See the Light

PROJECT TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, Design Architects/Kirkor Architects & Planners, Architects of Record
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Tom Arban and Maris Mezulis

Toronto is perhaps finally emerging from a prolonged adolescence towards something resembling a world-class city, the success of which is due largely to recent architectural transformations in the city’s core. Landmarks such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, and the Royal Ontario Museum have achieved varying degrees of success and/or notoriety, but have nonetheless contributed to putting the city on the global map.

A recent addition to this growing list is the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a complex that is the result of many parties working in concert. Founded in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is an annual event which has been gaining increasing importance in the global film industry in recent years. TIFF staff had long been operating out of relatively dismal office space at Yonge and Carlton Streets for years, and was in desperate need of a new home. Several years ago, Hollywood film producer and director Ivan Reitman stepped in, and with his sisters Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels, donated the land on which the Lightbox now sits. Reitman’s parents were Holocaust survivors from the former Czechoslovakia who immigrated to Canada in the 1950s, and a decade later, purchased Farb’s Car Wash at the northwest corner of the King and John Street intersection. Another party eventually joined in the venture–The Daniels Corporation–who, along with the Reitman family, formed the King and John Festival Corporation (KJFC). The TIFF Group, along with KJFC, are the official developers of the project.

Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB) won the design competition for the project in 2003, and they could not have been more familiar with the site, as their offices are located directly across the street in the Eclipse Whitewear Building. Principals Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg have been in this very same location since the mid-1970s, when they both began their professional careers with architect Barton Myers, who then owned the building with former partner Jack Diamond. Kuwabara and Blumberg have witnessed the evolution of the neighbourhood practically every day for three and a half decades; what better design team to understand the urban context of the Lightbox?

This prime piece of property is located in the heart of the the Entertainment District on the same stretch of King Street as the Royal Alexandra Theatre and the Princess of Wales Theatre, both owned by the legendary Mirvish family. King Street is a major east-west thoroughfare that runs through the city’s financial heart and the Entertainment District, and continues westward to the evolving fantasy lifestyle nexus of sleek condominiums and boutique hotels clustered around King and Bathurst Streets. John Street was identified in 2009 by the City as a “cultural corridor,” a phrase that the Entertainment District Business Improvement Association has capitalized on in attempts to beautify and pedestrianize the roughly seven-block-long north-south conduit that runs from Grange Park behind the Art Gallery of Ontario all the way down to Front Street.

Kuwabara maintains that there was no direct precedent for this type of project. Certainly, there are multiplex theatres around the world, art house theatres and film centres, but nothing with so broad a mixed-use program as this. Five cinemas, two galleries, two restaurants and a lounge, a gift shop, a film reference library, ample office and work space for 200 TIFF employees–are all combined with a 43-storey condominium tower. The residential component of the complex was primarily undertaken by Kirkor Architects & Planners, and the soaring tower rises from KPMB’s five-storey podium base, devoted to TIFF and its accessory functions.

Led by design partner Kuwabara, partner in charge Blumberg, and project architect Matthew Wilson, the design team worked closely with TIFF CEO and Director Piers Handling, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Michele Maheux, and Noah Cowan, Artistic Director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, who were tireless in their efforts to realize the long-awaited project. Kuwabara and Blumberg also enthused about the participation of a team of prominent Canadian filmmakers that were brought in as consultants early on in the design process. Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Don McKellar and others were invited to offer their opinions on the facility, and provided valuable insights to the design team. Artist Margaret Priest was also invited to share her expertise, and brought with her an impressive skill set and knowledge of film which informed some of the design elements in the building, including the choice of bold accent colours on the interior.

First impressions reveal the massing of the building to be on the bulky side, though this is perhaps unavoidable given the complex and extensive program. Kuwabara likens the project to “a mini-city of film,” in which the “architectural volumes of the five cinemas are expressed as black zinc-clad buildings within the building” that seem to float in the interior atrium. Blumberg adds that great efforts were made to express the parts of this program, such as the cinema volumes pushing through the façade, although this articulation could have been even more pronounced.

Reference to the medium of black and white film in this loft-like building is made through material choice, colour selection, and of course, the presence of light, according to Kuwabara. A restrained colour palette is expressed through the ubiquity of white drywall, grey concrete columns and floors, frosted and clear glass, black zinc, and judiciously placed apertures for the transmission of natural and artificial light.

More convincing is the employment of cinematic devices of transparency and explicitly stretched circulation routes to provide as many vantage points as possible for viewing and being viewed; the spectator becomes a participant. A soaring three-storey central atrium allows glimpses of the upper floors from below as well as views from the second and third floors into the ground-floor foyer of those queuing for tickets and milling about; glazed balustrades and walls maximize sightlines. In addition to the escalators that lead up to the second and third floors, visitors also have the option of taking the stairs to the second-floor theatres, restaurant and lounge. Blumberg says, “It’s important to provide alternate means of access upstairs, and people do use the stair.” Frosted glass balustrades define a second-floor bridge that crosses the atrium, providing yet another expression of the cinematic spectacle of procession and movement. And hovering at the west end of the atrium on the third floor is the most captivating feature, the master control room. A bright red box that opens up to the public with a large window wall, it permits a voyeuristic and privileged view of where and how all the magic happens. Here, technicians coordinate the projections in all the theatres and on the dozens of screens throughout the building. It’s like peering behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain.

The building succeeds most resoundingly in its streetfront presence, and the transparency of its functions to busy pedestrian and vehicular traffic on King Street. The opening up of this façade on the ground and second floors draws in the spectacle of street life, providing a striking contrast to the colourful and eclectic array of restaurants occupying the three-storey Victorian rowhouses across the street. The Lightbox beckons with wide expanses of glazing, offering views of the tantalizing wares for sale in the gift shop, and window displays promote current exhibitions in the Lightbox Gallery–Tim Burton is on s
how until mid-April. Most successful in an architectural, urbanistic and commercial sense is Canteen, the casual all-day eatery occupying the prime corner spot at King and John Streets. Its high ceilings, full-height glazing, bold graphics, and buzzy energy guarantee it being packed at virtually all hours of the day, from breakfast to dinner. It opens up this vital corner to the city–both metaphorically and literally with its summertime outdoor patio–drawing in both locals and tourists to enjoy its accessible and reasonably priced menu offerings.

Situated directly above Canteen and also owned and operated by the Oliver & Bonacini restaurant empire is Luma, a handsome room decked out in stone, walnut and leather that provides a sedate setting for a civilized lunch or dinner. It and the adjoining BlackBerry Lounge possess the same understated corporate elegance seen in KPMB’s earlier restaurant project Nota Bene. A full wall of glazing ensures that both restaurant and lounge enjoy entertaining views of the animated streetscape day and night, and again, an outdoor terrace is open during warmer weather to allow customers to engage even further with the neighbourhood.

Interestingly, it’s in these dining spaces where the architecture and interiors are permitted to sing; a greater variety of materials and textural contrast, along with effective signage and graphics, offers a degree of satisfaction that is perhaps less evident in other spaces in the complex, which can sometimes read as a bit flat with an overabundance of drywall and paint substituting for KPMB’s usual sophisticated and subtle mélange of material, texture and colour. It’s fairly obvious that budgetary shortfalls are to blame, as so often they are.

On the sixth floor, a room for private events and parties leads onto a magnificent outdoor space on the roof of the podium, revealing a grand stair whose form, according to Kuwabara, takes inspiration from the striking reverse pyramidal staircase of the iconic Villa Malaparte on the Isle of Capri. The villa was featured prominently in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris (1963), which Kuwabara describes as “visually stunning.” The roof terrace and stair is no less stunning–one of the most successful moments in the Lightbox, with great potential for dramatic and filmic moments, offering spectacular views of the city. The stair also generates one of the most dynamic features of the front elevation–a boldly expressive stepped roofline of the complex’s podium that echoes the gradient of the stair. However, it is unfortunate that access to this roof terrace is restricted to TIFF employees and their invited guests; it has all the features of a grand public space that ideally should be shared with the city and its residents.

The Lightbox is unquestionably a gift to the city of Toronto. Though criticisms have been made of its overwhelming scale, the reality of the city’s evolution into a fully urban entity with a dense central core invariably means bigger and taller. Ambitious changes are taking place, and this most extraordinary project has formed an irresistible cultural, social and entertainment hub that engages the community in a manner rarely seen before in this town. Its September 2010 grand opening drew 10,000 visitors, and a few weeks later during Nuit Blanche, the Lightbox welcomed a steady stream of attendees all through the night to enjoy a compelling and entertaining program of short films. Kuwabara asserts that “a building acquires a life that unfolds over time.” In the five short months since its unveiling, the Lightbox has not only acquired its own remarkable life, it’s transformed so many others. CA

Client Toronto International Film Festival, King + John Festival Corporation (c/o The Daniels Corporation)
Architect Team Bruce Kuwabara, Shirley Blumberg, Luigi LaRocca, Matthew Wilson, Matt Krivosudsky, Bruno Weber, Brent Wagler, Glenn MacMullin, Andrea Macaroun, Rita Kiriakis, Lilly Liaukus, Carolyn Lee, David Poloway, Tyler Sharp, Debra Fabricus, Claudio Venier, Thom Seto, Walter Gaudet, Krista Clark, Winston Chong, Carla Munoz, Elizabeth Paden, Bill Colaco, Nicko Elliot, Norm Li
Structural Jablonsky, Ast and Partners
Mechanical/Electrical SNC Lavalin — LKM
Lighting Pivotal Lighting Affiliated Engineers
Life Safety Leber Rubes Inc.
Acoustics Aercoustics Engineering Ltd.
Audio-Visual Westbury National Show Systems & Azcar Technologies
Theatre Consultant Peter Smith Architect Inc.
Signage Gottschalk + Ash
Wind Study RWDI Engineering
Transportation Marshall Macklin Monaghan
Food Service Kaizen Foodservice Planning and Design Inc.
Security Mulvey and Banani
IT Ehvert Engineering
Costing Helyar & Associates
Contractor PCL Constructors Canada Inc.
Area 175,000 ft2 base; 372,000 ft2 condo
Budget withheld
Completion September 2010