At last, it's happening: Toronto's urban buzz has arrived in the railway lands. This week's opening of the $250-million Telus House Toronto, a finely sculpted clear-glass tower at 25 York St., has anchored the new frontier. Good on its developer, Menkes, for assuming the role of urban transformer with confidence and decent vision. What's been delivered? Thankfully, a 30-storey building that is not a one-liner of a glass vessel. Its curtain wall is handsomely detailed to resemble a generously extended glass picture frame while a series of black boxes, big and small, closed and open, give some muscular punch to the building, anchoring it dynamically to the ground.
Significantly, the tower serves as an elegant urban connector. Think of the ground-floor lobby as a major new concourse for the public.
The lobby stays open long into the night and only closes when the subway shuts down. French limestone on the wall announces the entrance to Union Station, near the one leading to the Air Canada Centre (ACC). Inside the main concourse, just steps away from York Street, there's a stunning, shimmering chandelier of moving colour pixels by architect/inventor Michael Awad and multimedia artist David Rokeby. Next to The Pixel Matrix is one of Awad's beguiling, stretched-out images of people charging past Union Station. Directly behind the long photographic image happens to be a tunnel for trucks en route to Union Station. That's the reality of wedging urban developments into the rail lands.
No matter, we're in the ground-floor lobby watching the people flow.
People flow to healthy eateries (as anchor tenant, the telecommunications giant Telus could dictate sushi and wraps rather than kiosks selling hydrogenated fat), people flow through the lobby, barely touching the granite floors, to directly access the ACC and subway, GO Train and VIA Rail and, yes, some 2,000 people take the elevators to flow into their airy Telus offices upstairs.
Telus House combines the right ingredients to instantly put a visitor in a good mood. The tower was originally designed by Adamson Associates Architects as a generic tall thing in North York with above-grade parking located in the extruded black box. But the president of Menkes Developments, Peter Menkes, decided that in order to attract a major tenant from the high-tech sector, the building would have to be designed as a high-performance LEED Gold structure and located downtown.
"I told Peter that to do Leed Gold is not a new, earth-shattering event," says Robert Grossmann, the original Adamson partner-in-charge architect for the Telus tower. "We've been doing this stuff for years. Nobody has any interest in building to minimum building code. You want the owner to succeed. If they don't succeed, we don't succeed."
The conceit of the glass curtain wall on the north and the south elevations extended beyond the building's box takes its inspiration, as do many corporate office towers these days, from French architect Jean Nouvel's sublime Cartier Foundation (1994) in Paris. That's where the glass building as glass billboard was first brilliantly launched. So, the design takes part of its inspiration from yesterday. Still, almost everything a commercial office tower requires to reward the increasingly enlightened consumer of wellness culture can be found at the Telus House. The building's heating and cooling system, which taps into the visionary deep-lake water-cooling system, is housed in floors raised 18 inches above the concrete slab. Consulting architect Dermot Sweeny of Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co advised on the raised floor (he'd successfully innovated one for Microsoft headquarters in Mississauga) and the need to push structural columns several metres back from the glass perimeter walls so as to allow for natural movement of people. Added up, the gestures create a more generous volume for offices, where the floor-to-concrete-ceiling height is 11 feet.
A giant cistern collects rainwater for non-drinking uses. Overhead fluorescent tube lighting is activated only when people move into their office cubicles. Many of these features are to be found elsewhere downtown: in the newly opened Bay-Adelaide Centre and at the RBC Centre on the southwest corner of Wellington and Simcoe, both of which have also targeted the LEED Gold standard.
Telus House has taken a few extra strides to make its tower particularly warm to the touch for its tenants. On the fifth floor, there's a wellness centre with spa treatment rooms and an impressive roof garden, designed by The MBTW Group, that spreads its all-season textures of landscape to the north, overlooking the rail lands below. There are two other roof gardens with white reflecting pavers furnished with comfortable seating and planters constructed of Jarrah, a responsibly harvested wood from Australia.
The building hums with youthful energy. There's a fitness centre, and Telus has a gourmet kitchen to inspire team-building. Throw in some cots and organic duvets, and employees might never leave the place. Naturally, bike racks and showers for the sweaty cyclist can be found in the underground parking.
Down at ground level, the one-minute rule is satisfied - that's the space of time visitors typically take to put out their feelers and decide on the friendliness and trustworthiness of a space. In the Telus lobby, they'll take in the granite on the floor and the walls, the comfortable couches, the drama of the catwalk leading overhead to the Telus innovation centre and swanky reception hall - two facilities that get defined on the exterior of the tower by those muscular black boxes. And, yes, the ground-floor concourse, with its soaring 30-foot ceiling, strikes the right chord: That's why people are flocking to the healthy eateries and lounging on its couches and chairs.
Once derelict industrial land, the area that Telus now occupies has been transformed into a new district energized by entertainment (the Air Canada Centre and Maple Leaf Square), a transportation hub (Union Station), new condominiums (Maple Leaf towers and the residential tower at 18 York St., the latter with its unfortunate use of iron-heavy green glass) and business (Telus.) It's a heady combination - and certainly deserving of a fantastic new public square. But damned if Toronto could get the newly christened Union Square right. The city commissioned its own design, imposing a dumbed-down palette of materials, including concrete pavers. (The city's public-works department deemed granite too onerous and expensive to maintain.) Sadly, the overlay of maple leafs in concrete looks like it came from a dollar store. And let me be clear: This does not inspire thoughts of gently falling leaves during the autumn.
Past the square, heading north, is the dark, scary tunnel that could double as a set for Dante's Inferno. Now there's a healthier alternative: the concourse from the Telus tower that leads to Union Station. (It's actually part of the downtown's underground PATH walkway system.) And so, over time, there are more rewards and fewer punishments to living and working in Toronto.