Frank Gehry is back in Toronto − at least via Zoom. At 91, the world’s most famous architect is actively working on a major project in the city where he was born: two towers on King Street West that are the biggest and the tallest buildings of his career.
After more than eight years of discussion, this complex project is advancing. The developers say they will begin sales on its condo apartments in 2022. Mr. Gehry will speak remotely at a public meeting Feb. 9 to introduce the latest version and request city permission for small changes.
Is he happy with the results? Mostly. “I always feel uneasy blowing my horn,” he said last week from his California home, showing his usual mix of self-deprecation and pride. “But I think the buildings have a level of humanity other buildings around them don’t have, and a respect for local surroundings.”
Mr. Gehry has long worked to achieve his own artistic goals within the commercial and technical constraints of architecture – and those become very difficult at this scale, which will be about two million square feet of construction.
But it looks as though he will pull it off.
The towers were first proposed in 2012 by David Mirvish, whose family owned the sites at the corner of King and Duncan streets. Mr. Gehry presented his initial vision through physical models, which were sculptural and eccentric – sketches, rather than realistic high-rise architecture. Two years later a real design was approved by the city, and after a change of ownership, the two towers are now 308 metres and 266.5 metres tall. They will include 2,087 condo apartments, facilities for OCAD University, shops, and either a hotel or offices.
Since the most recent version of the project was made public in 2018, interior changes have been relatively minor. But the architectural expression has changed: Both the form and textures have been simplified and refined. Each tower is still made of asymmetrically stacked boxes, which cantilever out in different directions. They’re a bit more regular now, but still a complementary pair.
This was one goal of Mr. Gehry, who has long been engaged with the art world and who sometimes talks of his buildings in sculptural terms. “The idea was that the towers would speak to each other,” he said. “And I wondered, could you create a void between the two that was strong enough to suggest a third building? Buy two buildings and get a third one free!”
Another crucial element of skyscraper architecture is the treatment of the façades. The latest Gehry Partners design features two materials: blue glass curtain wall and stainless steel. Each will provide a subtle play of light. The glass – mostly on the west tower – is mostly regular, but selected panels tilt outward by as much as a metre to catch the light at different angles, explained Gehry partner David Nam. Mr. Gehry calls this “crinkle.”
The stainless steel, which dominates on the east tower but appears on both, will have a partly reflective “linen” finish. The steel will have a three-dimensional texture, much like irregular strokes of a pen. This too will scatter daylight, much like a waterfall. But it will also frame square windows – which subtly recall the stone buildings that Mr. Gehry remembers from his Toronto childhood in the 1930s and 1940s.
In our conversation, Mr. Gehry kept returning to the idea that these towers should relate to Toronto’s existing city fabric. “Maybe that’s still the Canadian in me speaking,” he said. “It’s the polite thing to do.”
While he has a reputation as an iconoclast, in fact he has always designed buildings that react to what’s around them. When he used chain-link fence on his family’s house in the 1970s, he was borrowing a common material from the surrounding Southern California landscape. And his tallest tower to date, completed in 2011 at 8 Spruce St. in Manhattan, takes subtle cues from the century-old Woolworth Building.
Mr. Gehry has also, since 2012, often spoken about how his Toronto towers should shape the cityscape around them – and be different from the “banal” architecture that’s typical of Toronto residential towers now.
Accomplishing that will depend upon the clients. The project is now controlled by a partnership of three local developers: Dream Unlimited, Great Gulf and Westdale Properties. Mitchell Cohen, the chief operating officer of Westdale, said the project “is an important part of our legacy,” and the developers “are very serious about the responsibility of delivering Frank’s vision.”
Mr. Gehry expressed confidence in the developers and with the way the project has proceeded. It’s common for complex architecture to be simplified as it gets closer to construction and the specific materials, techniques and partners are chosen. “The one thing we’ve lost is that sculptural titanium façade,” Mr. Gehry said, “which would have put the developers in the poorhouse.”
This is true: The building designs previously had protruding sculptural elements, made of titanium, which swept out from their bases like skirts, grand gestures that evoke his Guggenheim Bilbao. In the increasingly crowded west downtown skyline, these might have gotten lost anyway.
But a related element at the base remains: A pair of canopies of textured metal, which stretch out from the two buildings to frame Duncan Street. The bases of the towers have also been shifted to widen the sidewalks. The result is a more generous public realm, and that is the most important element of any urban building.
If built to this current design, the Gehry towers will be subtle. They will emphasize the play of light over textured surfaces. They speak in rich harmonies, rather than in the sometimes discordant sensibility Mr. Gehry showed earlier in his career. Has he mellowed? Or is this what happens when economic pressures take over?
The answer is probably both – and that, to Mr. Gehry’s eyes, is just fine. “Architecture is about compromise,” says Meaghan Lloyd, a partner and the chief of staff at Gehry Partners. “The trick is to compromise in an intelligent manner.” Mr. Gehry says of the developers: “I thought we would have to start again when they took over. But it turned out that we were pretty close to what they were ready to do.” Would he have walked away if his vision had been diluted? “Oh yeah.” But instead, he is – probably – building.