On Oct. 10, Daniel Libeskind will be in Toronto for a “topping off” ceremony at the L Tower, a startling 57-storey condominium at Yonge and Front streets. Six years ago, Mr. Libeskind was in town to top off the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum (where I was then director). It’s becoming a habit.
These radical buildings are generating debate in Canada’s premiere city, which is fine. But, even better, they are helping to liberate Toronto from the intellectual girdle of a spent architectural age defined by the International style. David Mirvish proves the case with his dramatic proposal to create a monumental cultural and residential precinct at King and John streets, designed by an unbridled Frank Gehry.
The International style in architecture was born of the Bauhaus movement in Germany after the First World War, rooted in values that sought “radically simplified forms … rationality and functionality, and the idea that mass production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit.” (Wikipedia is quite good at describing this, noting the probable contradiction between “mass production” and individuality.)
The core idea in the International style was “less is more,” adopted and preached by its leading practitioner Mies van der Rohe, a German architect who decamped to Chicago in the 1930s. It embraced ideals of efficiency, reason and utility. It was, in essence, an ideology – an ideology akin to Puritanism, hostile to adornment, humour or “waste.” It was an expression of the Machine Age, ascetic industrialism triumphant over the romanticism of art deco, which competed alongside the Bauhaus for 15 years after 1925. The International style in architecture ultimately prevailed in its low-cost discipline to become, famously and infamously, the Architecture of the Box.
Some boxes are better than others. Mies van der Rohe’s were the best. As in any period of architecture, you will find wonderful and awful examples of the genre. The International style produced some of the most sublime forms, spaces and relationships in the history of art. Among them is the two-storey banking hall at Mies van der Rohe’s excellent TD Centre in Toronto, still the most beautiful room in the city, though not the most interesting.
The International style also produced endless trash in postwar London and provincial cities in North America and beyond. The Miesian “box” almost invites low-cost knockoffs because its basic requirements are so few. It is a short distance from efficient to cheap, from “less” to mean. The International style facilitated dross, not uncommon to ideologies of any stripe, but in the length of its teeth alone, its time has come.
(The last great gasp of modernism was Yoshio Taniguchi’s reiteration of the Museum of Modern Art – MOMA – in New York in 2004. How perfect was this? The climax of a century’s ideology in modernist architecture at the epicentre of modernism.)
Where is Toronto now?
Toronto remains dedicated to the International style, in part because it is cheap to design and build, but out of conviction too. (The forest of new condos along Lake Ontario south of Front Street is almost homogeneous in its modernity, and thus cloying.) A so-called Toronto School of modernist architects has arisen, much admired, bringing more sensual pleasure to the strict functionality of the modernist ideal. The best of them – Hariri Pontarini, KPMB, Shim-Sutcliffe, Architects Alliance – create lovely forms and spaces in the modernist style, with an eye to luxe materials and indulgent foils in curves and visual effects. This is modernism in its maturity, letting go a bit, and it often works very well indeed. It will continue to pass the test of time.
However, Toronto, like London and New York, is now moving beyond modernism to embrace a new global spirit in architecture. It is smartly captured by Denmark’s bad-boy architectural star, Bjarke Ingels, who riffs off Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” to say that “Yes is more.” (His firm’s name is BIG; their URL is, perforce, big.dk. New era, eternal appeal.) He is saying yes to more than efficiency; yes to more than deference to the status quo.
The modernists’ insistence that form follow function was deeply informed by efficiency.
The “new architecture” keeps function at its centre, but defines function far beyond economics. Function is not only efficiency. Function is delight; function is complexity; function is surprise; function is contemplation; function is provocation; function is aggression; function is poetry; function is mystery; function is doubt; function is love. These are the “functions” of art itself, embracing the whole canvas of human experience and aspiration – “artitecture” unbound from the industrial ethic alone.
In fact, before the important architectural events of this decade, Toronto reached beyond the International style in several striking moments in its history. It did so when the case for symbolic power cried out for much more than another anonymous box fading into the background. The most amazing of these exceptions is Toronto City Hall, the result of an international competition in 1958 that chose the little-known Finnish architect Viljo Revell to build two facing towers, oft compared to hands cradling something – a circular building that has come to be known as “the clam shell” – fronting an expansive square on Queen Street. This blatant exception to the International style came to symbolize Toronto as a place of unusual creativity and potential (against all odds).
Subsequent years saw the arresting rise of the majestic CN Tower, Ontario Place and the Eaton Centre (by Eb Zeidler) – all outside modernism looking in, but delivering potent symbolism to a city without a hill, whose lovely lake hid beyond a wasteland of rail yards and freeways. Almost alone in the context of modernism, these rare structures carried the burden of giving Toronto particularity – a sense that there is, in fact, a here here. (Victorian neighbourhoods provided the other defining grace.)
And now the dam is breaking. Will Alsop’s “tabletop” structure for OCAD University broke the mould in 2004. It’s a charming pop-art plaisanterie perfectly suited to the subversive nature of the school. In 2007, Mr. Libeskind’s design for the ROM brought an intensity and poetic sensibility to bear on Bloor Street of almost unbearable force (outside and in). It parted the curtain on a new face of beauty, as intellectually and psychologically challenging as anything built in Toronto before or since – as much origami as a crystal.
Last year, in Mississauga, two beautifully curvaceous “Marilyn Monroe” condo towers designed by Chinese architect Yansong Ma appeared, the result of a rare international competition. This month, Mr. Libeskind’s second major building in Toronto reaches its height at Yonge and Front – a yearning, leaning, inquiring form that draws the mind to wonder.
David Mirvish is bringing Frank Gehry back to Toronto just in time to do something with full conviction near the end of his important career. (Mr. Gehry’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario was substantially limited by context, however fine that building’s specific attributes.) In Mr. Mirvish’s project, the juxtaposition of exuberant street-level forms with three proudly tall, “irrationally” sculpted towers for housing makes its neighbours seem old – as does the L Tower, which makes so much around it seem like the product of an ideology, rather than an individual, the product of a system rather than a soul.