Though Toronto has been flagged globally for the ambitious reinvention of its cultural institutions, when it comes to the redevelopment of its waterfront, the city has fallen behind other metropolises. What’s more, the relative lack of investment in public transit means that while other cities, from Vancouver to London to Singapore, are creating walkable, cycle-able environments, Toronto remains unforgivably car-dependent. Moshe Safdie, the world-famous architect whose sculpted glass and concrete Parkside condominium that will grace the new eastern flank of the Toronto waterfront, offers his big idea to make Toronto a more progressive metropolis: Look to the East.
A global architect based in Boston, Mr. Safdie wants Toronto’s planners and politicians to explode conventional thinking and dream big like the visionaries writing the design manifestos in China and Singapore, where Safdie Architects were lead designers of the just-completed $5.7-billion Marine Bay Sands hotel, casino and art science museum complex.
Rochon: What city impresses you the most these days for its 21st-century thinking?
Safdie: I’m completely taken and impressed by the planning authority of Singapore and its Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). It’s the most cutting-edge agency in the world. They have very effective guidelines for development and they review design as it evolves. They have an international review panel that meets annually. And they’ve been doing a lot of advising to cities in China. They seem to be able to attract impressive talent to their city ranks. Urban design as a discipline barely exists in most American and Canadian cities. In Singapore, there are innovative transportation strategies at work. When you drive into the city centre you’re automatically billed a surcharge. Every car in Singapore has a device that’s triggered every time you cross that particular line in the downtown. They’re investing enormous amounts in public transportation. The rationing of the traffic, charging on a load basis, doing it by automated system, all of that is very cutting edge.
Rochon: In some cities, even Toronto where the modern slab tower has typically dominated as a no-brainer, there are fresh attempts at designing skyscrapers to be less bulky and more elegantly twisted, even kinetically inspired. Your Parkside tower, because of the concrete terraces cantilevered off the glass skin, carries some of that new sculpted interest with it. What struggles did you go through to achieve your waterfront tower design?
Safdie: I have to confess that my client (Great Gulf Group) was very inclined to have a glass tower. With the tower, I wanted to create a great deal of shade, and a play of opacity and translucent – white glass is translucent but reads fairly opaque. The apartments are very small as they often are in Toronto; it’s almost like a hotel plan. Each apartment has a balcony, so it creates quite a sculptural play between projections and reflections. It’s going to be unlike any glass tower in Toronto because it has a play of solid and void, the white and the clear glass and the three-dimensionality of the façade. The staggering of the balconies allows for them to be open two levels above. They get much more light that way.
Rochon: After Expo 67 there was a long period of silence before Canadian commissions came your way. Eventually, there was the National Gallery, Ottawa City Hall and the Vancouver Library. Your design debut in Toronto came about a decade ago with the redevelopment of Lester B. Pearson International Airport, created in joint venture with SOM and Adamson Architects.
Safdie: I still feel very proud of the airport. Being a world traveller and going through how many airports every week I think that Toronto is standing up to the test of time. After the disappointment of the cancellation of the Toronto Ballet Opera House ballet (Mr. Safdie had won an international competition to design it in the late 1980s), the airport made me feel better.
Rochon: What mistakes is Toronto making along its waterfront?
Safdie: Twenty years ago, I said that it was time to take the Gardiner Expressway down. Twenty years later, I think it was a mistake not to. It seems to me that in the east waterfront what happened in the earlier years on the west are being avoided and they (Waterfront Toronto) are learning from the process. The problem is making the waterfront feel like the rest of the city. Access is difficult. The Gardiner is part of the problem. Repairing the aftermath of the industrial waterfront takes decades. We’ve almost completed the submerging of the Boston freeway (an elevated six-lane highway) at extraordinary cost. It’s changed the sense of access to the water. And you’re seeing complete change along the waterfront in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco and Vancouver. Toronto is slow to get in on the act, actually. Back in the 1980s, Toronto’s waterfront was developed intensely and generated extraordinary taxes but it wasn’t invested into infrastructure that could make a difference. In Singapore, the city called for enormous amounts of landfill and, with it, created a basin and bay so that you have development across the water – this is something that Toronto could have considered. There are many ways in which to possess the waterfront. It shouldn’t be purely linear. I’d put Singapore on top of the list for its waterfront.
Rochon: Habitat in Montreal was that piece of structural daring resembling a bunch of concrete dice being thrown 12-storeys high along the St. Lawrence River. It was your Master’s thesis at McGill. You were 24 years old. You designed Habitat as a new way of looking at dense urban residential development for cities and it captured the world’s imagination. Did it really make your mentor, the great American modernist Louis Kahn, jealous?
Safdie: What is true is that when Newsweek did the cover story on me in 1971 and they called him for comments he was not forthcoming. He was not generous with his disciples, let’s put it that way. He was the highlight of my evolution as an architect. I learned significant amounts from him. His chance in life came late in his 50s. It was hard for him to see somebody in their 20s do so well. The modern movement, at the time when I was at McGill, was minimalist, stripping architecture of a lot of its complexity and richness. Mies van der Rohe was promoting a reductionist philosophy. There was a great exhibition at the time called “Architecture without Architects A Short Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture (1964)” curated by Bernard Rudofsky. What it demonstrated was that vernacular architecture was rich in terms of its response to climate. Kahn was being inspired by ancient architecture in terms of its use of geometry, the response to climate, and asking architecture to possess more organic qualities that architecture had ignored. While I consider myself still a modernist in terms of social agenda and social responsibility, I think several of us took modernism to another realm by reintroducing some of these aspects of architecture.
Lisa: Are you proud of the design that you’ll deliver in 2014 to the Toronto waterfront?
Safdie: If I wasn’t proud, I wouldn’t build it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.