In new housing developments, “you often go lowrise, or you go vertical,” says architect Lorcan O’Herlihy. “Is there a middle ground? And is there a social benefit in doing that?”
For the Los Angeles-based architect, the answer to those questions is a definite yes. In an effort to rethink some of Toronto’s current planning, I asked him and his firm LOHA to reimagine a site on St. Clair Avenue in southwest Scarborough.
The result is a beautiful mid-scaled building that’s unorthodox and brilliant. This is a thoughtful architecture to bring density to car-oriented suburbs. LOHA’s design challenges the current orthodoxy in two ways: its urban design and its mix of units. It wouldn’t be welcomed by planners or politicians – but it should be.
First, the urban design. The site, now two lots, is typical for postwar Toronto. It’s zoned for low-density commercial use: basically, strip malls. (This is part of Toronto’s outdated zoning bylaw, which has never been coherently rewritten since the city was amalgamated in 1998.) For now, it houses a McDonald’s restaurant and a one-storey retail building with a Money Mart and Subway sandwich shop.
Mr. O’Herlihy’s firm has confronted sites like this in Los Angeles, and built some complex and beautiful buildings in response. He describes his firm’s approach this way: "Can we buck the odds and create fluid interaction between public and private spaces? Can you borrow space from a private development and bring it to the public? Could the edges be blurred?”
In Scarborough, the LOHA proposal is for a combination of midrise and highrise, joined by a plaza, and animated by a terraced building form and lots of greenery. "It’s a piece of architecture that celebrates all scales,” says Mr. O’Herlihy.
There are two front wings, which step up like ziggurats in opposite directions. “Each level has a roof deck or a courtyard space,” Mr. O’Herlihy says. “It brings the life of the street up into the building.” At one end of the site is a tower; this includes carve-outs for terraces which would feature greenery or trees.
The courtyard is partially shaded and defined by the surrounding buildings. The wings along St. Clair would include street-facing retail, but ground-level retail also opens to the courtyard – and the building rises into an arch linking the streetscape and courtyard.
In its form, LOHA’s building has good manners, but does its own thing. “Rather than respond to some idea of context,” Mr. O’Herlihy says, “we create our own context.
“If you build a building that is clearly for people – with roof decks, activated edges, and life inside and outside – it says this isn’t only about the car.”
That’s an ideal that any city planner would appreciate, but LOHA’s chosen form is unorthodox. On sites like this, planners would call for a new condo project to face the road and create a “street wall.” They’d ask for a string of stores along the sidewalk, so that people will stroll in to shop, maybe sit for lunch. The idea is to replicate the street life of older, walkable neighbourhoods. And at the back, the building should get as low as possible to blend in with the houses – in this case stacked townhouses – nearby.
The problem with this model is that it doesn’t work. Suburban arterial roads like St. Clair are miserable places to walk. This one has five lanes of noisy, dangerous traffic moving at faster than 60 kilometres an hour. And this area, like most of postwar Toronto, doesn’t have enough people to support good retail. Fixing that – making a genuinely walkable neighbourhood – would require massive, comprehensive redevelopment that’s not coming anytime soon. Why wait for an idealized future, when you can generate community in the present with good architecture?
Which leads to the second major point: the mix of uses within the building. In new developments, typically a stack of apartments sit atop retail. LOHA’s design calls for the entire complex to be units which could be used as homes, workplaces or both. “We have to understand that the way people work is changing,” Mr. O’Herlihy says, “in ways that we can’t predict.” This is against the grain of contemporary planning. In practice, everyone agrees that mixed uses are good, but few planners would propose a totally open mix of uses within a building like this. (Sidewalk Toronto, Google’s sister company, is attempting to do so.)
The basic architectural component of the LOHA design is a cube; each unit would have a 12-foot ceiling. Suites with this scale lend themselves to live/work uses. And LOHA is calling for the structural system of these buildings to be concrete post-and-beam, rather than the more common system of concrete slab construction. That would allow units, over time, to be connected horizontally or vertically, bought and sold, linked and separated.
“You can mix anything you want in this building,” Mr. O’Herlihy says.
Tall and short, but not a slab; organized around a courtyard, but not unfriendly to the street; designed to link indoors and outdoors; completely mixed use and completely physically flexible. “We need to imagine the city of the future,” Mr. O’Herlihy argues, “and make room for it.”