Despite the recent flourishing of ways to pigment glass and other cladding products, the skins of most residential towers going up in Toronto these days are colourless, or their hues are diluted or muted. The result is urban fabric that`s always sagging visually toward dull neutrality, that blah state of affairs between really dense darkness (which can be effective, as it is in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre) and bright chromatic display.
One sometimes hears reasons why greyness prevails. I have been told by both developers and tall-building architects, for example, that home-buyers don’t want to dwell in colourful structures. Be that as it may, prospective homeowners are certainly getting very few chances to find out what living with colour would mean, since the people who design and put up residential buildings seem reluctant to let them try it.
Most designers and most developers, that is. But not all.
Because I would like to see innovative applications of colour in contemporary architecture, I perked up when I saw the first rendering of a distinctly red 52-storey condominium tower proposed for a Sherbourne Street site just south of Bloor Street East. This condo stack may not, in the end, inject colour that’s very strong into its stretch of Sherbourne; the work is still at an early stage, and the exact appearance of its skin is not settled. But the rendering is a sign that at least one North American architect and his clients are thinking about giving colour a prominent role in shaping our perception of the modern city.
The designer, in this instance, is Thomas Kerwin, principal in the Chicago firm of bkL Architecture LLC. His bosses on this job include well-known Toronto real-estate companies: Diamondcorp, headed by Stephen Diamond; Fernbrook Homes; and Cityzen Development Group.
The place on which their attention is focused is a piece of local history. The boxy Gothic mansion standing there today – and destined to be spared in Mr. Kerwin’s scheme – was built for distiller Charles H. Gooderham in 1882, when Sherbourne was still a very fashionable address. The street slid rapidly downhill thereafter, and, by the First World War, the Gooderham house was a residential hotel.
It might then have slipped out of our urban memory altogether – along with other once-grand Sherbourne Street residences, several demolished long ago – had not Ernest Hemingway lived there during his stint in the 1920s at the Toronto Star. The house is famous because Hemingway was. After the building’s upcoming transformation from hotel into retail space – such is the intention of the developers – something should remain on board to commemorate Hemingway’s Hogtown stay long ago.
Plans for the site involve the tear-down of the homely hotel annex behind the house, and the resituation of the house itself closer to the sidewalk. A similar move was made next door, where a developer pushed another Victorian mansion up against the street and dropped a tower behind it.
Carving out territory to raise new condo stacks without ripping out historic edifices makes such moving about of old buildings inevitable, I suppose – but it can never be quite desirable. Those gracious, expansive city homes were designed to be seen in a certain manner – across broad front gardens, with luxurious grounds on either side.
I’m glad, of course, that Diamondcorp and Cityzen decided (or were persuaded) to save the architectural stuff of the Gooderham villa itself. But landscaping is architecture, too, and once the house is moved, we will never again be able to visualize the harmonies between mansion and grounds, and between the total ensemble of the streetscape and city, that the Victorian architect carefully created on this ample urban lot.
Something will be lost, that is.
But, if the finished tower closely resembles the renderings, a tattered, coarse patch of Toronto’s fabric could gain a fresh, badly needed jolt of visual voltage. As Mr. Kerwin explained the project, the wide oblong windows of the grid-like façade will be framed, top to bottom, by plain terra cotta panels hung on the building’s skeleton. The intensity and shade of terra cotta, the architect said, will correspond to the colours of the old brickwork in the neighbourhood.
This might be exciting. After all, the late-Victorian architects of luxury housing – such as the Gooderham mansion and other large family homes round about – appreciated and freely deployed vibrant, rich reds, oranges, yellows. Should the terra cotta cladding of Mr. Kerwin’s tall structure do nothing more than reproduce the reddish-orange of the villa’s brick, it will give a lift to an area where former grace has given way to many grey, tiresome concrete piles and slabs. I hope Mr. Kerwin and his clients are bold in their final choice of colour, since anything less will mean a fine opportunity to vivify the city has been skipped.