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Six decades ago, Philip Johnson had a hand in designing a Toronto apartment that has since been renovated many times over, leaving few traces of the master’s influence. Now its current owner, Toronto financier Gerald Sheff, wants to renovate the 10,000-square-foot apartment with prominent architects Shim-Sutcliffe. The city’s heritage planners have other ideas

There is debate around how much of the interior of this two-level, 10,000-square-foot apartment in Toronto was designed by architect Philip Johnson, and if it is worth preservation under a heritage designation.Steven Evans /ERA Architects

Sixty years ago, the influential American architect Philip Johnson – curator, tastemaker, modernist pioneer and Nazi sympathizer – designed a penthouse apartment on top of a Toronto office building.

Or did he? That’s the question facing a couple of Toronto design aficionados who now own the place, a two-level 10,000-square-foot apartment overlooking the rooftops of Yorkville. Gerald Sheff and Shanitha Kachan are planning to renovate portions of it, and they’ve hired the globally prominent Toronto architects Shim-Sutcliffe.

However, the City of Toronto’s heritage planners have other ideas. After months of negotiations, the Shim-Sutcliffe design proposal has been largely rejected by the city’s heritage planners. On Friday, Sheff and Kachan went to the Toronto Preservation Board for permission to proceed and lost on a 6-5 vote. Toronto City Council will make a final decision this week.

Rendering of a proposed renovation of the library by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects.Shim-Sutcliffe Architects

This has involved a months-long war of words between Toronto city staff and private consultants, on several different fronts. How much of the apartment did Mr. Johnson, a towering figure in 20th-century architecture, actually design? How should new architecture relate to heritage architecture? The stand-off also raises questions about how far into private homes preservation should be able to reach.

In a recent interview, Sheff sounded exasperated about all this. “The idea of a heritage easement in a private apartment seems to me a little nutty,” he said. “This is a place that almost no one will ever see. But in any case, what we want to do is superior to what’s there.” The retired co-founder of wealth management firm Gluskin Sheff, he started his career as an architect, and the couple has a long record as design patrons and philanthropists. They’ve previously commissioned houses from top Canadian architects KPMB and Shim-Sutcliffe.

Their next project was the Yorkville apartment, which was listed for sale in 2018 for $31.5-million. “It’s an opportunity for us to create an amazing space, and save its most significant heritage aspects,” Sheff added.

Architect Philip Johnson in 1996.Kathy Willens/The Associated Press

Those heritage aspects largely go back to Johnson. In the late 1950s, his face and trademark round black glasses were familiar in the New York architecture and art worlds. For decades, he had been a curator (and board member and donor and architect) at the Museum of Modern Art. His 1932 exhibition on The International Style had popularized European modernism in North America. And much more: He would live to the age of 98, long enough to shape half a century’s worth of ideas in architecture.

A letter from architect Philip Johnson to the Tornos, original owners of the apartment. Credit Philip Johnson Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980060) © J. Paul Getty TrustHandout

But in 1959 or 1960, he was apparently having lunch with a Torontonian named Rose Torno. Torno and her husband, Noah, were designing their Toronto apartment – which would be perched on the roof of a new office building in Yorkville, designed by the local architects Bregman & Hamann. Noah Torno was an executive at a wine business owned by the Bronfman family of Montreal, who owned the Yorkville building, and an advisor to patriarch Sam Bronfman.

Very little paperwork directly links Johnson to the project. His name is on none of the known architectural drawings of the place. But 30 years later, Noah Torno wrote a glowing letter to Johnson, thanking him for his work. Johnson answered in 1994 with a note that was warm but also equivocal: “I don’t know about the design. I think it was yours more than mine.”

One part of the suite clearly bears Johnson’s influence: its central atrium, which has the shimmery glamour of a mid-century museum lobby. It’s a near-cube lined with beige travertine; a bronze and stone stair ascends from the lower floor to the upper under a textured, backlit ceiling. This space is mostly intact, and everyone agrees it is Johnson-esque. “It’s a very close match for the stair at the Four Seasons restaurant,” said the heritage architect Michael McClelland of ERA, who is collaborating with Shim-Sutcliffe.

The central atrium's bronze-and-stone stair ascends under a textured, backlit ceiling.Steven Evans /ERA Architects

The Four Seasons was the power-lunch restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York. The black-and-bronze headquarters for Samuel Bronfman’s liquor empire was designed in 1959 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a giant of modern architecture. Bronfman’s daughter Phyllis Lambert – later the influential founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture – lobbied for Mies to get the job, and worked together with Mies and Johnson on the project.

The Four Seasons was Johnson’s baby. He used details borrowed from Mies, who was his hero and mentor, including travertine and English oak, but Johnson added a certain theatrical flair. Carefully controlled lighting behind translucent screens gave the restaurateurs the ability to control the ambience; and that stair, which took people up to the main dining room, was a place to see and be seen.

Johnson would lunch at the Four Seasons regularly for almost a half-century. In 1959, he apparently met Rose Torno there. Lambert remembers the relationship: “I remember Philip talking about it, talking about Rose and this grand gallery in the apartment,” she said. Drawings from Toronto were sent to Johnson’s office for approval between July, 1959, and January, 1960. The Tornos also hired two people who worked on the Four Seasons: the lighting designer Richard Kelly and the landscape architect Karl Linn.

Mark Lamster, author of the 2018 Johnson biography The Man In The Glass House, said the Torno place was never listed as a project in Johnson’s office files, or included in books about his work. “It was probably some minor thing for a friend of a friend,” he suggested. “That central atrium certainly has a Johnson look to it, but he never claimed it as his own work.”

It would be characteristic for Johnson to do a napkin sketch, McClelland said, and then delegate most of the detailed design. Lambert concurs that the architect did not busy himself with small labours: “Even the stair in the atrium – Philip didn’t draw things like that himself,” she said. Instead, someone in Johnson’s office probably did, and the Toronto architects copied, or even traced, the relevant drawings.

All this might be ancient history – except for a complex real estate deal and some questionable research.

In 2007, after the Tornos had both died, the private equity firm KingSett Capital purchased the 14-storey building to capitalize on the valuable airspace above it. With Quadrangle Architects, they added six floors of condos to the existing building. Design-builder Joe Brennan gutted much of the Torno place, reshaping servants’ quarters, the kitchen and mechanical rooms. For what was left, the owners agreed with the city on a “heritage easement agreement,” legally protecting many specific details.

In Toronto, and anywhere on the continent, it’s rare to protect details of a domestic interior. But the city’s hasty listing of the “heritage attributes” is also, McClelland suggests, not very accurate. “It was expedient,” he said. “If anyone had done the research, they’d know that there are pieces there that Johnson didn’t even know existed.”

An interior shot of the Torno apartment.Steven Evans/Steven Evans

There is much confusion over the details, but the differences seem to be over this: Johnson (or a staffer) designed the atrium, and may have had some input on some surrounding rooms, including a living room-library downstairs and a principal bedroom suite upstairs. But the bulk of those rooms were designed by the Tornos’ local architects and their interior designer, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. Some of the finishes, including a parquet de Versailles floor, are distinctly not modernist, and the Tornos’ furniture – captured in photographs in the 1960s – appears to come from their previous apartment in Forest Hill, a few kilometres away. “Johnson was certainly here, in some way, but it was never a total work of art,” architect Brigitte Shim of Shim-Sutcliffe said.

The apartment’s mix of modern and “traditional” provides a jumping-off point for the new architects: the husband-and-wife team of Shim and Howard Sutcliffe. Toronto natives, they’re known for their obsessive craftsmanship and a very high level of formal and technical refinement, in buildings from modest houses up to the Integral House, one of the grandest dwellings in the country.

Shim-Sutcliffe's proposed upper floor plan.Handout

Shim-Sutcliffe's proposed lower floor plan.Handout

In this case, Shim said, they aim to tread lightly. “Our work here is fairly nuanced – taking the existing plan, not changing the rooms much in terms of their space or function, but making the ensemble more coherent,” she said.

Building on the pattern in the parquet floor and the textured ceiling in the atrium, they are designing a new textured wooden ceiling with a diamond-grid pattern that spans several of the apartment’s rooms. Their design would also move some doorways, and create a continuous corridor with cast-bronze flooring around the edges of the atrium. “This would create a clarity about the atrium, and make it read as an object,” Sutcliffe said. It would wrap Johnson’s pristine modern box in a textured ribbon.

Shim-Sutcliffe's plans would create a continuous corridor with cast-bronze flooring around the edges of the atrium.Steven Evans/ERA Architects

That is not necessarily a conflict. Johnson was no doctrinaire modernist; by the 1960s, he was openly working to bring classical ideas back into contemporary architecture. And even the Torno atrium itself, as McClelland points out, owes a debt to the 19th-century neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. For Mies and for Johnson, modern architecture did not break completely with the past.

But City of Toronto heritage planners are having none of this. “City staff are concerned that aspects of the current proposal remove original and unique interior features that exemplify the apartment’s unique modernist aesthetic and the work of Philip Johnson,” Mary MacDonald, the senior manager of heritage planning with the city, said in an e-mail last week.

In Toronto, heritage conservation routinely sees a building’s front façade being kept while the other 99 per cent gets demolished. Yet, the Toronto Preservation Board discussion of the Torno place turned on extraordinarily fine questions. These include some changes to the room layout (including moving a doorway that has previously been moved); the material to be used for a ceiling; the removal of some built-in bookcases and cabinetry in the library; and the demolition of a bathroom. Is all that Johnson’s handiwork? McClelland guesses no. City staff disagree. “In their minds, Johnson designed every piece of the place, and it must stay as is,” McClelland said.

That is, basically, what city staff are saying, but the record is murky at best. The library and bathroom fittings resemble Johnson’s work of the time, but there’s no record that he or his staff designed them. The room layout was reviewed by Johnson’s office, but on paper it is the work of Bregman & Hamann.

In a sense, the city’s fervent desire to preserve this modern architecture represents progress. The field of heritage preservation in North America was shaped by the battles of the 1960s and 1970s, in which modern buildings were the stuff that replaced heritage. Postwar buildings are now sometimes overlooked. For instance: the Tornos’ former home, an apartment building designed by Toronto architects Gordon S. Adamson Associates. It won a national architecture award in 1952. But it is still not listed, and recently received unsympathetic new windows and a coat of grey paint on its pristine yellow brick.

So the focus on the Torno place is odd – all the more so because it deals with an interior. MacDonald acknowledges that preservation usually “focuses on the conservation of the heritage resources that are visible from the public realm.”

This creates an awkward situation for Kachan and Sheff, who care deeply about architecture. Along with their two houses, and much support of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, they ran a public design competition that recognized the emerging architect Lukasz Kos in 2002. Sheff won a national award in 2011 as an “advocate for architecture.” They are “the best clients imaginable for this place,” Shim said. “It’s impossible for the apartment to end up in better hands.”

Kachan argues that the changes they want to make to the apartment will actually make it better. “What we’d like to do is far superior to the way the place has been treated in the last few years,” she said. “Right now, the apartment is unresolved, and it deserves to be elevated.”

One thing is for certain: Since 2007, the apartment has been changed many times. Walls have been moved, rooms reshaped, a new kitchen built in a different location, and more, by Brennan and then by a subsequent owner. In a 100-page research report submitted to the city, ERA identify 21 separate renovation projects between 2007 and 2017. “It’s a mishmash of later alterations,” McClelland said.

Fundamentally, there are two questions here: How much of value is left? And how should new architecture interact with heritage architecture – by deferring to it or by engaging with it? On the first point, Sheff, Kachan and their consultants have concluded that only the atrium is Johnsonian and therefore sacrosanct. The city disagrees, and before approving other changes they want MacDonald to have the power of final review over most details.

On the second point, there’s a complicating factor when it comes to Johnson: He was a Nazi. As Lamster documents in his biography, he collaborated with and likely spied for Nazi Germany, narrowly escaping prison after the Second World War. In the early 1930s he and his friend Alan Blackburn also worked to establish a National Party, “an alt-right avant la lettre,” in Lamster’s telling, associating with Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. Johnson openly expressed an admiration for eugenics.

All this is being widely discussed at the moment, thanks largely to Lamster’s recent book. “It is interesting to be having this conversation at a moment when American institutions are trying to distance themselves from Johnson,” the author said. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design has taken his name off a house Johnson designed and built there. MoMA is considering similar steps.

Does this mean Johnson should be written out of history? No one seems to think so. In life, he had many Jewish friends and clients, including the Bronfmans, who “were aware of his history” as a Nazi sympathizer, Lamster said.

But Lamster suggests that such a minor and disputed Johnson work could be updated “especially by Shim-Sutcliffe,” he said. “You can’t get better architects anywhere.” This is a more liberal view of heritage conservation, which some professionals share: That architecture of the past and present can exist in conversation with each other, particularly when the new is as intentional as the old.

But it’s hard to see a compromise here. While the Tornos may have gone halfway, and Johnson may have been half involved, Shim-Sutcliffe are famous for pursuing architecture as a coherent whole. Sheff and Kachan, likewise, aren’t inclined to budge. “To do something halfway,” Kachan said, “is just not in our nature.”

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