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Inside the 'Big Enough?' exhibit at Toronto's Habourfront Centre. The show runs until July 2012. (Dave LeBlanc/Photo by Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)
Inside the 'Big Enough?' exhibit at Toronto's Habourfront Centre. The show runs until July 2012. (Dave LeBlanc/Photo by Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)

Harbourfront exhibit asks, How much space do we really need? Add to ...

Big enough?

Thankfully, yes, because these ideas need space.

In the past, many exhibits at Architecture at Habourfront Centre chopped the 1226-square-foot gallery in York Quay Centre into a series of small rooms, or built nooks and crannies to give gallery-goers places to poke their heads.

The current show, Big Enough? – which opened Jan. 28 and runs until July, 2012 – picks up where the autumn, 2011, show, Too Tall?, left off. While that show explored what's acceptable, height-wise, for an expanding urban core with long-established, leafy low-rise residential neighbourhoods, Big Enough? makes it personal by asking: “How much space do we really need?”

It's a tough question, especially for those who measure success with square footage. Luckily, curator Patrick Macaulay gives visitors a wide-open room to better grapple with exhibits prepared by architecture firms Altius Architecture Inc., nkA, rzlbd and artist/photographer Surendra Lawoti.

First-time homebuilders often hand architects an unrealistic wish list, so Neal Prabhu and Nelson Kwong of nkA decided to partly cover a wall with examples. Large text reads “We'd really like to take advantage of the size of the lot with the biggest possible house that will fit on it,” “The master bedroom has to have a his and hers walk-in closet” and “We want 10-foot ceilings on all the floors” among other demands. Strangely, quantitative rather than qualitative concerns don't happen with everyday objects, says Mr. Prabhu: “How people buy a TV, for example,” he offers, “you'd probably choose a higher resolution rather than have a 60-inch TV that has really bad resolution.”

But can architecture be sold on quality over quantity? Three models, each painted stark white, do just that: The first is based on a conventional gabled home like those found in older Toronto neighbourhoods. It boasts 1,900 square feet of living space and a 600-square-foot backyard, and the 95 square feet of “south-facing glass” doesn't seem significant until compared with the other two models.

Strikingly modern, these flat-roofed homes with large windows, light-wells and terraces provide the homeowner with less space (1,770 and 1,710 square feet), but south-facing glass for each has increased fourfold. With a backyard of the same size, they also provide additional private rooftop and/or courtyard space. And one need only peer into the models to see how much better “the lighting and the shadows and light penetration into the buildings is,” says Mr. Kwong.

To reinforce this, the same wall bears quotes from the converted: “Inside and outside is one big space,” “I know approximately what time it is by seeing how far the sunlight reaches on the kitchen wall” and “… during the day I can watch birds fly high and by night, count the stars.”

An even greater appreciation of light's ability to alter one's perception of space occurs while squeezing through rzlbd's “BOWTIE (reconciliation passage).” Entering from either end, patrons walk up a wide ramp that narrows as it approaches the middle. At that mid-point, a rather small “box” based on the minimum requirements needed for the human body invites pause. On one side of this box is a brilliant strip of light: “We consume space with both our body and our mind,” explains rzlbd's Reza Aliabadi. “Our body experiences and consumes the space through its physical limit, but our mind perceives it more in a poetic way – that's why I put that bright light right in the climax, because usually light helps you to perceive a space [as]larger than what it is in reality.”

Adventures while backpacking were Mr. Aliabadi's inspiration. “The maximum vastness” he experienced while at the North Pole was combined with the “very, very narrow and tight passages in Cairo” to create “an opportunity [for one]to find his or her own comfort zone.” Even children, who likely won't read the text before they enter, will remember the experience, he says: “Every kid has played under the table in the kitchen, right?”

And for those who do love text – along with maps, charts and graphs – Altius Architecture delivers. Just inside the gallery doors, a large video map of Toronto greets visitors and asks them to place pushpins in two spots: where they currently live and where they'd like to live. All the while, the map keeps changing, highlighting various neighbourhood statistics, such as the percentage of single-family homes or high-rises, real estate values and density of people per kilometre. Beside the map, a mesmerizing wall of pie charts breaks that information down further, and a large table allows gallery visitors to compare the amount and value of “space” in their own neighbourhood against others.

Excellent photographs of “makeshift shelters” near the Don River by Mr. Lawoti round out the show. “I wanted to understand how people who do not have a home make one,” says the photographer.

Big Enough? succeeds because it doesn't preach. Each installation gently asks visitors to consider their consumption, cost and their physical and mental interpretations of personal space. Why can some live comfortably in 500 square feet while others need 5,000? Can the city itself become part of our space?

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