Viewpoint (May 01, 2007)

If everyone agreed about what constitutes good urban design, and how the design of buildings contributes to the formation of urban communities, then we wouldn’t need design review.–Bruce Kuwabara

The era of the uncontested architect foisting lacklustre designs onto our cities is hopefully coming to an end. Although several Canadian cities have already instituted design review panels many years–if not decades–ago, Toronto has been slow to adapt. The role of a design review panel is to mitigate the politics of a planning process through objective, professional advice on the design components of development proposals. However, the introduction of such a system takes time to evolve. It took Vancouver five years before it could guarantee safe passage for their design review panel and protection from heavy political interference. In mid-April, a shipwreck was narrowly averted at the foot of Toronto’s Jarvis Quay when Project Symphony, a commercial project steered by Jack Diamond of Diamond and Schmitt Architects was conditionally given the go-ahead by the recently appointed harbourmaster of architectural good taste–Bruce Kuwabara.

The latest storm to hit the waterfront began shortly after the spring of 2005, when the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC) created a design review panel with Kuwabara as its first chair. Project Symphony is a harbinger of more transparent discussions that will increasingly and objectively question the ubiquitous buff ‘n’ tan “modernist” buildings that constitute “the Toronto urban fabric.” In addition to being the first significant project for the TWRC’s design review panel, Project Symphony will be the first major building to be constructed on Toronto’s East Bayfront, a new community and destination neighbourhood following the recently approved 90-acre master plan by Boston-based Koetter Kim & Associates.

The TWRC’s misguided decision to modify the original Koetter plan and allow the Jarvis Quay site to be developed as a commercial building may be the reason behind all this trouble in the first place. A commercial building is much easier to finance and operate. The TWRC should have adhered to a vision of a cultural building of international importance on such a high-profile site at the edge of Lake Ontario, heeding the design review panel’s recommendations to hold a competition for a precedent-setting example of high-calibre architecture. So as to not fully absolve Jack Diamond, we might also ask what influential voice helped convince the TWRC to change their minds some 18 months ago.

During the first two presentations of Project Symphony, Diamond sent partner David Dow on the firm’s behalf. The secret client (a publicly traded media company) undoubtedly imposed its own budget and time constraints upon the architect team, who then produced a scheme in short order. For the third public presentation, Diamond finally appeared. Convinced of his own status as being the great Canadian architectural iconoclast of our time, he was surprised that the nine- member design review panel was tepid in its response. Despite the criticisms, the project will proceed, provided the elevations and detailing will be refined before the project receives its development permit.

As Kuwabara commented to CA, “There will always be politics surrounding any development or building project, but the intention of design review is to focus on design excellence from the largest to the smallest scale of design. Design review works well when there is an approved master plan or precinct plan that forms the basis for the review of specific buildings and landscapes.”

The goal of design review panels is that the planning process will evolve with greater transparency while becoming increasingly distant from political pressures. And with practice, the design review process may indeed become perfect.