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Sugar Beach yields an impressionistic landscape rarely attempted in the hard-edged cities of North America. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)
Sugar Beach yields an impressionistic landscape rarely attempted in the hard-edged cities of North America. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)

Lisa Rochon: Cityspace

Sugar Beach: pink umbrellas, green cubes, lingering questions Add to ...

Blurred, soft, faint and flowing: Flou is a French word of such import that it should be a required addition to the English language. Because Toronto's new Sugar Beach is flou, it yields an impressionistic landscape rarely attempted in the hard-edged cities of North America.

Don't confuse the pale pink umbrellas rising from the cream-coloured sand as design weakness. The advantage of flou - besides allowing for willow trees, granite rock and pink parasols to be read as sensory touchstones of colour and texture - is that it emphasizes the rigidity of Corus Entertainment corporate headquarters constructed next door.

It's a bit like spying Jackie Kennedy sheathed in shell-pink chiffon and sparkling sequins sitting next to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a shapeless black suit. On a tiny, two-acre (eight-tenths of a hectare) park on Toronto's central waterfront, Montreal's Claude Cormier Architectes Paysagistes has accomplished a mesmerizing distraction from the dark green mask of Corus.

Such is the unsettling truth of the central waterfront as it is being currently rolled out - beautiful moments in its new public space marred by the construction of ordinary architecture.

The headquarters of Corus Entertainment: sustainable, clunky design.

The chunky green-glass Corus building was one of those Waterfront Toronto cloak-and-dagger secrets, once referred to mysteriously and misleadingly as Project Symphony. Its architect, Jack Diamond of Diamond + Schmitt, had been hired without a design competition by the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO), a city agency that owns more than 60 per cent of the 1,000 acres in the city's downtown brownfields known as the Portlands. Diamond had previously worked as a consultant for TEDCO on the precinct plan for East Bayfront, just next door to Toronto's Harbourfront.

Given that Diamond has made a career of creating buildings designed to fit into the streetscape rather than express something individualistic or exuberant, the match was made in heaven: Emotional architecture is not what TEDCO, wanted. Flou? Feed it to the seagulls. In its wisdom, TEDCO - representing the Toronto taxpayer - wanted something glassy and generic.

Why? "The market pays for view. View was paramount," says project architect David Dow. Still, was it really necessary to promote something this indistinguishable on one of the city's grand-finale waterfront sites? "It had to be a generic enough office building that it could satisfy other tenants in the future," explains Dow. Imagine for yourself the hint of regret in his voice.

In response, Diamond + Schmitt created two glass office buildings linked by an atrium. Hardly a jewel, but, nevertheless, a competent design solution. The glass is dark green - not the golden colour of glass kissed by the sun, as it appeared in one of the earlier renderings from 2007. It's sustainable, smart design; but to the eye, it's a corporate clunker.

Corus Entertainment is one of Canada's largest media-and-entertainment companies, owners of radio stations Q107 and The Edge, animation house Nelvana and Kids Can Press. Its new office and broadcast centre is planned for completion in late September, although a majority of its 1,200 employees has already moved here from disparate sites across the city.

In the earlier renderings, there's a groovy permeability to the headquarters: The big glass doors on the building's west side are opened wide, allowing masses of people, gathered on the stone promenade and sitting on the massive Sugar Beach hump of a rock, to look in at the TV studios. You can almost picture Lady Gaga arriving to flaunt her latest headdress.

But for now, the ground-floor glass is sheathed in some kind of reflective, anti-ballistic coating, so it's difficult to see in. It would be delightful if the monumental sliding doors facing the lake would regularly expose the building to the winds and the sounds of the water - alas, and I hope that Corus proves me wrong, that's unlikely, given security concerns. The tiny café at the north of the building, meanwhile, is too narrow and, during the morning rush, overcrowded.

Still, the sense of flou resonates powerfully, thanks to Waterfront Toronto, in the public spaces around the Corus building. Double allées of maple trees and timber benches by Dutch landscape magicians West 8 now grace part of the East Bayfront promenade. A restaurant with breathtaking views along the waterfront edge of the building is still to come. And tiny motorized fish, by fantastic British design firm Troika, running the length of the ceiling in a public corridor inside Corus, are about to be turned on.

The building interior is being outfitted by Quadrangle Architects and is stoked with walls clad in wood recycled from the old Queen Elizabeth docks. What could have been an airy atrium, with clear views to the waterfront and a living green wall, is being clogged with stuff: a boxy recording studio; and a multistorey, careening tube slide for the daring employees of Corus.

But let's slip from the interior, privatized world of Corus and head outside and slightly east to Bayside, the largest new residential neighbourhood along Toronto's waterfront, poised to begin construction. Waterfront Toronto announced this week that an American development-and-design consortium has won the bid to build out the largest development parcels in East Bayfront, comprised of 10 acres between Lower Sherbourne and Parliament streets.

Hines, a large international real-estate firm, has partnered with American architect Cesar Pelli (renowned for his sky-scratching towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and Stanton Eckstut, one of the master-plan consultants of New York City's Battery Park City waterfront development. Adamson Architects are the local affiliates.

The Hines-Pelli consortium was favoured by a committee that included Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell and the city's deputy city manager, Richard Butts. I'm not exactly sure why. The financials, which are strictly confidential, must have seriously impressed, because the design itself is largely polite and formulaic but uninspired.

That design got the go-ahead despite the fact that an independent committee of experts, struck to review the proposed revitalization design, heavily favoured a competing submission. That vision - featuring smaller commercial buildings and glass residential studios engaged in an urban dance - was produced by homeboy architects Peter Clewes and Bruce Kuwabara, who joined forces with Walker Corporation of Australia and Cityzen Development Corporation (currently building the Marilyn Monroesque tower in Mississauga). In their report, the committee recommended the locally produced scheme for its permeability and heightened sense of Toronto, including lovely slips of water cut from the lake into the mainland.

Unforgivably, the process leading up to the naming, this week, of the winning Bayside development partner has been shrouded in secrecy. All players - including all consultants - have been required by Waterfront Toronto to sign confidentiality agreements, provoking secret, hushed exchanges of information. Officially, I don't know anything.

Bayside is the largest residential development to plant itself on Toronto's waterfront in decades. But, though it spreads over publicly owned land, none of its new residential designs have been seen or debated by the public. Keeping the Toronto waterfront as a secret harboured by only a very few is an old idea that smacks of Toronto in the 1980s. Definitely not flou, just tragically, dangerously passé.

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