In last Friday's column, I described a condominium complex (Context King West) that will be ingeniously shoehorned into a complicated downtown Toronto location. The 60-storey edifice called Massey Tower is another challenge along the same lines: An infill project proposed for a tough, tight spot in the urban core.
The new building is slated (if the city goes along with the scheme that Gary Switzer's MOD Developments Inc. has put forward) to rise at 197 Yonge St., across from Eaton Centre and just north of Queen Street. Fans and guardians of Hogtown's historic architectural fabric will instantly recognize the address.
The becolumned, long-vacant bank standing there today is a significant relic of the classicism that flourished in our inner-city districts during the decade before the First World War. Fashioned by the Toronto firm of Darling & Pearson and raised in 1905, the staid temple is also a valuable trace, well worth saving, of the vogue for anti-modernist Beaux Arts styling among the city's Edwardian elite.
Indeed, if Mr. Switzer’s plan is realized, the classical facade will be restored (by E.R.A. Architects), and given a new career as the principal entrance to the tower beyond. The intention is not, by the way, to spare a little fancy stonework from an otherwise useless building, then paste the salvage on something contemporary – a move that, to my mind, is preservationism run amok. In this case, the shallow four-storey office structure behind the bank’s decorated front will be refurbished and redeployed as a warren of studios for (the developer hopes) musical practice or some other cultural enterprise. This solution is probably the best we can expect under the circumstances.
These circumstances are determined by the crowded, very eccentric property Mr. Switzer owns. It includes, in addition to the bank, a small, derelict park, and is hemmed in by the loading dock of the building next door, the Victoria Street extension of the Elgin Theatre (another Edwardian landmark) and the rear of Massey Hall. Twisting through this dense chunk of city is a tiny system of laneways that provides vehicular access to the core of the block.
David Pontarini, founding partner of Hariri Pontarini Architects (and the designer of the similarly cramped Context King West), will sculpt the very tall, slender building Mr. Switzer wants to drop behind the bank. There is no room on the site for open-air parking. Cars will enter through the lane, be scooped up at grade by elevators, carried aloft and mechanically deposited into compartments on floors three through eight. In order to accommodate the old edifice immediately to the south, the foot of the new high-rise will stand clear of its garage entrance and loading area. And, in another neighbourly gesture, MOD is planning to give Massey Hall “the property interest they need to build their addition and renovate the Hall,” Mr. Switzer told me.
Along with its antiquarian Yonge Street entrance, Massey Tower has other features that promise to make it different from the usual soaring condo stacks in downtown Toronto. One is what happens in the park. In a bid to bring more retail activity to the east side of Yonge Street, Mr. Switzer has asked Mr. Pontarini to put an elegant glass pavilion into this gap in the streetscape. The transparent building will contain high-end shops, if all goes according to plan.
It’s hard to applaud this aspect of the project. Downtown development need not create new green spaces, but it surely shouldn’t eliminate old ones. Previous landlords, however, have allowed the little park to deteriorate into a muddy vacant lot. If there’s no determination to turn this private place into a public resource – and there doesn’t seem to be any – then perhaps the time has come for it to become a setting for interesting architecture. The park could have a worse fate. It could merely go into the future as the blighted spot it is today.
The most conspicuous facet of this proposal, however, is Mr. Pontarini’s romantic treatment of the tower’s exterior. There, rounded corners and undulating glazed balcony-fronts will mellow the cut of this big structure against the sky.
Massey Tower will not be the first place the architect has done something like this. While every tall-building designer is pressured by plain economics to produce yet another squared-off steel and concrete box, Mr. Pontarini has recently taken to modelling and carving the skins of his structurally conventional high-rises, generating sensuous, luxurious surfaces. We’ll have to wait and see if this strategy works here. But I’m guessing that Massey Tower will be the talented architect’s most coherent, aesthetically successful exercise of this kind so far, and another good example of artistic imagination turned loose on the hard-to-fill nooks and crannies in Toronto’s urban fabric.
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