air exchanges. Solar panels were considered and then abandoned due to the high capital costs and an extended payback.

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, a park made from the remnants of a retired steel mill in northwest Germany, served as a key precedent for Lobko’s team when they researched the reuse of industrial architecture for social purposes. Opened in 1994, the German park took nearly 10 years to complete. Blast furnaces, warehouses, smokestacks and a tangle of steel framing were preserved. Duisburg-Nord demonstrated the flexibility of industrial architecture to accommodate a variety of programs and how their unusual forms resonate favourably with the public. The project was a big success, both commercially (based on attendance) and architecturally.

During his eight-year involvement with the Wychwood Barns, Lobko devised a recipe to succeed at rehabilitation projects. He refers to it as a list of 10 ingredients, without particular proportion, which includes the following: a magical building that refuses to be demolished; an enormously ambitious client; a dedicated community; a political champion; recognition that existing buildings and “green” building are complementary; a great mechanical engineer and site superintendent; and a creative city bureaucracy. In a modified version, the list could work for any architecture project, but seems tailored to ones that are highly politicized and publicly funded. Like many successful projects, the Wychwood Barns had the luck of being realized during the right conditions, and at the right economic and political cycle of Toronto’s history. Could this have happened elsewhere? Perhaps, but the mix of ingredients surrounding the redevelopment of the Wychwood Barns seems particularly fortuitous. As one of a number of recent Canadian precedents, and a crucial one in Toronto, perhaps municipal governments in other Canadian cities will explore the options available to them when confronted with urban industrial sites of similar complexity, context and cultural value. CA

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

Client Artscape
Architect Team Joe Lobko, John Keen, Megan Torza, Kenneth Chow, Jonathan Friedman, Donna Diakun, Aaron Finbow
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Limited
Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Consulting
Landscape The Planning Partnership
Contractor Dalton
Heritage E.R.A. Architects
Greenhouse Michael Dixon (University of Guelph)
Transportation BA Group
Code Consultant Leber Rubes Inc.
Public Interface Gottschalk + Ash International
Area 60,000 ft2
Budget $14.3 M
Completion November 2008