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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 ...

David Mirvish owns the nicest Tim Hortons in Toronto – or at least the space it’s in. To find it, visit the corner of King and John downtown; walk up the century-old stone steps, turn left and enter a long loft space. Here the Tims tables and donut cases rest under a ceiling of Douglas fir the creamy colour of maple frosting.

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But both the Tims and the loft could give way to Mr. Mirvish’s dreams: So long, Tim, and hello, Frank. Mr. Mirvish has proposed a grand redevelopment of this site, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, that would replace four loft buildings and the Princess of Wales Theatre with high-end retail space, a private gallery for Mr. Mirvish’s collection of paintings, facilities for OCAD University and 1.5 million square feet of condominiums in three very tall towers.

When Toronto City Council looks at it this month, they will be deciding whether to approve the proposal which, in its current state, would break the city’s guidelines for the positioning of tall buildings, rules for heritage preservation, expectations of a public space, and requirements for private amenity space. Not to mention its size, which would smash the zoning precedents for the area.

On the other hand, the complex could make an exciting impact on the city. Mr. Mirvish, who has made important contributions to to the city, is explicitly trying to change our skyline for the better. This would add three towers by the brilliant Mr. Gehry plus the cultural components and, in Mr. Mirvish’s view, a new centre for “luxury retail” and high-quality residents. In broad strokes, he is right. If the project is refined, it would set a new bar for the architecture of tall buildings in Toronto. But it’s not a building yet. What is it, really?

 

1. It’s a bit of a bluff
Mr. Mirvish, who did not reply to interview requests this week, is asking for the moon: He wants permission to build in a manner that would dwarf other developments in the area and would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. Last month, Mr. Mirvish told me that he is seriously committed to adding his mark on the skyline. “I think the world outside of Toronto could see us in a new light. That’s what Gehry does for us.”

So far, after a year of discussions with the city, he has been adamant about preserving the integrity of the design from ‘a made-in-Toronto solution’ that is small, and, he implies, parochial. He claimed to be “bemused” that the city is opposing his project.

“This project raises a bunch of serious issues that are intertwined,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, in an interview this week. “It’s not only one thing. There are so many challenges, so many misses, in this project.” She points to the size and orientation of the buildings, the lack of a meaningful heritage strategy, the “completely deficient” private amenity space and the lack of a contribution to community facilities. “We simply do not have enough public space in this area,” she says. “And a new project that’s deficient just creates a bigger problem, and a bigger burden for the neighbourhood.”

Is Mr. Mirvish really surprised at this reception? Or is he engaging in a bit of showmanship? Bluffing is part of the game for developers in Toronto. Because the city’s development approval process is so murky, the final outcome for any given site is determined by a negotiation. Developers routinely ask for the moon and then compromise. It is very likely that this is what’s happening here, with a new version of the project being hashed out in advance of the council meeting.

The proposal is best understood as a bold opening bid, which leaves a lot of room for a negotiation toward a more modest and generous building.

 

2. It’s hugely dense.
The proposal includes 2,709 condo units in three towers that soar as high as 86 storeys, not to mention the retail and cultural components. By contrast, the tallest existing building in the neighbourhood – TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Festival Tower condos above it – is barely half as tall, at 47 storeys, with 373 residential units.

If it were built as proposed, selling that volume of real estate would be a challenge. And if it happened, it would impose hugely on the infrastructure of the area, adding 3,000-odd residents to an area whose public spaces and transit lines are badly overcrowded. The area, which the city dubs the Entertainment District East Precinct, has seen a radical transformation in the past decade that has added thousands of new residents, and it will see 15,000 more condo units completed in the next few years. Local councillor Adam Vaughan has been pushing district-wide studies of the area to get a handle on the residents’ needs in terms of parks and community space, and on the scale and arrangement of the many new buildings. “When we see a project that’s this much bigger, it exacerbates the problems in the neighbourhood that already exist,” Ms. Keesmaat says. And if the city approves Mirvish Gehry at this scale, it opens the door for similarly massive proposals from other developers.

 

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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