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David Mirvish, left, and architect Frank Gehry were together for a press conference at the AGO in Toronto on October 1, 2012. The men were there to speak about a new development along King Street west in Toronto, that Gehry is designing for Mirvish. (Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail) (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
David Mirvish, left, and architect Frank Gehry were together for a press conference at the AGO in Toronto on October 1, 2012. The men were there to speak about a new development along King Street west in Toronto, that Gehry is designing for Mirvish. (Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail) (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

ARCHITECTURE

Frank Gehry and David Mirvish’s tall order in Toronto Add to ...

 

3. It’s a historic problem.
Mr. Mirvish’s proposal would demolish four heritage buildings, warehouses dating to 1901 to 1915, effectively without a trace. These properties were assembled by Ed Mirvish, who created a theatre district here after the bought the Royal Alexandra Theatre back in 1963. (Remember Ed’s Warehouse?) These buildings are not of exceptional architectural quality, but they are useful and of historical significance, even according to Mr. Mirvish’s own consultants. Right now they house tenants from small architecture firms to offices for Apple. Yet while the city always demands some form of “retention” for designated buildings, Mirvish suggests the Gehry proposal is valuable enough to override any heritage concerns and wipe the buildings out. For buildings designated historic by the city, this is nearly unprecedented. “This scheme is taking the city back 40 years,” to the era of blockbusting, says the heritage advocate and architect Catherine Nasmith. “It’s so retrograde.”

To win the city’s approval, some portion of the historic buildings will need to be saved. As Ms. Nasmith correctly points out, Toronto has a sophisticated culture of working with heritage buildings: Back in the 1960s, the partnership of Jack Diamond and Barton Myers showed the world how contemporary development could work as “infill,” in and around older buildings. They rehabilitated one of the warehouses that’s now owned by Mr. Mirvish, and had their offices there. Today that building houses KPMB, one of Canada’s best architecture firms, which has designed two recent projects in Toronto – the new National Ballet School, and Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music – that show how new and old can coexist and are among the city’s best buldings, period.

And for another counterexample, see what Allied Properties and &Co Architects are doing with the QRC Centre a few blocks away: retaining a brick-and-beam loft building and, with some spectacular engineering, suspending a handsome 10-storey slab of contemporary office space in the air above it. That’s possible, and also profitable.

 

4. It’s a Gehry.
Let’s not overlook a central fact: This would be the biggest work ever built by, arguably, the greatest living architect. A Toronto-born Californian, Mr. Gehry is a singular figure in contemporary design. Since his artistic star rose in the 1980s, he has built a series of complex, provocative, and technologically sophisticated buildings that changed the world. The idea of “starchitecture,” which he personally despises, owes more to him and his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao than anything else.

In Toronto, the shafts of the three towers he is designing would (wisely) be different in form and material, but while the details remain slightly vague, I have no doubt each would be beautiful. Why? Despite his caricature on the Simpsons “designing” by crumpling a piece of paper, Mr. Gehry runs an extremely tight ship as an architect. And his biggest building, a Manhattan apartment tower dubbed “New York by Gehry,” is a gorgeous and original work, a classic skyscraper wrapped in a shimmering, rumpled cloak of stainless steel.

But the bottom half of this King Street proposal, which will have an enormous impact on the area, is still half-baked at the moment. The irregular front face of the building, which has varied dramatically in the two versions of the design released so far, is still unresolved in form. Its strategy of a vertical lobby with escalators that step up through three levels could work, but in its current shape that could feel narrow and mean. Within, Mr. Mirvish’s private gallery – home to his prized art collection, and another of the things that’s motivating him to do this project – would have its front door on the third floor of a shopping mall. Will people come in? If not, the other entrance is on Pearl Street, a narrow street that will be soaked in shadows all year, and would carry trucks and vehicles serving 1,900 apartments and a shopping mall.

Now, Mr. Gehry and his staff don’t miss details like this. For proof, visit their one project in Toronto, the renovated Art Gallery of Ontario. Despite the long and somewhat tortured process of its commission, this is a beautiful building executed with precision and grace down to the last doorknob. The King Street proposal does not measure up to that. But it might. Mr. Gehry always, famously, works through dozens of versions of a design before he views a project is complete. At the unveiling of the King Street project last fall, he was quite frank about this. “You have to understand, it’s precarious to show a building like this, because it seems like it’s finished,” he told me. “It’s not. These are works in progress.”

I hope they have continued to progress, and that we’ll see them built in a form that’s more generous to the city.

The Tims, I expect, is on the way out.

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