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Toronto gets a tall wood tower - and, maybe, an architectural masterpiece

The proposal by Shigeru Ban with the Toronto firm Brook McIlroy would be a showpiece of a building, one tourists would go out of their way to see.

To take Canada from hewers of wood to fabricators of high-tech tall timber buildings –that’s the promise of a new building proposed by Toronto’s George Brown College.

It’s an exciting prospect. And if built, the structure will be a technical landmark. But will it also – as it should – elevate the art of architecture?

Dubbed “The Arbour,” the building represents a move by the college to make a mark with a building of international significance. The 12-storey facility on a rectangular site near the city’s waterfront is set to house, along with classrooms and other uses, a new Tall Wood Research Institute.

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“Tall wood” is a hot subject, as I wrote last year. The use of new wood technologies to build large and tall buildings promises to allow for much less carbon-intensive construction than either concrete or steel, and done right tall wood buildings can be very beautiful. They also represent an important prospect for Canada’s forestry industry and the fabricators and engineers who know how to build with the stuff.

The college conducted an invited design competition, and judging from the proposals of the four winners, it could be a very beautiful building as well.

The jury – which met this week – chose among three very strong proposals: one from Japanese Pritzker winner Shigeru Ban with Toronto’s Brook McIlroy; a second by Vancouver’s Patkau Architects with locals MJMA; and a third by local firm Moriyama & Teshima Architects with Vancouver’s Acton Ostry Architects. The fourth, by Montreal firm Provencher Roy and Turner Fleischer, was much less coherent and compelling.

A proposal by Montreal firm Provencher Roy and Turner Fleischer (above and below).

George Brown college

George Brown wants to make this building not just a learning environment, but a laboratory for building science and a showpiece for tall wood construction in Canada. They’ve set ambitious goals for the tower: They want it to be net zero, meaning it will produce as much energy from renewable sources as it consumes. That is a difficult ask, in Toronto’s climate, all by itself. And it’s commendable.

The architects’ responses all had some things in common. Each used engineered wood structure in combination with concrete, in various combinations, and wrapped the outside of the building in glass. And each revealed the wood structure through some arrangement of open atriums where you can see, touch and perhaps smell the wood.

The design standout is unquestionably the proposal from Shigeru Ban with the Toronto firm Brook McIlroy, both of whom have built well with wood. It must be said that Ban is an international star; a Japanese architect who won the Pritzker Prize in 2014 has been a pioneer in tall-wood construction, and have proven their artistry and technical expertise with building such as the 2014 Aspen Art Museum in Colorado.

Shigeru Ban's building (above and below) is quite radical: A tree-like structure of wood would rise through the building’s core and then spread out, touching a curved glass façade.

His building is quite radical: A tree-like structure of wood would rise through the building’s core and then spread out, touching a curved glass façade. Almost the entire ground floor would be an open atrium, punctuated by curving wood columns. And above that, the building is quite efficiently planned, with an atrium at one corner punched by a spiral stair. This would be a showpiece of a building, one tourists would go out of their way to see.

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The other schemes, slightly less so. Patkau and MJMA are a formidable team of designers. Their building takes a different tack, cutting the building in two with an atrium and wrapping it with a skin dotted with photovoltaic (or solar) cells.

The building by Patkau and MJMA (above and below) would be covered in a skin dotted with photovoltaic (or solar) cells.

The Moriyama and Acton Ostry scheme, finally, is a bit less striking as an object building, but has a beautiful series of atriums and an elegant structural system. The design team includes engineers Fast & Epp and Vancouver architects Acton Ostry, whose office designed what is now the world’s tallest hybrid-wood structure at UBC. They’ve developed a very efficient structural system to hold the thing up. Striking open spaces, meanwhile, combine ventilation with spiritual uplift.

The Moriyama and Acton Ostry scheme (above and below) has a beautiful series of atriums and an elegant structural system.

The site sits along Queen’s Quay on the city’s waterfront; it’s an area that has been underdeveloped but is rapidly filling in with housing and institutional uses, mostly through the public agency Waterfront Toronto. (Google sister company Sidewalk Labs is working on redeveloping an area that starts a block away.) It will be an important piece of the city.

And there’s little doubt that, assuming the funding comes together, this will be a building of technical and economic importance. One for the history books. But will it be one for the guidebooks and tour buses, too – the sort of architectural jewel that’s too rare in the city and in Canada? Knock on wood.

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