Editorial: Images that Steer the Debate

TOP: A proposed development by Frank Gehry looms 80 storeys over Toronto's King Street West. BOTTOM: A model of the podium, containing retail, OCAD facilities, and a gallery. Photos courtesy of Gehry International Inc.
TOP: A proposed development by Frank Gehry looms 80 storeys over Toronto’s King Street West. BOTTOM: A model of the podium, containing retail, OCAD facilities, and a gallery. Photos courtesy of Gehry International Inc.

Frank Gehry’s next Toronto project is a gamechanger. In late September, owner David Mirvish unveiled plans to remake his properties on King Street West, adjacent to the downtown core, into a trio of 80-storey mixed-use towers.

Two images of the proposal have made the media rounds. The first, a site massing model, shows the condo towers as brilliantly rendered sculptures in a sea of plain wood block surroundings. Like Gehry’s towers in Prague and Frankfurt, they’re not triplets, but rather siblings: the west high-rise is the edgy yuppie in a houndstooth jacket, the middle a sparkling dame in a brilliant white gown, and the eldest brother elegant in a smart, conservative suit.

A second image zeroes in on the podium levels, a combination of retail space, OCAD facilities, and a new gallery. An amorphous volume is suggested by a dramatically backlit cloud of torn paper fragments. Moss-clump trees are generously sprinkled throughout. The lower levels of the two west-end towers rise from behind the screen. At first glance, they’re handsome, detail-rich renditions. But they’re also clever in what they choose to reveal and conceal.

Take the first image. It mitigates the height of the towers by choosing a southwestern vantage point foregrounding the TIFF Lightbox and Metro Hall. The 53-storey Ritz-Carlton hotel balances out the composition, a tall dark mass at the right of the image seemingly rising to the same height as the Gehry condos, making the proposed development appear more acceptable.

The close-up model is more evocative than accurate. Instead of built form and materials, it conveys a concept–the idea of a sculptural, eye-catching podium, with sky gardens and art displays. The issue of scale is elided by representing only the lower levels of two of the towers, rather than their total breadth and height.

As the proposal navigates the court of public opinion, these model images steer debate towards the level of formal daring that Torontonians are prepared to accept. The issue of scale is present, but downplayed. Surrounded by the tallest buildings in the neighbourhood, the three towers appear high, but not wildly inappropriate. The radicalness of the proposal becomes more apparent in comparison to the two-storey buildings of Restaurant Row, some of which appear in the model as vague suggestions, perhaps to diminish the contrast in scale. The low bulk of Roy Thomson Hall, across the street, is excluded from this perspective. The demolition of several renovated heritage buildings, including the Princess of Wales Theatre and a turn-of-the-century warehouse, is absent in the two depictions.

This year, the Canadian Architect Awards jury considered some 167 entries, brought to life by a combination of renderings, drawings and texts. 3D renditions of projects–whether computer-generated, hand-drawn, or very rarely photos of physical models–were often the most compelling element of the entries. But sometimes, they proved deceptive. A rich set of renderings accompanied by underdeveloped plans disappointed jurors. Gorgeous watercolours suggested a poetic building–but one whose program, concept and scale proved elusive to determine. And bland computer renderings masked what proved, on closer examination, to be an intelligently planned scheme. While the winners were chosen based on quality of design, the strongest entries were often those where images, drawings and texts cohered in a clear, consistently developed presentation.

As both the award winners and other entries move from drawing board through planning approvals, the images used to present these projects are worth a second look. In our current era, images seem more than ever to be a pervasive, and even cheap currency. Yet a well-crafted image can still be enormously influential in conveying a design vision to both public and professional audiences, often shaping the course of the ensuing discussion and debate. Architects are skilled image-makers, and it is worth recalling our expertise in that domain and using it to strategic advantage.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com