Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The apartment buildings of Maple House at Canary Landing, under construction on Mill St. in Toronto’s Canary District mix familiar red brick with subtle modernist flourishes.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Simple from a distance; interesting from up close. That’s the recipe for attractive and enduring urban architecture. And the Danish architects COBE have delivered just such a project in downtown Toronto. Their two buildings designed with local firm architectsAlliance, mixes familiar red brick with subtle modernist flourishes.

The result is memorable without being flashy. COBE’s building blend corbelled red brick – the fundamental building block of Toronto urbanism – with scalloped concrete panels and a gutsy upper-floor push into thin air.

In architectural terms, these are the finest apartment buildings the city has seen in a generation.

Open this photo in gallery:

The three buildings at the complex hold 770 rental apartments, of which 30 per cent will be rented at rates moderately or deeply below market.DKT/Handout

They form part of Maple House at Canary Landing, a complex of three towers in the West Don Lands district on the eastern edge of downtown. The developers are a partnership of Dream, Kilmer Group and Tricon Residential.

The three buildings hold 770 rental apartments, of which 30 per cent will be rented at rates moderately or deeply below market. (This significant degree of affordability was possible because of government money. This land was owned by the Province of Ontario, and the province baked the requirements into the land deal with the developers. Architecture doesn’t deliver affordability. That takes cash.)

The two COBE buildings rise to 16 storeys. A third is 26 floors tall; it was designed by the Toronto firm architectsAlliance, who also collaborated on the COBE buildings.

But start at ground level, because that’s where COBE’s focus lies. On a call from their studio near Copenhagen harbour, COBE’s Thomas Krarup mentioned their “between-the-buildings approach,” alluding to their influential countryman, the urbanist Jan Gehl. Integrating architecture and public space is a central tenet of COBE’s work, said the founder Dan Stubbergaard.

“In Toronto, we found this new area becoming very scattered and open and not very urban,” Mr. Stubbergaard said of the West Don Lands, which has been redeveloped from the ground up starting in 2015. “It was important for us to start a new logic here, building new urban spaces of quality and of human scale.”

Accordingly, cars and deliveries are banished from most of the three-building site. Instead, the buildings are lined to the north by Mill Street, while pedestrian-only courtyards lined the south side and the spaces between the towers. All these are designed by Montreal’s CCxA, formerly Claude Cormier + Associates.

Open this photo in gallery:

The building's brick-clad exterior evokes the Distillery District across the street.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Two-storey townhouses face the courtyards, meeting the pedestrian realm with a comfortable scale and façades made of real, hand-laid brick. On Mill Street the same design frames restaurants and shops. As you walk along Mill Street, columns of red brick provide a steady rhythm, while their surfaces are corbelled on a diagonal to catch your eye.

Then each building steps back before rising seven storeys as a box, clad in factory-made panels of concrete with a thin brick surface. From the eighth floor it alters its shape again, stepping in or pushing outward before rising as a mass of scalloped white concrete.

The architects say the brick boxes evoke the Distillery District across the street, Toronto’s best collection of Victorian industrial buildings. As for the curved white concrete up top, whose surface is scalloped into outward-facing points, Mr. Stubbergaard says this is a nod to a nearby set of grain silos and therefore to the area’s 20th-century industrial history.

Is all that just architectural sales patter? Who cares? The result is highly successful. These buildings feel good to walk around.

That’s partly thanks to the work of CCxA – arguably the best landscape architects in the country. They have built the courtyards as a continuous carpet of red brick, punctuated by planters that will hold ironwoods and red maples. Seven floors up, they’ve designed elevated courtyards for the residents that include crabapples, fragrant sumac and reflecting pools. Residents will enjoy this artful landscape while looking out at the rebuilding of the Gardiner Expressway.

Open this photo in gallery:

The complex's courtyards boast a continuous carpet of red brick, punctuated by planters that will hold ironwoods and red maples.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The third, easternmost building in the complex provides a useful contrast. It was designed solely by architectsAlliance (aA), who are skilled designers of multifamily housing in Toronto. Its interior is similar to the COBE buildings, efficient and competent, and like them it employs red brick and white precast concrete.

However, it lacks the Danes’ delicacy of detail. Instead its façades tap out an irregular pattern of solids and voids, windows and chunky walls, that continues all the way to the ground. From a distance this is very handsome; from up close, it is dull and hostile.

This is normal for contemporary Toronto architecture. Large buildings are clad in endless stretches of aluminum panel or glass, providing a tiresome experience at ground level. But their upper surfaces are frequently busy with meaningless stripes or zigzags.

The inverse, as COBE’s work demonstrates, is the right way to go. Look at any beloved Victorian building, whether a school or warehouse or Old City Hall. From a block away it appears unified; the variety ornament only becomes visible up close. That was, and remains, good urbanism.

At Maple House at Canary Landing, there are some practical reasons for the third tower’s fortress-like aspect, as aA associate Adam Feldmann explained to me: the building contains the parking-garage entrance and loading dock for all three buildings, which allows the rest of the site to be nearly unbothered by vehicles. This urban-design approach is laudable.

But much of the problem is simply stylistic. The Toronto architects, while skilled, are just not interested in creating a lively and interesting architecture at ground level. For that, apparently, we need to phone Denmark.