In Toronto, a modest Modernism wins out over faux Victorian

Toronto — Special to The Globe and Mail

Block, designed by Richard Wengle for Treasure Hill Developments and slated to go up in Little Italy. The development will contain 37 freehold townhouses. (Treasure Hill/Treasure Hill)

Of all the posh houses by Toronto architects I have reviewed in this column and elsewhere, the ones I have been meanest about are by Richard Wengle. I don’t like the stuffy pastiches of defunct historical languages he has set down in Forest Hill.

But recently – long after deciding that nothing good would ever come out of his office – I discovered that Mr. Wengle has devised something considerably better than the single-family fare he usually gives to his clientele. It’s a townhouse complex in downtown Toronto called Block. This project is hardly stunning, but its modest modernism is likable, sincere and urbane. Not for the first time, I’ve been surprised by an architect I thought I had all figured out.

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Designed for Treasure Hill Developments and slated to go up in Little Italy, Block will contain 37 freehold townhouses priced at between $900,000 and $1.7-million, with most for sale around $1-million. The units range in area from 2,647 square feet to about 3,700 square feet, and feature three to five bedrooms. At only 14 feet wide, the townhouses are narrow, but ceiling heights are generous: ten feet on the main floor, nine on the floors above.

Taking into account Block’s upmarket prices, ample sizes, and modernist credentials, it’s easy to guess the profiles of the home-buyers Block will probably attract.

Some will surely be empty-nesters. But more than a few, I suspect, will be high-earning young professionals who have learned to love big-city living and style in the new condominium towers at the urban core.

These people will be at the stage in life when they want families, but they won’t want to give up the efficiency and convenience they’ve enjoyed in high-density contemporary circumstances. The best thing about Block is the fresh space it opens up for thoroughly citified couples – at least those with lots of money – ready to start and raise families near Toronto’s cultural heart.

Mr. Wengle’s exterior treatments have been crafted with such customers in mind. Composed of glass, black manganese brick, limestone, light stucco and pre-cast concrete, the street-side fronts of the three-level, flat-roofed buildings have been inspired by the squared-off angularity and clean visual rhythm of European multi-unit modernism. But they also say “home” in ways that Torontonians will immediately recognize – with little gardens and short flights of steps and shallow porches. (Each house also has a 30-foot back yard.)

I was interested to learn from developer Nick Fidei, head of Treasure Hill, that the earliest version of Block, by another architect, was quite different from what Mr. Wengle came up with. Mr. Fidei had originally planned to bring us yet another clump of townhouses in a faux-Victorian style – surely the most trite, tired architectural tendency at work on the low-rise end of Toronto’s housing boom. He was persuaded by serious market research to abandon visiting this blight on the city, and he accordingly commissioned Richard Wengle’s much fresher exterior design.

The developer’s new-found commitment to up-tempo modernist styling is also apparent in Block’s open-plan interiors. While some local suppliers of new residential units give consumers choices (all bland) about the look of their suites, Mr. Fidei is laying before his potential clients a range of finishes that are simply cooler than usual.

The three palettes of materials and colours were created by the Toronto-based international design firm of Cecconi Simone. One is white, sleek, shimmering. Another (showcased at Block’s sales centre) is very dark with a few light accents – a dramatic, sharp scheme that’s pitched to more design-savvy homeowners. Purchasers with tamer inclinations may find the third version to their liking: It’s mainly taupe, but it still has flair rarely seen in Hogtown’s housing salesrooms.

The market for new low-rise residences, of course, will be the ultimate judge of Toronto’s readiness to embrace Block and the kind of unshowy modernism it represents. Anna Simone, principal in Cecconi Simone, believes the judgment will be favourable to what she and Mr. Wengle have done here. “The condo market has created a taste for modern design,” she told me recently, apropos Block – a taste other low-rise developers will have to reckon with and serve.

I hope Ms. Simone is right. But, at least for now, the choice facing a young Torontonian ready to graduate from high-rise loft to family-sized dwelling is unfortunately simple. It’s either go to suburbia, or stay downtown and buy an old house, or get one of those fake-old jobs that have sprung up across the city in recent years. I hope downtown developers will follow Mr. Fidei’s lead and give design-conscious, family-minded couples the modern housing options they don’t have now.

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In last week’s column, I incorrectly reported that Richard Witt is joining Quadrangle Architects as a partner. Mr. Witt will be a principal in the firm.