Roadside Attraction

BMW Toronto, Toronto, Ontario

Quadrangle Architects Limited

Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway (DVP) is part of a landscape that represents the realities of a city concerned with work, function and prestige. Roughly following the natural course of the Don River, the DVP snakes its way south from the 401, the city’s connection to the Trans-Canada Highway. Leading into the downtown core, the DVP ensures that commuters are greeted with the sight of prestigious towers emerging from the financial district. Through all of this imagery, it is very fitting to have a new addition to the DVP context: an innovative luxury car dealership that can tempt the nearly 100,000 drivers a day with the latest in offerings from Bavarian Motor Works.

Since its opening last October, the design of the $20 million BMW Toronto flagship retail showroom led by Project Architect Roland Rom Colthoff, a partner at Quadrangle Architects, has become an interesting counterpoint to the visual landscape along the DVP. And while the whole project took about two and a half years to complete, the facility became an instant success with the popular press.

Sitting on a 10-acre site, BMW Toronto comprises 40,000 ft2 of showroom, office space and a lifestyle boutique stacked on six floors. There is also another 60,000 ft2 devoted to servicing and detailing the cars. An unprecedented configuration for an automotive showroom, the six-storey facility was a former soap factory that was gutted and retrofitted to remain strategically sited with maximum visibility adjacent to the DVP. The structure sits in a flood plain, and any new building must abide by stringent setback rules established by the Toronto and Regional Conservation Authority. Since new construction would mean setting the showroom farther back, thus diminishing its visibility from the DVP, preserving the frame of the original building was critical so that the showroom could maintain its close proximity to the highway. The original building was demolished to a point where only its structural frame of steel with pre-cast concrete slabs remained. To be safely retrofitted, seismic upgrading had to be incorporated and a heavy steel moment frame system was chosen so that it would be discreetly concealed without compromising the requisite clean aesthetic for the display and sale of the vehicles. New mechanical equipment was added and significant portions of the existing floors were removed to create expansive double-height spaces to enhance the whole car-shopping experience.

The entrance at the ground floor is defined by a quasi-rotunda with a reception desk to greet customers and clients. A new lifestyle boutique selling BMW hats, leather goods and child-size roadsters build upon the BMW brand and are immediately visible. To the south of the showroom facility, the service building is designed with large windows opening onto a customer viewing area on the ground floor and a lounge on the mezzanine. While their cars are being serviced, customers can sip cappuccinos while using their laptops or BlackBerry devices on the mezzanine level, where the sales offices are also located. The servicing area includes a 5-car drive-through service area, 24 service bays, 7 bays for washing and detailing, and 2 bays for the motorcycles. Individually vibrated into the floor are thousands of German klinker tiles that enable the floor surface to remain clean and impervious to oil stains and grease.

The third to fifth floors are ingeniously designed to provide the highest impact for the customer, with a curated itinerary designed to demonstrate all aspects of the BMW driving experience. Suitable for those afflicted with mid-life crises, the third floor is where customized high-performance M-series BMWs and motorcycles are displayed. The fourth floor is where the pre-owned cars are carefully arrayed, whereas new vehicles are delivered to the customer on the double-height fifth-floor showroom. To enhance the drama of taking possession of a new car at such heights, customers emerge from a glass passenger elevator. Inside a sober and quiet environment overlooking the DVP and directly on axis with Canada’s signature bank towers, customers are taken through a two-hour informational tutorial. With two beautiful stainless steel oversized freight elevators priced at $250,000 apiece, cars are then shuttled down to a delivery bay on the ground floor where they will be driven away.

Nevertheless, it is the exterior of the building that remains the ultimate branding machine. The building was glazed on three sides to take full advantage of its exposure to the nearby highways, thereby tempting the throngs of potential customers whizzing by. Blue-tinted glazing comprises the majority of the curtain wall that slides beyond the top floor, and serves to accentuate the appearance of a thin building. On the north side of the fourth and fifth floors, stowable ramps guide BMWs into six display windows that are framed in white on the exterior, designed to evoke a Matchbox display case from many a child’s memory. These display windows use ultra-clear, lead-free glass with a careful deployment of lights to minimize colour distortion and to achieve maximum visibility of the car. Each of the six cars are carefully propped up to ensure that as little of the car is hidden from view as motorists make their way south to the Richmond Street flyover, Lakeshore Boulevard or the Gardiner Expressway. To further accentuate the power of the BMW image, a three-storey backlit vinyl billboard measuring 30 feet by 60 feet is integrated into the building, further enabling the building’s north faade to act as a billboard itself. The building’s impact is not as successful for those who are travelling north on the DVP, but one can still glimpse the ample display of shiny cars parked outside and along the site’s edge.

Once the location of the Sunlight Soap Works, this brownfield site required environmental remediation and new site strategies that were devised in consultation with the MBTW Group. Six Linden trees were preserved near the main entrance and along the DVP, and a large swale was cut into the site to retain and purify storm water. Native perennials were planted along this swale and nine circular concrete pads were constructed to display a row of BMWs. A careful strategy using computer-controlled lighting ensures limited glare to distract drivers and minimizes the number of migratory birds flying into the building–a considerable concern for many office buildings in the downtown area.

Omniplan Automotive Retail Facility Planning worked with Quadrangle to devise the most efficient retailing facilities for the BMW brand. To ensure standards in finishes for the BMW Toronto building, specific elements such as flooring and lighting were chosen depending on whether the cars are new, pre-owned or are of a high-performance customized nature.

When looking at other BMW showrooms across Canada, this new flagship facility incorporates many of the same design strategies to provide a consistent image not much different from brands like Loblaws or the Gap. By taking advantage of an existing building’s siting and massing so close to the DVP, Quadrangle Architects was able to develop a retail strategy that is provocative and appropriate for an automobile facility that flies in the face of existing showroom design. A typological study of new car showrooms over the past decade reveals a desire to improve upon a much more professional client relationship where imageability, servicing and client loyalty is brought to a higher level than what was previously acceptable in automotive dealership design. The juxtaposition of an unabashedly extroverted building adjacent to a high-speed corridor collides the image of BMW as “an ultimate driving machine” into one that has become an ultimate branding machine.

Client: BMW Canada

Architect Team: Roland Rom Colthoff, Brian Curtner, Aaron Budd, Laura Fyles, Jeff Hardy, Melanie Rank, Joseph Salvagio, Ray Tsang

Automotive and retail planning: Omniplan Automotive Retail Facility Planning

Structural: Banerjee & Associates Ltd.

Mechanical: Keen Engineering Co. Ltd.

Electrical: Hammerschlag + Joffe Inc.

Landscape Architects: The MBTW Group

Site engineering: Marshall Macklin Monaghan

Area: 100,000 ft2 (40,000 ft2 showroom, 60,000 ft2 servicing)

Budget: $20 million

Completion: October 2003