Ever since the beginning of the current Canadian building boom almost 20 years ago, the prolific Vancouver urbanist and architect James K.M. Cheng has been refining the art of residential intensification in his home town.
The many condominium complexes he has designed for downtown Vancouver tend to be composed of glass towers allied with low banks of small buildings (often townhouses) that open toward the street or onto a garden. This arrangement is a response to concerns much on the minds of planners and ordinary citizens in Vancouver.
There is always the problem, for example, of keeping views of the city's splendid natural setting as clear as possible: hence Mr. Cheng's preference for slender, tall, widely-spaced towers. But towers, however elegant in their reach for the sky, can be alienating if their bottoms are done without close attention to the scale and sense of the street. Mr. Cheng's solution involves dropping in those low-rise townhouses, restaurants, shops, gardens and such along the sidewalk, which effectively mediate between the skyscrapers and the street.
The result of these manoeuvres is typical of the urban strategy that critic Trevor Boddy has called Vancouverism. It's the attractive balance of monumental and intimate scales exemplified by Mr. Cheng's architecture. And it's a highly popular and intelligent mixture of creative replies to complex forces: market-driven demands for greater density in the core, the need for walkable streets that feel safe and comfortable, and the desire of residents to feel connected with the natural world round about the city.
So what does Mr. Cheng's urbanism have to teach Toronto? We are finding out now, as the 66-storey Shangri-La hotel and residential project, his first Toronto building, gradually comes out of the ground at the south end of University Avenue. (For the record, Mr. Cheng is the lead designer in partnership with Toronto's Hariri Pontarini Architects.)
If hoardings still stand all around the very tight site, at least one notable feature of the unfinished tower in the $504-million complex is visible at this stage: its shape in plan, a sharply flattened hexagon, like a lozenge. Driving or walking down University Avenue from the north, the observer can already see how the bevelled curtain wall of the skyscraper deftly catches the curve of the south-bound lane as the boulevard narrows south of Queen Street West. Such subtle, well considered care for view corridors and variances in the street-grid is a valuable gift in a tall building. In Vancouver, it appears, architects are highly conscious of such matters - and Toronto benefits, in this instance, from that West Coast experience.
The most interesting aspects of the scheme, however, are not yet clearly visible from the ground, but they can be deduced from renderings, plans and the remarks of the architect. (I talked with Mr. Cheng last week in the Vancouver offices of Westbank Projects Corp., one of Shangri-La Toronto's two developers; the other is the Peterson Investment Group, also based in Vancouver.)
"We see envelopes with things in them," Mr. Cheng said, referring to A.J. Diamond's glass-fronted Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts nearby and the numerous high-rise boxes clustered thickly at the lower end of University. At the ground level of Shangri-La, on the other hand, we will see several things articulated from the standard, box-like podium envelope.
A three-storey glass cube containing a restaurant and bistro, for example, has been broken off the tower on the north end of the site, kitty-cornered across the avenue from Mr. Diamond's opera house. A glass pavilion will shelter a meeting room and a bamboo garden, while yet another structure, this time fashioned from white marble, will express an entrance lobby to the 380 residential suites above the five-star Shangri-La Hotel.
The goal of these moves toward variety at the podium level, Mr. Cheng said, is to add "richness" and a "fine residential grain" to the street-side experience of his building. It's "expressionism," he added, "as opposed to modern four-squares."
If all goes according to plan, the luxurious Shangri-La complex will vividly animate its short stretch of the University Avenue streetscape - which, of course, needs all the animation it can get. The commercial architecture in the neighbourhood mostly comes in great, glassy galumphing chunks that depress whatever vitality Toronto's grandest boulevard could potentially have. Shangri-La promises to stand in welcome contrast to what surrounds it on most sides.
The project, Mr. Cheng insisted, is a fresh application of the building art to a specific downtown Toronto condition, "not a transplant from Vancouver to Toronto." That said, it is surely a harvest of the lessons the architect, and Vancouver, have learned over the last several years about high-density design in the midst of the Canadian metropolis.