Riverside Rethink: River City Phase 1 & 2, Toronto, Ontario
PROJECT River City—Phase 1 & 2, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Saucier + Perrotte Architectes / ZAS Architects Inc., in joint venture
TEXT Alex Bozikovic
PHOTOS Jose Uribe
“I have a project in my mind,” says Gilles Saucier, FIRAC, “which is a black object of 14 storeys—slowly changing, descending into the ground, going under a highway—and then re-emerging in a tower of 28 storeys, with something white and precious contained in it.”
The Montreal architect isn’t talking about some fantastical piece of paper architecture. He is describing River City, a four-phase multi-family housing complex in downtown Toronto. What’s more remarkable is that his vision is in large part being realized. Emerging on the banks of the Don River are four buildings with sloped sides and protruding extrusions, none of them a glass box and each of them interesting within and without.
The scheme is being designed by Saucier + Perrotte with ZAS Architects of Toronto. Its first two phases are now occupied, while the third is well into construction and the fourth about to begin sales. Already the project has set a new standard among Canadian condo buildings for formal ambition. It shows that even in this often-formulaic building type, real architectural creativity is possible.
This is achieved despite the site’s many constraints. The complex is in the West Don Lands, part of the city’s old industrial waterfront, on a brownfield bisected by a ramp from the Don Valley Parkway. Contaminated soil has ruled out any substantial excavation, so the entire program area, including parking, sits above grade.
The project resides within the oversight of Waterfront Toronto, the government agency tasked with revitalizing the broader area, whose aims include fostering distinctive architecture and thoughtful urban design. Accordingly, its developer, Urban Capital, escaped some of the usual market pressures: teamed with their architectural partners, they won the job through an RFP process in which design excellence and sustainability were strongly weighted criteria. (The buildings, separately and collectively, are required by Water-front Toronto to achieve LEED Gold certification.) This was no small feat—the competing design and development teams included international heavy hitters such as Foster and Partners.
Waterfront Toronto’s high standards are, in this case, shaping an impressively large project: the four phases will comprise 1,075 residential units covering nearly one million square feet. At the time of the commission in 2008, the Governor General’s Medal-winning Saucier + Perrotte had never designed a multi-family residential project. And, Saucier says, “Our non-experience was our best advantage. We tried to reinvent the typology—and that was a great challenge.” This outlook allowed the firm to take a fresh approach to massing, materials and organization.
Saucier’s scheme evokes a jagged outcropping emerging from the ground—a strategy his office has explored in several projects, including the recent Montreal Soccer Stadium (see CA, June 2016), to strong effect. River City begins at its north end with a pair of black buildings in an L configuration; these connect, above a public lane, with a three-level pedestrian bridge. The northernmost tower rises 16 storeys along busy King Street, then tapers to a faceted, squared-off point at the eastern corner, where it addresses the Don River and a prominent road bridge. It aspires to be an icon in what was an empty brownfield, and it succeeds.
The design is replete with intelligent urban design moves. The pedestrian bridge connecting the black buildings provides visual surprise; practically, it connects corridors in the two buildings, which each have their own main entrances, allowing residents to access shared amenities. The southern half of this phase defines a new block of Lower River Street, and includes two-storey townhouse units at grade. The laneway that pierces the block is designed out as a woonerf—a street model adopted from the Netherlands that allows for service vehicles, but restricts them to a walking pace so as to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists.
The second phase of the complex, completed in 2015, is tucked into the crook of the L. It is a 13-storey white rectilinear slab, internally divided into three mini-towers separated by short glazed corridors. The first two levels of this building are fronted by townhouse units, as in the adjacent Phase 1 building.
An aboveground parking garage is cleverly tucked in the space framed between the two phases. This garage, with its two large floor plates, is in turn capped by a rooftop courtyard shared by residents of both the black and the white buildings.
The courtyard is a highly unusual space for Toronto. It separates the Phase 1 and Phase 2 buildings, which are about 20 metres apart, with a shared patio, a pool and a lightly planted green roof. Residents of all three facing buildings have access, while party rooms in two buildings face the courtyard, giving it a heavily social character.
This evokes the semi-private courtyards favoured by modernist architects of the 1950s and 1960s, many of them attempts to evoke piazzas or mews from historic urban contexts. Paul Stevens, the partner who oversaw the project for ZAS, argues that it will escape the no-man’s-land quality that many such spaces created: restricted access and many overlooking apartments keep it safe and comfortable. The courtyard was empty on the winter day I visited, not surprisingly, but the space’s agreeable proportions and attractive design, by The Planning Partnership, were very convincing. This is a place where you would want to hang out.
Outsiders never see this space. What they do get to enjoy is the artful, irregular massing of the buildings, and their equally interesting façade treatments. The Phase 1 buildings are clad in aluminum panels with a matte black finish—a radical choice when they were designed, and only marginally less so a decade later. The façade steps back in some places, and is pierced by protruding balconies wrapped in the same black cladding; in other places, recessed balconies are carved out of its surface.
While the floorplate and balcony positions remain consistent, the visual effect of the façade varies significantly between the elevations.
Saucier likens this to “changing the appearance of a body with a dress—even if most of the body remains the same. It changes the rapport with the environment completely.”
The façades on Phase 2 are wrapped in white aluminum cladding, which forms rectangular extrusions at the corners in a somewhat random pattern—deliberately so, again, for variety. Residents can identify where they live by the pattern of the balconies, a marker that Saucier likes: “In residential buildings, there can be a repetition that is very alienating,” he says. Not so here. The meticulous detailing of the cladding panels allows this game of formal push-and-pull to work even up close.
If the exterior design suggests variety, that promise is borne out by the interiors of the suites. The unit layouts in condo developments are customarily driven by specialist interior design firms. Here, Saucier + Perrotte and ZAS designed all the suites, and were able to insist on a variety of units. In the first phase alone, there are more than 25 different floor plans; in Phase 2, more than 40. Some are wide and shallow, others long and narrow.
Envelope and contents are linked. For Saucier, the diversity of both provides the complex with urban resilience—people can find a just-right home here—and creates a sense of community. It turns the building into something like a landscape, filled with rises to catch your eye and out-croppings on which to hang memories.
“This is something I’m not comfortable with when we work in housing: that the repetition, at the end, starts erasing the personality of people, to assimilate them to a door number within the complex,” he says.
That’s unlikely here. And the next phase, still incomplete, continues that theme even more forcefully. The 29-storey Phase 3 will be half-black and half-white, a tower that steps down slowly into a thick slab whose edges protrude outward, gesturing across the highway overpass to its neighbours. In doing so, it will continue River City’s expression of both a sense of community and a consistent and powerful aesthetic vision.
Toronto-based journalist Alex Bozikovic is the architecture critic for The Globe and Mail.