Brick is the most elementary of materials. It’s earth, baked or dried and laid in place by human hands. It is warm to the eye and to the touch. I love it, in all its forms.
Which is why I was happy to see a large new downtown Toronto building with its lower floors made of red brick, or something brick-like. The King Portland Centre, as it’s called, recently opened its doors. It includes a residential condo building, restaurants and office space for largely tech-industry tenants.
The building – or the lower part of it, at least – works hard to be as low-tech as possible. Hariri Pontarini Architects have designed a structure that harks back to the commercial and industrial buildings of around 1900, and they’ve captured the grit, nuance and texture of such buildings with considerable success.
On the other hand, it reveals the difficulties of working with brick in 2019: Very simply, it’s expensive, and this building shows just how much craftsmanship is and isn’t possible in a commercial building these days.
I toured the centre recently with its lead architects, David Pontarini and Michael Conway. They told me that the choice of materials was critical. “What we wanted was something that really felt like it was part of the neighbourhood,” Conway said. He gestured at the 1902 yellow-brick loft building next door, one of dozens that shaped this district on King Street West as a manufacturing and warehousing centre in the years around 1900. “It had to have the same quality as these buildings,” Pontarini added, “not too processed or refined.”
So: brick. Working with American manufacturer Glen-Gery, the architects chose a particular shade of brownish red, one that would harmonize with the now-aged bricks of the industrial neighbourhood around it. Ironically, the brick comes from central Pennsylvania, hundreds of kilometres away.
On the first three levels of the building, the brick is mostly the real thing. The bricks are full-sized hunks of clay, about four by eight inches, that have been knocked around in the factory for a bit of faux aging.
The architects have assembled masonry into broad, two-storey-tall arches. The stylistic inspirations here, Conway says, are varied. These include local industrial buildings that adopted classical detail, and abstracted arches that Rafael Moneo used 30 years ago in his National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain. The common thread is the sense of solidity that the masonry evokes, and the connotations of classical wisdom – and of buildings that have stuck around.
Pontarini is not one to spin an elaborate story around his work, but he feels strongly about this subject, and he is not alone. “There are practices like ours that came out of neighbourhoods like this,” he says, “and really want to bring brick back into the technology of construction.”
The long, skinny, building extends a full block north from King Street to Adelaide Street, zigzagging through a complex patchwork of neighbouring buildings and laneways, including a tiny residential street that was there before the factories came. The end result is agreeably mixed up.
“It is very unusual that, to get in the front door of a 250,000-square-foot office building, you have to go up a lane,” Pontarini acknowledges.
That lane is my favourite moment in the building. It runs along the east side of the structure, where a restaurant, still under construction, faces off against the back wall of 602 King St. W. The ground is now paved with clay bricks, similar in colour to those on the wall, and the three surfaces create a narrow passageway worthy of Venice – which leads, in this case, to the office building lobby and then a high-end Italian restaurant located in a basement.
There is a rich interplay between materials and space. The clay works because you can see it up close and walk on it; it is beautiful because it harmonizes with the brick on adjacent buildings and because it sits so close against them. The whole block is dense with activity and people, and it is messy. “This is very much in the tradition of Barton Myers and of Jack Diamond,” Pontarini says.
Back in the 1960s, those architects, along with colleagues such as George Baird, showed Toronto and the world how dense development could fit in with an intricate old streetscape. It is a strong local tradition that deserves to be resurrected. (And which is totally at odds with current ideas about urban design. The city’s King-Spadina neighbourhood has unusual planning policies that make this work.)
King Portland Centre is not, however, a perfect evocation of the past. There are commercial pressures in play. The arches are surrounded by real brick, but the arches themselves are thin clay pieces, more like tiles, that are applied to cement board. The work by Clifford Masonry is skillful, but the visual depth of a real brick wall is lacking. And on the upper levels, the architects specified precast concrete panels that are faced with clay about an inch thick.
And up top, the building’s masonry dissolves into glass. It’s high-quality “curtain wall,” finely detailed and with sinuous corner curves. but it lacks the earthen, tactile beauty of the floors below. It’s also much cheaper and faster; glass panels can be installed in a quick and orderly fashion. This is how big buildings get made now, with as much consistency and as little handiwork as possible. Against that reality, some dirt and some variety – however contrived – is good for the soul and for the city.
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