King and Bay in downtown Toronto is the most prestigious corner in the country. Those names are synonymous with Canadian finance, and with swaggering showpiece towers. The matte-black Toronto-Dominion Centre. The golden serrated surfaces of Royal Bank Plaza. And the shimmering steel of Commerce Court, which was for 50 years the headquarters of CIBC.
Not any more. Staff come back to the office in large numbers this month, and their new address is CIBC Square, several blocks to the south and connected to the city’s Union Station. Designed by the distinguished British architecture firm WilkinsonEyre with Toronto’s Adamson Associates, the “Square,” when finished, will comprise two towers wrapped in a diamond-grid of blue glass and linked by an elevated public space. It promises to be a new type of workspace for the bankers as they come out of the pandemic: informal, comfortable, flexible and totally self-contained.
Whether that sort of workspace is good for the city is another question.
But begin from the outside. The first tower at 81 Bay St., which is now complete, is among the country’s most beautiful highrises. Rectangular when seen from above, it reads from the side as two squarish vertical bars; each of these is punctuated by diamond-shaped folds in the glass skin. “These are filigreed diamonds that create a very different atmosphere from the rest of downtown Toronto,” explains the lead architect, Dominic Bettison of WilkinsonEyre.
Indeed they do. The tower’s architecture scatters light and reflections across the downtown. The building is bulky and glassy, like all contemporary office towers; yet from a distance, it is full of life.
And up close? That’s the key question for any urban building, particularly a complex that will house workplaces for 20,000 people. Here, the key adjective is “smooth.” The four-storey lobby, whose ceilings reach 79 feet, is lined with slabs of travertine, subtly patterned with a diamond grid to match the exterior. A flagship CIBC branch will, as of this spring, line one side of the lobby.
The developers, Ivanhoé Cambridge and Hines, promise workers will find their days just as smooth. “We’re all about a seamless experience,” says Ivanhoé executive vice-president Jonathan Pearce. This begins at security; you can scan through the lobby turnstiles with an app on your phone. Send a guest an e-mail invitation, and they can use a specific QR code to make their own way in.
On the fourth floor, a food hall will open this spring, serving alcohol and a variety of cuisines. This is the place for a lunch with amarone or after-work beers outside, overlooking the skyline of the old King and Bay.
The tower rises to 49 floors; the second tower, now under construction across the tracks to the north, will be 50 storeys. The two total three million square feet of office, and CIBC has taken 1.6 million so far.
There are two big draws for tenants: a new building, and the proximity to Union Station, which provides by far the best connections to transit in the sprawling, gridlocked Toronto region.
This is what the bank was looking for, says CIBC executive vice-president Veni Iozzo. Ms. Iozzo has led a review of the bank’s workplaces since 2016; its CIBC Square offices, designed by Gensler, will bring together staff currently working in 28 Toronto-area spaces.
“We wanted to up the collaboration, the agility, and to have people collaborate together more easily,” Ms. Iozzo said. “Gone are the days when you are there just reporting on something. Now it’s about projects and innovation.”
A client space on the eighth floor has the vibe of a five-star hotel lobby. Here bankers can pitch a deal in a lounge-like atmosphere, surrounded by artefacts from the bank’s history in display cases. A century ago, bank architecture wanted to be a temple or a fortress; now it wants to be a Park Hyatt.
The bank’s office spaces are divided into three-floor sections, linked by internal stairs; each houses staff from a particular group. Each of these “ecosystems,” as the bank calls them, includes desks, which bankers can book through an app; very few staff will have assigned desks, Ms. Iozzo said. Next to the desks are meeting spaces with a mix of easy chairs and task furniture. Kitchens on each floor are provisioned with good coffee, large kitchen islands and banquettes at which staff can park their laptops.
Then there are hubs, large social spaces with different atmospheres: the “library” is for silent work only, and has handsome wood task chairs and adjustable lighting. According to Ms. Iozzo, this variety of spaces gives staff the chance to work “however they like,” without being bound to a particular space.
This flexible approach to the office is the emerging consensus among big corporate employers. The good news for CIBCers who enjoy privacy and quiet: the bank offices include a substantial number of small rooms in which to sit and take a phone call. The building’s slightly irregular floor plan – its east and west façades have notches in the middle – provides a few pleasantly odd corners in which to perch yourself.
But for now, the office is largely empty. Very few staff had occupied CIBC’s space yet at the time of my visit; most staff are expected to do so starting March 21 on a part-time basis.
Other large employers clearly agree with the bank that offices will be necessary. The tower at 81 Bay is now fully leased. The second tower, at 141 Bay, is 42-per-cent leased. Ivanhoé and Hines say that leasing has continued during the pandemic and rents have, in fact, increased. (According to Colliers Canada, rents in the first tower have risen about 10 per cent to $51.60 a square foot, and asking rates in the second tower are higher.)
“How people work, and where people work is evolving,” Mr. Pearce said. “We need to give people more choice with different types of spaces. The Park will have excellent WiFi.”
He was referring to “The Park at CIBC Square,” the complex’s fourth-floor outdoor space, which is not actually a public park. It bridges railroad tracks to the north, connecting 81 Bay with its under-construction sibling. Designed by the landscape architects PUBLIC WORK, this space includes towering red maples and swamp white oaks – and some of the most beautiful benches in the city, with curves carved from slabs of glue-laminated pine. Largely complete now, this will prove to be one of downtown’s most enticing outdoor spaces, a pocket of green suspended above the city.
But will you be able to get in? As a “privately owned public space,” this will be managed by the building’s owners and will close at their discretion, up to 60 days a year, for private events. At other times it will be open to the public, but privately policed.
Mr. Bettison argued strongly that the outdoor space is a benefit to Toronto. And he pointed out, correctly, that this part of Bay Street has an unpleasant and car-heavy public realm.
There are other public benefits: the new commuter-bus station built into the base of this building, with sleek finishes and lighting worthy of an airport. A proposed public laneway with shops on the northern end of the complex. For now, there are two handsome plazas at the foot of the building; here a majestic dawn redwood reaches up to the underside of the Gardiner Expressway. This complex gives back.
But “The Park” is not a park. It is an amenity designed to keep office workers in the building. As COVID-19 begins to fade, here is the pitch from the developers to the bank, and from the bank to its staff: while you’re in the office, your day will include no wasted time and every physical experience will be comfortable. Come. Stay.
And that promise has unsettling ramifications. Workers can spend an entire day here without setting foot on a public street. Corporate Toronto has avoided the public realm for 60 years with the PATH system, that underground labyrinth of shopping malls. Now the PATH system extends above ground and right into CIBC Square.
How did the complex get its name, anyway? “A square is a place where people in the community can gather,” Ms. Iozzo told me. “That’s what the name represented for us.”
Ironically, Commerce Court has a real square. CIBC’s 1960s architects, led by the great modernist I.M. Pei, designed the complex with an elegant plaza in the middle. (It will be largely retained if a proposed redevelopment of the site goes ahead.) That space is not publicly owned, either, but at least it doesn’t have gates.
The “Park” does. Despite the inclusive language, this “Square” is more of a citadel. And when the wealthy and powerful retreat into private amenities, public ones tend to fall apart.
Still: Toronto’s planners and leaders have embraced a quasi-privatized public realm for half a century. It’s hard to blame the bank, Hines or Ivanhoé for buying in. CIBC Square is far more beautiful than it needs to be and more public than it has to be. It’s a lovely place to return to the office and look out at the city.
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