In Vancouver and Toronto, the centre is getting stronger. A pair of development companies are planning office towers that will reshape the downtowns of those two cities – and, with architecture by Bjarke Ingels Group, mixes up office space with infrastructure that runs the 21st-century city.
Union Centre in Toronto, which is being revealed here for the first time, would be wedged into a tiny site next to Union Station. Yet it would be among the tallest and the biggest towers in the city: A planned 264 metres tall, almost as tall as as Scotia Plaza, and about 1.7 million square feet including office, data-centre space and an event venue. The Vancouver building, right next to BC Place, would be one of the city’s largest, with 500,000 square feet of office space.
The two buildings by Allied Properties REIT and Westbank are set up for the tech sector. They’re centrally located near transit, linked to clean energy and the fastest possible broadband, offering big office floors for easy collaboration, and built to have some easy back-and-forth with the city around them. This is architecture designed for, and by, people who wear sneakers to work.
The Union Station project “is a sign of what Toronto is becoming,” says Westbank chief executive Ian Gillespie. “The city isn’t just about finance any more. It’s about everything: tech, culture and a variety of other pursuits.”
BIG, the Danish hotshots, are working on spectacular condo buildings for the same clients. But the new Toronto office building has no swoops or curves. Allied CEO Michael Emory compares it to “a warehouse turned on its end.” It is the sort of big and sturdy and flexible space that so-called “creative office” tenants love.
BIG partner Thomas Christoffersen puts it even more straightforwardly: “Our idea,” he says, “was to do the most utilitarian building possible, creating the biggest floor plates we can.” The office levels will be big and wide open, with exposed concrete ceilings that rise up in the centre of the building: lofts in the sky. All the elevators are pushed to the northern edge of the building. From the street, pedestrians will be able to see the cars sliding up and down, a bit of vertical ballet on the skyline. The elevators might even have terrariums on their top and bottom, glass boxes of greenery on the move.
BJARKE INGELS GROUP
But what’s more interesting is what happens at the bottom and the top. The tower will sit on top of an eight-storey internet hub at 151 Front St. West, and behind it above Station Street, a narrow thoroughfare that is privately owned by Allied. The data-centre floors will grow; below them will be a 1,000-person event venue and retail space, and the street – still open – will run right through the base.
And that street, by Toronto landscape architects Public Work, will have greenery overhead and underfoot. “We’re going to do a street that feels like a shoreline,” says Public Work’s Marc Ryan. The designers are exploring the idea of a “water street,” with a surface of grates rather than asphalt and planting beneath reflecting this spot’s history as the original lakefront of the city – and absorbing much of the rainfall that gathers here to feed the plants. Terraces and a wall will be heavily planted.
“The base will be public infrastructure,” Christoffersen says. That refers to the event venue, the retail and the adjacent connections to the Union Pearson Express airport train – which is, of course, next to the busiest transit station in Canada.
“Public” is pushing it a little bit, but still: We generally expect office buildings to be impenetrable fortresses. This one would be something else, interweaving office, commerce and public space. It’ll be a significant addition to the city, on a site that looks like it’s already full.
The Vancouver building has some similarities to the Toronto one. The site at 720 Beatty St. does not look like a natural place for an office building, or indeed anything at all. It’s a steam heating plant, a metal-clad shed in the shadow of BC Place. Westbank and Allied propose to move the plant across the street to a space under the edge of BC Place, making room for a sculptural, S-shaped tower. “It’s a design that creates a large continuous floorplate, but does not read as one,” Christoffersen explains.
This will be beautiful; Westbank and BIG have already shown, with Vancouver House condo, that they can design and build architecture that breaks the box. The architects have designed for the main building a skin of glass and metal panels that will shimmer and shift as you walk around it.
And the designers promise that you will want to walk around. The tower will be flanked by a five-storey building of restaurants and karaoke bars, itself a sculptural stack-of-discs that will catch your attention. These will be surrounded by a new plaza, designed by Public Work, that connects to BC Place and the streetscape. That streetscape will change dramatically as the adjacent Georgia Street Viaduct comes down in the coming years. And if the Vancouver Art Gallery completes its planned move to the Larwill Park site, it will be kitty-corner. This is a recipe for a more urbane and beautiful city.
Likewise in Toronto, with its new plazas and hanging gardens that will come with the office tower. It’s a different city, to be sure: tightly concentrating at the centre, with new jobs for an educated elite. Emory’s metaphor of the tower as a flipped warehouse made me think of a sculptural installation by Jon Sasaki that was on display in Toronto this year at the Bentway: the shapes of factory buildings, now gone, turned on end into a sort of graveyard for the industrial city.
But cities change. Which leads me to a question about the top of the planned Toronto tower. Here, its rectangular form breaks down into a series of terraces, which the designers imagine as verdant gardens stepping up to the sky. These will be open to office tenants on different levels. But what if it were open to the public as an observation deck? “How far do you take this idea of transparency?” Gillespie asks rhetorically.
The right answer: as far as possible. Toronto could use a new observation deck and sky garden; that would instantly become a crucial destination, the sort of place that reshapes people’s mental maps of the city. It would be architecture that reshapes the way the city looks, and the way we look at it.