Most building journalism, including mine, is about the deeds of real-estate royalty – the architects, interior designers, developers and planners whose decisions, good or bad, powerfully influence the ways our cities look and operate. (Clients are occasionally mentioned, but only if they are unusually enlightened or abysmally gauche.)
From time to time, however, I come across a residential scheme that has surely benefited from the input of experts and the leadership of people in Toronto’s creative and economic elite, but that has been largely shaped by ordinary citizens mobilized on behalf of the public good. One project of this kind is the 87-unit housing complex known as 40 Oaks, now nearing completion in Toronto’s Regent Park.
Designed by Charles Rosenberg and Ken DeWaal, associates at Hilditch Architect, for the non-profit Toronto Christian Resource Centre, this high-performance, five-storey structure is modern and urbane. Its long, low-slung exterior makes a good fit with the other neo-modern buildings going up around it, as the ambitious $1-billion transformation of Regent Park from a monoform social-housing development into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighbourhood moves forward.
But the story of 40 Oaks has less to do with art than with citizenship and commitment to old-fashioned city-building. You can’t tell such a story adequately by just totting up the merits and demerits of the architecture. What makes 40 Oaks special is its compassionate purpose, and the lengths to which its energetic backers at the TCRC have gone to insure that this purpose is fulfilled.
The building has been crafted to provide permanent, very affordable shelter for people who have previously been homeless. The efficient, simply appointed suites, each furnished with a kitchen and a private washroom, range in area from 375 square feet to 395 square feet. Though highly compact, the well-lit units feel more ample than their floor-sizes suggest – an effect that is due, in part, to the absence of those load-bearing columns that take up so much space in conventional condominium stacks.
40 Oaks will be more, however, than just a spiffy dormitory. The building will feature a variety of supports intended to make life livable for people who have long been exposed to the harsh economy of the streets. Among them are private telephone numbers – markers of social identity that many homeless people lack. (The TCRC has persuaded Rogers Communications to wire the building, pro bono, for phone, Internet and cable television.) There will be professional social workers on duty in the residence, and tenants will have access to the educational, advocacy, anti-poverty and community-building services of the TCRC, which is headquartered at 40 Oaks.
If the facility is not just a higher-style rooming house, neither is it a ghetto of the dispossessed, cut off from the pulse of urban life. The TCRC would like 40 Oaks to become a focus for the new, very various community taking root in the revitalized neighbourhood.
The wide interval between the building and Oak Street, for example, will be a public park and community food garden. Believers from every religious tradition can gather and worship in the curving non-denominational chapel. And neighbours who want to share a meal, whether because of hunger or out of a desire for fellowship, will be invited into the great kitchen that dominates the ground floor of 40 Oaks. From this kitchen, TCRC volunteers and staff will be able to serve free lunches for more than 200 people a day.
These programs, and the development of the building itself, are the results of grassroots collaborations and consultations shepherded by the TCRC over the last several years. The organization likes to encourage solidarities – and not just among the impoverished.
Instead of hiring an individual interior designer, or turning to an institutional outfitter, for example, the TCRC gave the job of furnishing the public spaces of 40 Oaks to a collective of young activist-artists that calls itself Public Displays of Affection (PDA).
PDA’s online manifesto suggests the reason the socially minded people at the TCRC picked them. “Design isn’t only the domain of those who Photoshop, curate or draft plans,” the document declares. “It is available to all members of the community and its basic principles can be learned and practised by everyone.” Design should be an activity that is “just, non-judgmental, classless, denies nothing, is not in denial, [and is]not limited by traditions.”
The people who live at 40 Oaks, of course, will write the final report on the contributions of the idealistic folks at PDA, of Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. DeWaal, and of the many others whose ideas, passions, talents and principles have come together to make this project what it is. But viewed from my vantage point, 40 Oaks looks like it could be social architecture of a high order.