Besides being among the most sought-after designers in the world, Rem Koolhaas and Santiago Calatrava have little in common. Koolhaas is a Dutch polemicist emboldened by the insatiable desires of urban culture. Calatrava is a soft-spoken Spanish engineer who produces buildings and bridges like metaphors of nature.
But there is a phenomenon that binds these men: Both have won major competitions in Toronto, both are capable of applying much-needed architectural acupuncture on Canada's largest urban landscape -- and both now have walked away from the amateurs in Hogtown who mistakenly identify themselves as city builders.
Koolhaas and Calatrava are urban visionaries. Koolhaas both embraces and fears the extremes of the global society. His studio in Rotterdam, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), produces both exquisitely detailed houses as well as large-scale works of infrastructure that brutally confront society's appetite for growth. His "mirror" office in New York (AMO) maps out virtual solutions to an organization's problems.
Calatrava has offices in Paris, Zurich and Madrid where he translates the most complex building technology into lightness. He draws lyrical sketches on rolls of paper, the ideas apparently flowing from his fingers, the drawings falling to the floor.
The international design competition for Toronto's Downsview Park was a nationally funded event with an ambitious brief. It attracted some 200 competitors from around the world who were motivated by a desire to create "the 21st-century standard for excellence in landscape architectural design and urban recreational planning," and were provoked by the scale of the 128-hectare site, a former military base in a northern stretch of the city. Koolhaas and his team, including creative director Bruce Mau, Toronto architect David Oleson and designer Petra Blaisse of Amsterdam, won the competition for Tree City, a landscape of graphic shapes that could grow.
That was in May, 2000. The competition was blessed by David Collenette, federal Minister of Transportation and minister responsible for the Greater Toronto Area. Art Eggleton, Minister of Defence, waxed poetic: "This extraordinary design is everything we had hoped it could be."
More than 18 months later, however, Downsview Park remains a figment of the imagination. Koolhaas's winning team had imagined a matrix of circular tree clusters covering 25 per cent of the site, surrounded by meadows, playing fields and gardens. But not one tree has been planted to date, no shovel dug into the ground. The issue is not money -- $20-million has been sitting idle in the bank ever since adjacent lands were sold to Costco for a big-box retail operation.
The issue is leadership. Some of the responsibility for the badly delayed park falls with Eggleton, whose department is dragging its heels on relocating some military administrative buildings and housing off the Downsview site.
Then there is a disconnect between Koolhaas and the park's builder. David Sadowski is the president of Parc Downsview Park Inc., the Crown corporation charged with overseeing the redevelopment. He's skilled at selling off chunks of land to retailers like Costco in order to make the park economically self-sustaining. But this is not an urban visionary able to mastermind the unfolding of a complex design process.
Downsview is "a great project, and a great site," says Dan Wood, partner in charge of North American projects for Koolhaas's OMA. "After winning Downsview Park, we were involved in a number of discussions with Bruce Mau and the client. And after a while we realized that they weren't going anywhere, and that it was increasingly vague as to when it would be happening," he says from the studio in Rotterdam. "We felt that even when it did really move, the design and the big ideas would take a back seat to just getting it done."
Koolhaus was urgently required on other projects in other cities -- the new Seattle Public Library, for instance.
Last year, tired of the bumbling direction at Downsview Park, he asked Bruce Mau to take on the project, and, says Wood, "We kind of backed off." Strangely, Sadowski never bothered to call Koolhaas -- who was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2000, the most prestigious of architecture distinctions -- even when OMA sent a letter indicating that Koolhaas would no longer serve as the lead architect on the park.
Sadowski blames some of the delay on Eggleton's Defence Department for stalling on the relocation of military families living in 250 houses on the site. "I don't want to be an apologist for the government. The Department of National Defence has been under a number of constraints. . . . Maybe that's why we lost Rem Koolhaas, I don't know."
The papal visit, scheduled for the end of July, is expected to attract nearly one million people to Downsview. To others, a gathering of that magnitude might have provoked immediate work on the development of the park, not only the planting of trees but figuring out how to demarcate a public plaza for that many people, and how to design a podium for the Pope's speech. Sadowski advises, however, that it's better to wait until the onslaught of people is over before allowing initial construction of the public park.
OMA would like to build in Toronto. They have been invited to do a proposal for a new pharmacy building at the University of Toronto. They've also submitted a redevelopment plan for Union Station with Landau & Heyman, the development group, which has been described by some architecture and engineering professionals as being shocking for its naïve, small-minded approach to building large-scale pieces of infrastructure. The problem emerging once again is that a group of city builders wants world-class architects to be involved, with little interest in what it takes to develop world-class ideas.
At about the same time that Koolhaas won the Downsview Park competition, Santiago Calatrava was appointed the design architect for the new engineering department at Ryerson Polytechnic University. His design for the galleria at BCE Place is one of the most important civic spaces in Toronto, and his bold signature was badly needed on Ryerson's piecemeal campus.
But the Ryerson-Calatrava collaboration turned out to be a short-lived marriage. The building committee had serious troubles with a tower that Calatrava had proposed for the facility. It was reduced in scale and, ultimately, eliminated. The university was nervous about money, too: Only one-third of the capital budget has been raised for the $46-million building, says one planning insider from Ryerson.
In October, Calatrava walked off the job. A new request for proposals was circulated among the previous competitors. Last week, Moriyama & Teshima Architects of Toronto was awarded the commission.
Although Ryerson chose not to stay the course with Calatrava, another institution did, and its tenacity has paid off handsomely. The Milwaukee Art Museum, completed last October, is a remarkable story of city builders intellectually equipped to bet courageously on architecture. Calatrava was selected by the museum's building committee from a longlist of 73 firms -- and ironically, it was BCE Place that tipped the balance in his favour.
To begin, the museum committed to choosing an architect, somebody who could design a building as a work of art; it then set out to raise the necessary funds. Calatrava imagined for the MAM a main pavilion with a glass roof. What sets the pavilion apart from others around the world is that there is an enormous sun screen, or brise-soleil, that rests on the glass roof, and it can lift off like wings on a bird. It takes about four minutes for the white steel fins to lift off, an event for visitors inside the museum as well as those travelling along the street outside.
"When we unveiled the design in 1996, the wings were very much a symbol of the design," says Russell Bowman, the MAM's director. "They turned out to inspire people, and they drove the fundraising."
Within nine months of the unveiling, the museum had raised $36-million (U.S.); Calatrava travelled to Milwaukee 40 times to meet with local collaborating architect David Kahler and with potential donors keen to learn more about the design.
With funding coming in past their expectations, the museum realized that the design could be expanded to include an underground parking lot, a new terrace along the edge of Lake Michigan and a landscaped garden. By 2001, the museum had raised a total of $100-million, money donated from a total of 2,500 individuals.
Bowman reports that attendance is about triple the number of visitors prior to the Calatrava design; in the last nine months, about 350,000 people have visited -- in a city of 650,000.
"There was simply a determination on the part of the community that we have something really special here," says Bowman. For a moment, he sounds like a quarterback rallying his football team. "It was the sense of, 'Let's do it and let's do it right.' "
That's what city builders in Toronto need right now: not just a clear idea of what it takes to implement the ideas of great thinkers, but the will to build something meaningful in architecture -- as if there were only a few minutes left in the game and now is the time to get out there and do it.