Twenty + Change: the Next Generation

TEXT MARCO POLO

On the evening of June 8, close to 500 people packed into Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel for the opening of Twenty + Change, an exhibition featuring work by emerging local architects, landscape architects and urban designers. This enthusiastic turnout revealed the pent-up appetite for such an exhibition, the first of its type in the city in well over a decade.

Earlier the same week, the much-hyped opening of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal served as a reminder of how Toronto’s recent rediscovery of architecture as an important component of civic identity and public discourse has focused on large institutional projects by international celebrity architects. Will Alsop (Ontario College of Art and Design), Frank Gehry (Art Gallery of Ontario) and Daniel Libeskind (Royal Ontario Museum) have hogged the spotlight and little attention has been paid to the work of emerging local practices.

This is partly due to the fact that for a number of years, young practices had been something of an endangered species in Toronto. During the economic recession of the early 1990s, Canada’s largest metropolis saw many firms downsize and shut their doors, with young architects particularly hard hit by the lack of opportunity. Unable to sustain independent practices and with a few notable exceptions, a generation of promising designers returned to more established firms which, by the late 1990s, were reinvigorated by a flood of cultural and institutional projects. Young architects remained within larger firms rather than striking out on their own and losing access to these prestigious commissions. A decade of sustained economic growth has finally brought about the conditions under which new practices can once again flourish, and, for the first time since the early 1990s, Toronto’s architectural scene appears to be on the verge of rejuvenation.

This phenomenon prompted Andre D’Elia, Margaret Graham and Drew Sinclair of superkl inc., architect to initiate Twenty + Change, the first collective exhibition of work by emerging local firms since the early 1990s. With the support of the Toronto Society of Architects (TSA), the superkl team secured sponsorship and assembled a selection committee consisting of: George Baird, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design; Shirley Blumberg, principal at Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects; Antonio Gomez-Palacio, TSA Chair; and Elyse Parker, Project Manager at the City of Toronto’s Clean and Beautiful City Secretariat. The committee reviewed 54 submissions from 33 firms, selecting 28 projects by 21 different practices–hence Twenty + Change.

About two-thirds of the exhibited projects represent a cross-section of work typically associated with emerging practices: residences, commercial and institutional interiors, and additions and alterations to small buildings. The balance of the exhibition consists of landscape and urban design projects and a variety of submissions representing public art, product design and material experimentation. Landscape projects include North Design Office’s Core Sample, an installation at the International Garden Festival at Quebec’s Jardins de Mtis, and Lateral Architecture’s Cliffside Slips. While very different conceptually, the two projects share a formal sensibility that reveals the influence of Martha Schwartz and Claude Cormier; both projects adopt a frankly artificial and didactic method as opposed to a purely sensory and naturalistic approach to landscape. Other anomalous projects include Kevin Weiss’s Monument for Canadian Immigrants, the form of which is based on a three-dimensional representation of historical census data; Philip Beesley’s Orgone Reef, a hybrid building skin equipped with layers of miniature valves and clamping mechanisms; and Lateral Architecture’s Soft Shelf, a flexible storage unit constructed of industrial-grade wool felt. These projects represent some of the more innovative explorations of form, materiality and fabrication techniques, suggesting possible directions for practice that look beyond the constraints of conventional building projects as a field of play for architecture.

Experimentation with new technologies also characterizes Bortolotto Design Architect Inc.’s Virtrium for the University of Toronto Engineering Society, which uses advanced sensory and digital technology to transform a dark, windowless atrium into a living environment connecting users to the external world, digitally capturing real-time changes in weather, light and sounds and reflecting them within the building. In addition to a more conventional range of amenities, ReK Productions’ Market Square, Stratford introduces an array of fibre-optic cables designed to light the square in a variety of programmable patterns, and embedded transducers transform a wood canopy into an oversized loudspeaker amplifying the sound of a cascading water feature in proportional response to ambient urban noise. Denegri Bessai Studio’s Outdoor Play Structures combine low- and high-tech approaches to both design and construction, from digital fabrication technology to volunteer labour.

Long the young architect’s mainstay, residential projects are well represented here, including Srli Associates’ modest Skybox and Groundwork alterations, and Cindy Rendely’s luxurious Ravine House. While these range widely in terms of scale and budget, they share a familiar material palette and formal vocabulary that has become the de facto dialect of recent residential architecture in Toronto–a mannered Modernism that carefully manipulates scale and material to transform and humanize the more austere formal language of postwar Modern architecture. In this sense, the residential projects represented in Twenty + Change are certainly contemporary, but not formally innovative. Similarly, a number of these projects adopt a variety of now-familiar greening strategies, including recycled materials, green roofs and natural ventilation. The real innovation displayed by some of these residences is their inventive response to what are usually considered marginal sites. Donald Chong’s Galley House provides 2,400 square feet of living space in a three-storey house 12 feet wide and 62 feet long, with double-height spaces allowing daylight to penetrate. Superkl’s Home/Office explores the possibilities of housing on main streets, which in Toronto has traditionally been restricted to modest rental apartments. Here, the architects’ storefront office is topped with a two-storey residence overlooking a busy street to the west and a secluded interior courtyard to the east. Each of these projects responds to specific opportunities for incremental urban infill that defy conventional market development strategies. Resisting the conventional response to market forces also informs two larger houses. Altius Architecture’s 3 Old George Place involves the extension and renovation of a John B. Parkin-designed residence; while houses of this vintage are routinely demolished to make way for McMansions, this project provides the necessary upgrades to an aging Modern building without compromising its character. Similarly, Drew Mandel’s Evergreen Garden Residence is a replacement house that respects the relatively modest scale and strong relationship to site that characterized postwar Modern houses in Toronto.

Many projects in this exhibition represent the types of formally restrained but creative interventions that revitalize underutilized buildings and sites, providing a necessary complement to the high-profile institutional and cultural renewal of Toronto. In this respect, they represent a contemporary analogue to the reform-minded early 1970s when a generation of young architects helped revolutionize development patterns to transform Toronto into “The City that Works.” Similarly, the emerging practices represented in Twenty + Change are challenging convention to ensure that the city continues to work for a long time to come.

Marco Polo is Associate Professor in Ryerson University’
s Department of Architectural Science and former editor of Canadian Architect. Twenty + Change is on exhibit at IIDEX in Toronto from September 27-28, 2007.

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