Eight years ago, Ontario’s provincial government bucked the opposition of powerful suburban real-estate interests and decreed that, henceforth, expected population increases in the Greater Toronto Area would have to be accommodated within existing built-up towns and cities. We’ve been getting used to the fallout from that decision ever since.
It hasn’t been easy. People in traditionally low-rise neighbourhoods are often dismayed by mid-rise intensification along the arterial streets that run through their districts. There has been citizen push-back against mid-rise infill on Queen Street West and in the Beaches, on Yonge Street and elsewhere. What the provincial and city planners have in mind for our Victorian and Edwardian urban fabric is clearly not to everyone’s taste.
As time goes by, however, I think we may become more tolerant of the assortment of scales and textures in old shopping streetscapes. After all, increasing residential density on principal thoroughfares is a far more hospitable and sustainable way to welcome residents than banishment to suburbia. And for their part, the architects of these new buildings are often ensuring that the infill is alert and lively, and a contribution to the visual vitality of Toronto’s downtown area.
Take, for example, the residential development by Toronto builder TAS called Duke. This six-storey condominium block is to be dropped into the heart of Toronto’s west-side Junction area, which spreads out in all directions from the intersection of Dundas Street West and Keele Street.
The old residential zones in this part of town have had their ups and downs, usually in tandem with the hard-hat industries and artisanal workplaces that have called the district home since the last third of the 19th century. But the rough edges are being rubbed off by the same process of gentrification that is transforming historic neighbourhoods across the city.
The shopping strip along Dundas Street (where Duke will go), on the other hand, has always been on the seedy side, and it still is. Stores are small, mean and dull. One good thing Duke promises to do is to provide fresh, high-ceilinged retail spaces along the glassy bottom of its Dundas Street façade. This move should, in turn, attract small-scale entrepreneurs angling for the higher-income consumers who are settling in the houses around. The result could be the commercial revitalization of a place badly in need of it.
But if renderings and plans can be believed, the whole project, not just the stores in its base, will be a shot in the arm for what’s become a grey, run-down streetscape.
Designed by Toronto-based Quadrangle Architects, the building will turn its most vividly animated face to Dundas. Instead of confronting the street with a solid, straight wall of masonry and glass, the surface of the façade dodges in and out, as if chunks of material had been randomly sliced from it and lifted away. White brick contrasts with the black frames of windows and doors, a difference that lends energy to the attractively jaunty exterior treatment and that makes the structure stand out from the dark brown brick storefronts in its vicinity.
Viewed from the street, the façade will operate at two scales. One is that of the whole building, a box-like item, with set-back upper storeys, that fully occupies its rectangular lot at the corner of Dundas West and Indian Grove. The other scale is that of the individual housing units, each type different, each articulated on the exterior by the in-and-out, back-and-forth rhythm I just noted.
This doubling of scales will mean that the structure will speak of itself in two ways.
One is as an all-encompassing architectural gesture – something it has to do in order to hold its own in a jumble of mostly low, elderly buildings. We expect condo blocks to behave boldly and frankly in this manner, and to avoid pretending that they are anything other than big, muscular contemporary interventions in the urban landscape.
But by expressing every discrete kind of habitation in the exterior treatment, Quadrangle also prompts Duke to speak of itself as a collection of individual homes – a vertical neighbourhood, in other words, of singles and couples and small families, each with a unique character and destiny. More firmly than any other feature, this break-up of the large statement into person-sized utterances links Duke to the Junction community, and gives it the sense of belonging there.
None of which, I’m sure, will change the mind of anyone who staunchly believes that the construction of mid-rise dwellings on important Toronto streets is an accursed business. But as Duke and other buildings of its sort come on line, they should at least convince the disbelievers that some local architects are thinking imaginatively and well about the next chapter in this city’s history.