Yonge-Eglinton twin towers on the rocks

Last July, two developers went to Europe with two architects. The developers were Alan Greenberg, executive vice-president of Ottawa-based MintoUrban Communities Inc., and Chris Sherriff-Scott, Minto point man for the controversial towers the company is erecting at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue in uptown Toronto.

The two architects were Peter Ellis and Richard Thomlinson, of Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP. Ellis wanted to show Minto the kind of buildings that inspire him, and generally give the Canadians some exposure to great architecture.

The trip couldn’t help but make a lasting impression.

“It was particularly invigorating for me because it was my first trip to Europe,” says Sherriff-Scott, who has worked 25 years as a developer in Ottawa and Toronto. “We spent a week in London, just on walking tours, basically. We saw Canary Wharf (the Reichmann project on which Ellis worked) and then spent three days in Amsterdam.”

Eighteen months earlier, Minto had hired Ellis to build Toronto’s tallest apartment complex — two towers, 51 and 37 storeys, with 908 units, 400 of them rentals. Ellis went big and bold — then faced the task of defending his vision against a fierce outcry from residents, planners and politicians.

When homeowners shrieked that the towers are three times the permitted height and will ruin the neighbourhood, Minto could counter: “These will be world-class! We are raising the bar for residential construction. We are no carpetbaggers: We hired Skidmore!”

Skidmore, founded in Chicago in 1936, was a pioneer of the International style, making its name in the early 1950s with Lever House in New York. In the ’70s, it designed Chicago’s Sears Tower, the tallest office tower in the U.S.

Sherriff-Scott describes Minto’s time with Skidmore in the language of love. “The two firms invested two years of our corporate lives in this relationship,” he says.

But like many great romances, the end came when the suitor lost his urge to bankroll the expensive tastes of his beloved. In December, Minto canned Skidmore, blaming the low Canadian dollar.

“What we kept telling Peter is, ‘We want to put the money into the project. We don’t want to put it into the fees,’ ” recalls Sherriff-Scott. And, like a jilted lover, Ellis is too upset even to talk about what happened.

“To say the least, this has been an extraordinary disappointment,” he says. “For the first time in my life, I am not going to speak off the cuff.” He will add only, “There are factors beyond anyone’s control, and one is the gap between the Canadian and the U.S. dollars.”

Sherriff-Scott says candidly that Minto was pleased to have the U.S. architects on the Minto team: “We said we were going to pay a premium, understanding that we wouldn’t have got the approvals” without Ellis, Sherriff-Scott says. But he adds, “We have no intention of moving away from the calibre of the building that was envisioned in the concept.”

Still, he admits that it’s tough trying to reconcile nice floor plans that shoppers will buy, with the grandeur of the Ellis building, which is now being overseen by the Zeidler Grinnel Partnership, the Canadian firm that replaced Skidmore.

“There’s a whole tension between the Toronto style and the International style,” he says. “Toronto architects are more concerned about the livability of the suites.” He is rubbing his knuckles together. “How do we get a great-looking building and still make the suites livable?”

Richard Young, of Young & Wright Architects, who was Skidmore’s Toronto partner, fears the Ellis design may suffer. “It’s not easy to make money with that level of detail,” he says. “It was going to be a very difficult building.”

Last fall, Young & Wright helped execute Ellis’s design for Minto’s sales pavilion and marketing centre, a few doors from the site — a genuine Peter Ellis design, all stainless steel and limestone. Sadly, it’s the only real thing to show for that summer romance.

Copyright 2003 The Ottawa Citizen