As the rollout of condominiums from the latest construction boom continues, Toronto finds itself becoming a city of extremes: numerous tall residential towers amid a sea of short, older storefronts and single-family homes.
What's largely lacking in our downtown inventory of housing types is the mid-rise apartment block, bigger than a duplex but smaller than the condo behemoths sprouting up across the core.
The kind of building I have in mind is five to 10 storeys high, cleanly modern in design, knit well into its surroundings. Toronto needs such infill to balance our streetscapes. Trouble is, not much in the way of mid-sized anything seems to be coming out of local architectural offices these days.
Which isn't to say you never find something of the sort in Hogtown. Last week, I visited an interesting new example on little Ritchie Avenue, in the old industrial corner of the city near the junction of Roncesvalles Avenue and Dundas Street West.
Designed by Toronto architect David Anand Peterson and now nearing completion, this handsome six-storey apartment house has grown up in a rough neighbourhood, aesthetically speaking. Right next door is a gas station. Workshops and broad-shouldered old warehouses, some converted into loft complexes, dot the area, and workers' housing from a century ago stretches along nearby streets.
Mr. Peterson has responded to this hard urban landscape with a C-shaped courtyard structure that is just as hard.
The style is Bauhaus modernism, squared off, flat-roofed and flat-planed, rational and efficient. The Guyana-born architect has expended considerable effort to keep the modernist geometry of his volume tight, clear and simple: The side facing the gas bar, for instance, is a flat curtain of metal mesh that falls from the roofline to a point just above the tucked-in car park on the ground level.
And instead of hanging his balconies on the structural framework, Mr. Peterson has punched the terraces on the courtyard side into a sheer exterior wall, making the inner surface of the structure look like a chest of drawers minus the drawers. An imaginative use of vivid colour on the street-side façade and the courtyard walls - it's a kind of chartreuse that turns greener or more yellow in different lights - further reinforces the project's pleasantly tough solidity and its sense of firm grounding in the urban grid.
Like the building's industrial-strength architecture, the southwest-facing garden courtyard framed by the three residential wings is evidence of sensible contextualism. The surrounding zone is not wholly bleak and drab, after all. Behind the residences along Ritchie Avenue, and abutting the courtyard, are green backyards full of tall old trees. Mr. Peterson has invited that lively strip of vegetation to march a little farther northward, into the embrace of his building. (Large cisterns below the two courtyard pools collect storm water for irrigation.)
The 50,000-square-foot expanse of the edifice itself has been carved up into 57 condominium suites, some small, others impressively spacious. At the ground level, the two-storey units open immediately onto the courtyard. All the other apartments, including the two-level suites that begin on the fifth storey, are entered from open-air walkways that run around the outer perimeter, either behind walls or (for most of their extent) just inside the metal screen.
Such "streets in the sky" are not fashionable among architects these days. The designers and developers who create the towers prefer a centralized elevator and corridor shaft. But Mr. Peterson's outlying footpaths afford sweeping views over the city and into the sky, and effectively orient the units away from the edges, inward toward the courtyard and the balconies that overlook it.
Despite certain imperfections in detail - the elevator lobbies are mean for a building of this size, some of the elevated walkways seem too narrow - I like the architectural heft and robust attitude of this work, the way it lands on the ground, its no-nonsense disregard for popular prettification.
But I like even better the example of responsible urbanism it provides. During his time of professional training, Mr. Peterson did a study stint in the Netherlands. There, he told me, he came to a fresh appreciation of the mid-rise apartment complex as a tool for city-building. The structure on Ritchie Avenue comes out of this Dutch lesson, and it has something valuable to teach Toronto about the usefulness of mid-sized residential architecture for creating the livable, walkable density a modern city needs.