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The size of the art gallery at Mirvish + Gehry has been reduced to 9,200 square feet from 60,000. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The size of the art gallery at Mirvish + Gehry has been reduced to 9,200 square feet from 60,000. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

With forced Mirvish + Gehry rejig, Toronto squanders a rare opportunity Add to ...

Last week, when theatrical impresario and developer David Mirvish unwrapped architect Frank Gehry’s latest condominium tower scheme for Toronto’s King Street West, Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s chief planner, told reporters her staff are “absolutely thrilled” by the new proposal.

They should be. After 18 months of throwing up roadblocks in front of Mr. Gehry’s original design – too dense, too big, too destructive of “heritage” fabric – the public officials, backed by vociferously critical politicians such as Adam Vaughan and by some ordinary citizens, are getting at least part of what they want.

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The number of towers has been cut from three to two, the inventory of apartments chopped from around 2,700 to 2,000. For those who hate all tall buildings, and those who are concerned – we all should be – about the stress 5,000 or so people in one spot will put on King Street’s elderly infrastructure, these changes from old to new may seem negligible. They aren’t, and they represent a victory of sorts for the planning regime at city hall.

Another victory for what are widely perceived as the people in white hats is the salvation of the Princess of Wales Theatre and some Edwardian industrial buildings on the site, all doomed under the earlier plan.

A feature of the new scheme that is not a win for anyone is the stingy area – just 9,200 square feet, down from 60,000 square feet in the original layout – allotted for showcasing the abstract paintings and sculptures Mr. Mirvish has collected and supported over the past 50 years. Whatever one makes of Mr. Mirvish’s taste in art – I have not shared it – the establishment of a very large, new gallery in the heart of the city would have enriched our cultural commonwealth. We will be poorer, now that this will not happen.

At 82 and 92 storeys, the newly proposed skyscrapers would still be very tall, and city hall has often shown its dislike for great height. But the predictable complaints of councillors and bureaucrats about bigness and other matters could be muted this time around, as the revised proposal resumes its journey along the prickly path to full approval. Mr. Mirvish and Mr. Gehry have made important concessions, after all, and willingness to compromise is a trait that planning officials like to see in the developers and architects they deal with.

Not that any of the key players is calling the new plan a compromise. In fact, Ms. Keesmaat has flatly said it isn’t one. But I would be hard-pressed to find another word that more perfectly sums up what’s now being offered to Toronto.

Take, for example, the shafts of the two towers represented in renderings made public last week. In keeping with other products of Mr. Gehry’s always surprising imagination, they break and swivel, as if knocked out of plumb by a hurricane. Their surfaces of stone and glass are interestingly creased, wrinkled, fractured. One façade looks like a tree-trunk split by a thunder-bolt.

If the results are anything like the pictures, the upper parts of these buildings will be novel, perhaps even memorable. And yet something is missing about them. It’s the vivid vertical experimentalism, the mature formal risk-taking so evident in earlier versions of the scheme. Though hardly conventional, the tailoring of the newer towers seems subdued and somehow routine, as if Mr. Gehry and his colleagues in Los Angeles had decided that quibbling Toronto didn’t deserve a breakthrough building.

Compromise with the city’s bureaucratic conservatism, however, is more obvious in the project’s new base than in its elevations. In the plan served up in 2012, the three towers hit the ground in a storm cloud of colour, light and colliding planes. Effectively crafting this juncture of the shaft and the street is always a problem for tall-building architects. And the solution Mr. Gehry proposed in the initial version – packing the bottom with as much dramatic punch as possible, making the ground level wonderfully exuberant and urbane – was surely brilliant.

Now, 18 months later, the base has turned into so much banality. The artistic inventiveness that Mr. Gehry is expending on the tower shafts completely disappears as the buildings near the ground. They come to rest, not, as before, in a moment charged with urban excitement, but on what appear to be the dull, blockish hulks of the old warehouses rescued from the wreckers.

If the current design passes muster with Toronto’s political officialdom – we could know the answer as early as next month – and if it is built out without further tinkering, the verve and civic animation of Mr. Gehry’s previous work will be largely lost. As compensation, a few unimportant beams and bricks from yesteryear will be saved – remnants that future generations can gaze at as they try to figure out why Toronto never got an astonishing skyscraper by Frank Gehry.

 

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