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lisa rochon

The media scrum is over, and Frank Gehry and his team have quit the adoring limelight in Toronto for their big factory-house in a suburb of Los Angeles. Their mission? Making good on their promise to design David Mirvish's daring mega-project (three super-tall condos, with a six-storey cultural house at its base) for Toronto's entertainment district. What lessons can be drawn from Gehry's greatest works, and how can we make sure they don't get lost in Toronto?

Needed: super-tall sustainability

In sharp contrast to the way that Mies van der Rohe carved an unflinching, black Cartesian logic into the Toronto-Dominion Centre, the Gehry towers will stamp onto Toronto's skyline softer, organic structures – nature-inspired – with possible references to a block of ice or a rocky outcrop. Even the space between the up to 85-storey towers – if all three are ultimately built – could create fascinating, willowy figures in the sky.

Gehry knows how to do tall. Look to the architect's recently completed 76-storey Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan, which features a twisting form clad in stainless steel with a brick base designed to reference the surrounding neighbourhood. All good. The trick will be to bring low-carbon design – design of buildings that emit dramatically less carbon dioxide – to the super-tall trilogy of towers proposed for King Street West. That will require expertise from the likes of Thomas Auer of Germany's Transsolar engineering firm, a world-famous expert on low-carbon architecture who worked with Gehry on the Novartis building in Basel, Switzerland. For that project, glass roof panels containing transparent photovoltaic cells both reduced solar heat gain and generated the energy necessary to power artificial lighting for the building. Transsolar also consulted extensively on Manitoba Hydro Place, a 22-storey, low-carbon tower designed by Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects that lends an enlightened presence to Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. (The Winnipeg complex uses a stunning 60 per cent less energy than mandated by Canada's Model National Energy Code for Buildings.) That kind of low-carbon ambition needs to be applied to the Gehry towers in Toronto.

Wanted: super-tall sociability

It seems like an oxymoron in many ways – how can people lack social connection living in high-density buildings like these? But combating loneliness – especially now, as more Canadians than ever before are living alone – should be a key design requirement for Gehry's super-tall towers. The Phase One tower on the east side of the development, next to the Royal Alexandra Theatre, will house a large learning centre in its podium base for OCAD University students. Combine that space with café lounges, and a healthy buzz is certain to flourish.

The bigger challenge will be providing mid-tower skybridges – as in Asymptote's proposed Velo Towers in Seoul, Korea – or communal gardens inserted every 10 storeys way up in the sky. Imagine a scenario in which people plant gardens together and then share the harvest in communal dining halls. Far-fetched? "We're wide open to everything," Mirvish told me earlier this week, while cautioning, "I can't be $100-per-square-foot above the market when I retail this otherwise I don't believe the [Toronto] market will absorb it."

Imagined: a mash-up of urbanity

Just as libraries now serve as community living rooms and public lounges are popping up in New York City's roads, the development should anticipate and encourage an unforgettable montage of informal, deregulated urbanity. That means including not only art and higher education in the podium cultural house, but also affordable rental housing and live/work spaces for artists, musicians and actors. Maybe a Second Harvest food outreach could operate somewhere on the ground floor.

There's a fascinating mash-up in the five-storey base of Gehry's Beekman Tower: A brick building houses Spruce Street School for the neighbourhood's early learners; besides a library and a 370-seat auditorium, there are four classrooms for autistic children and a sensory learning space; offices for the New York Downtown Hospital also are housed there.

For the Toronto towers, there will be a mash-up of textures, with one of the towers potentially clad in terracotta, says design architect Craig Webb, who has examined some of Toronto's historic use of red and white terracotta (baked earth) used during the late 1800s when mud was pulled from the Humber and Credit rivers.

Reframed: views of the city

The Toronto skyline has become as monotonous as its sprawling suburbs. That's because condominium marketing agents insist that glass towers must offer floor-to-ceiling views. The problem is, the glass-window-wall systems absorb tremendous amounts of heat, and glass railing balustrades on balconies have been known to fall down onto the street. "They've trained a market here," Gehry told me earlier this week. "What we're trying to do is not have a glass balcony, but you get push-back because the guy who buys this apartment wants to lie in his bed" and see a floor-to-ceiling view. "A wall with one beautiful picture window is powerful," asserted Gehry.

For Beekman Tower, clad in 16-gauge stainless steel panels, Gehry Partners designed large bay windows with roomy window seats on some of the window sills.

My message to marketing agents and real-estate agents is to back off. Let an architecture of difference take place, or condemn Toronto to a generic, forgettable skyline.

Required: wide sidewalks

The Gehry-Mirvish development has created more buzz on the streets than I can ever recall in Toronto. But planners and politicians need to enhance urban flow down on the ground to facilitate a gracious densification of this city.

In the 21st century, more people will be living, working, shopping and eating downtown than ever before. Accessing everything by walking or cycling is the way of the future. Wider sidewalks have always provided a magnetic draw. And you can wave at the people stuck on the King West streetcar as it crawls along.

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