Moshe Safdie-designed Monde Condominiums break ground in Toronto

Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie was in Toronto this week to break ground on his first residential building in Canada in 48 years, Monde Condominiums. Safdie said that Waterfront Toronto’s ambitious plan to revitalize Toronto’s shoreline enticed him back. In a talk at George Brown College on Tuesday night, he argued for a strong role for public agencies in overseeing development.

“It’s time to recognize that the marketplace is a terrible city planner,” Safdie said before a packed audience of students and professionals. “There ought to be a much more rigorous regulatory mechanism [for building high-rises]. When government steps aside to let the market shape cities, the result is “cacophonous.”

Toronto is trying to achieve something more melodic as it revitalizes its waterfront. The 44-storey mixed-use condo tower designed by Safdie, adjacent to Sherbourne Common, will be the first residential project to go up in the former industrial zone known as East Bayfront. Safdie aims to create a building that will set the tone for a cohesive new neighbourhood on the water’s edge.

In designing Monde, Safdie remained preoccupied with the question that drove Habitat 67: how can the amenities of suburbia—access to the outdoors and the dignity of a light-filled space—be brought to our jam-packed cities? (His motto for Habitat 67 was “for everyone a garden.”)

Working today in the hyper-dense cities of Asia and other compact cities around the world, he’s come up with a few answers to that question.

He uses the mathematical principle of fractals to maximize the surface area of his buildings, creating many terraces and allowing as much sunlight as possible to penetrate inside. For this, he draws inspiration from trees, themselves masters of light dispersion. “The tree’s [all] about finding a pattern of the leaf and tree structure to maximize the absorption of light,” he said. “When you build tall buildings, it’s all about the pattern of light.”

Like a tree canopy, a forest of high-rises must be porous enough to allow light to filter to the street level and into individual units—something that requires both architectural ingenuity and careful urban planning.

Some of these design elements will be on display with Monde, which will boast a rather fractalized exterior and patios that alternately jut out like diving boards and hug the building lengthwise, so as not to shade one another. Too many architects ignore such quality of life considerations, according to Safdie. “I think the trouble with our profession today is that the high-rise building is being seen as the greatest opportunity for ego-trip sculpture.”

The solution? Increased regulation. He pointed to two examples that show the “power of the regulatory mechanism” when it comes to building high-rises. In designing a residential complex in Qinhuangdao, China, Safdie had to heed a local requirement that each apartment unit receive at least three hours of sunlight on the shortest day of the year. “You go figure that one out,” he said, adding that it took six months to come up with a design that would allow enough light penetration.

He also pointed to certain European jurisdictions that require office towers be designed so that no desk is further than nine metres from a window. Some architects would balk at such constraints, but Safdie seems to relish them (he called the experience of making sure every resident in the Quinhuangdao project had sufficient sunlight “inspiring.”)

Safdie’s willingness to adapt to local constraints seems to be part of why Great Gulf, Monde’s developer, chose him for this project. “Transplanting architecture or planning from another city that’s completely different…probably will end up failing,” said Christopher Wein of Great Gulf.

After the start of his career with Habitat 67 in Montreal, the project is a homecoming for Safdie, which will give the recent AIA Gold Medallist a chance to adapt and test his ideas in Toronto’s residential market.

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—By Brett Throop