When you’re walking through a forest of 1950s and 60s apartment towers, that is, since there may be something hiding on those rooftops.
Once upon a time, building designers didn’t treat tower rooftops as dreary places to scatter HVAC systems or elevator equipment, but rather as a place for more usable space – the classic example, of course, is Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, which had a tiny city on its roof – and Toronto, a thoroughly modernist city by the late 1950s, was no exception.
The problem is, rooftop spaces that weren’t originally designed as revenue-generating apartment units were eventually forgotten about.
Such was the case with a 2,000-square-foot space perched atop a 1961 North Toronto building owned by Park Property Management, a 39-year-old company with 70 properties in its portfolio. Fifteen storeys up, only the building’s superintendent was lucky enough to enjoy panoramic views from the little glass pavilion with a zig-zaggy folded-concrete roof and sturdy terrazzo floors. Except, it seems, most of his enjoyment came from using the place as a deluxe storage shed and workshop, filling it with refrigerators, stoves, gym equipment found curbside, scraps of wood, and power tools.
“I’m sorry to use the word, but it was a dump,” says Park Property Management’s Davinder Hora. “I guess most of the apartment buildings – not just [those owned by] Park – always have some space here-and-there which has been misused or ill-used.”
To Park’s credit, however, Quadrangle Architects’ interior design professionals were called in to see if there was any hope of rehabilitation and conversion to office space. Principal Caroline Robbie remembers telling them: “Well, first of all, leave the ceiling alone, because it’s beautiful,” she laughs.
“That whole era of modernist architecture is really kind of lost,” she continues, “but there are people who know where it is in the city, and walking into this space it was, like, ahh, this is great!”
Ms. Robbie is one of them: Her father, Rod Robbie, was a towering figure in Canadian modernism, responsible for Katimavik, the Canadian Pavilion’s inverted pyramid at Expo 67 (with Colin Vaughan), countless educational buildings, and Skydome (now Rogers Centre).
With Quadrangle’s Dyonne Fashina suggesting a “Mad Men theme,” the pieces quickly fell into place. Of course those pieces had to consider Park’s programmatic requirements – a few private offices, workstations for a certain number of employees, and file storage for the 12 buildings that would be managed from here – as well as original features that couldn’t change, such as radiators, interior drainage pipes (folded plate roofs collect water that must be directed away) and roof access points.
Once addressed, however, the fun could begin – and it does begin as soon as one exits the elevator. Here, where the ceiling is quite low, Quadrangle has created a cozy lobby space with black walls featuring an overlay of repeating Park Property Management logos (two ‘P’s that form a very curvaceous 1970s tree) to simulate custom wallpaper.
Walk a few steps, however, and one is thrust into a light-filled, high-ceilinged “living room” populated by upholstered Charles Eames LCWs (Lounge Chair Wood), an Eames coffee table and an Eames Sofa Compact outfitted in Maharam’s “Exaggerated Plaid” fabric by Paul Smith. “My grandparents had a couch with this exact look,” offers Ms. Fashina. “That was mid-century modern to me.”
Underfoot, an area rug picks up tones from the terrazzo, and, overhead, a “Sputnik” fixture adds a period-correct lighting flourish. Interestingly, says Ms. Robbie, it was Park that provided the Sputnik after seeing one in a concept drawing: “They said, ‘Well, we have that,’ ” she laughs, adding that she didn’t believe them, but, there it was at another of their buildings.
Overall, this area is a lovely first impression for tenants who come to speak with their building manager.
“Rental is not a dirty word, not everything has to be condos,” continues Ms. Robbie. “If you’re coming here to see somebody about your home, it shouldn’t feel cold and anonymous.”
Beyond, a row of Herman Miller office desks tucks under the folded roof, followed by two private offices. Against the wall, a refurbished pinball machine by Park’s Steve Weinrieb has been placed upright as sculpture, and, around the corner, there is a large meeting space with bright orange Eames shell chairs.
Completing the space is a big storage room, a lovely little staff kitchen (the plumbing was already in place) with dark walnut cabinets and cheap-and-cheerful backsplash tile, and a glamorous Mad Men powder room fit for a Joan Holloway crying jag; here, new “Atomic Doodle” wallpaper from Bradbury & Bradbury adorns the walls, and a bold brass faucet washes away mascara-tinted tears.
In use since July, 2013, the space is a hit with employees and visitors alike. It also proves that, even in a real-estate-starved city like Toronto, space solutions are often right under one’s nose – or up on the roof.
“Designs like this don’t have to blow the budget,” finishes Ms. Fashina. “This project was under budget for construction and for the furniture, even with these key pieces.”
Regular readers may remember a September 2013 Architourist column featuring Philip Johnson’s Glass House; I was there shooting a web-series (which we hope becomes a TV series) called Where Cool Came From. That webisode is now online, as well as two others featuring three other homes found in these pages. Check out wherecoolcamefrom.com