If the residential intensification of Toronto continues to roll forward at its current quick pace, the last of the large downtown parking lots will soon disappear under a shiny condominium block. When these and other easily exploitable spaces in the central city vanish, where will the new housing go?
One option for residential developers, of course, is ripping out pieces of the city's old main street fabric to make room for apartment buildings. This might not be as bad as it sounds. Many a tired Hogtown streetscape needs freshening up, and something new could do the trick … if, of course, the thing that gets built is significantly better, architecturally and from an urban design standpoint, than what has been lost. I know that's a big if. Torontonians should surely be vigilant about the design quality of (especially) the mid-rise dwellings city hall wants to see on our principal avenues.
Or, following the lead suggested by a new complex from Context Developments, real estate entrepreneurs could take seriously the difficult nooks and crevices that more timid developers have avoided or written off as unbuildable, and come up with intelligent strategies for dropping stacks of living units into them.
The hodgepodge build-out of downtown Toronto in the 19th century left numerous crannies of this kind in the generally rational grid defined by streets and roads. To its credit, Context has figured out a way to fuse and fill some of these cranky spots with housing that is urbane, original and well-knit into the urban landscape. The work is called Context King West, and consists of eight tightly packed, semi-detached condominium blocks that will rise from the inner reaches of a dense city block at the intersection of Portland Street and King Street West.
Viewed from nearby King Street, the top edges of the project's white concrete and glass components, which range in height from 10 to 18 storeys and are to be crowned with trees, will describe a bright, jagged line against the sky. The strongly sculpted upper portions of these light blocks will probably seem to float like clouds above the dark old facades pushed up against the sidewalk. The ground-hugging, arched brick base, intended for shops and galleries, will be mostly hidden behind the line of these building facades, but it will be linked to the city by pathways and lanes that penetrate the street wall on all sides.
The combination of bricks, concrete and glass is attractive, but what makes Context King West very interesting is its more general imaginative response to a complicated situation in the heart of the city.
The story of the 450-unit project began when Context co-founder and president Howard Cohen discovered two small scraps of available land inside a block of old warehouses and office structures just east of Bathurst Street. He was able to cobble together an oddly-shaped, tight building site from the scraps, which were strung out behind antique facades along a north-south line running from Adelaide Street West down to King Street.
Now that he had a site, albeit a peculiar one, the developer then had to determine how best to hook it up to the nearby streets and the city beyond. To help him do this job, he recruited Ken Greenberg, the distinguished independent urban planner and Toronto's most astute professional student (now that Jane Jacobs is gone) of what makes good cities tick.
To high-rise designer David Pontarini, founding partner in Hariri Pontarini Architects (HPA), went the task of crafting a residential structure that would sit comfortably on the long, skinny site Mr. Cohen had fashioned. It would have to deliver a fresh jolt of visual electricity to the city – Mr. Cohen is not known for doing tiresome buildings – but it would need to be polite to the sturdy old Victorians standing on the perimeter of the block. (Mr. Pontarini told me that HPA associate Michael Conway assisted him on the design.)
Working together, Mr. Pontarini and Mr. Greenberg have created an unusual building for an eccentric place. Instead of adding density to the city simply by piling up units until the stack touches the sky, for example, the creative team has achieved this desirable objective by distributing the load horizontally, along the site's long axis. The result is a smart alternative to the standard tower form that could work well in other odd locations where high density is called for, but a tall building is unwanted.
In another instance of thoughtful urbanism, the scheme drafted for Mr. Cohen takes into account not merely the hole the developer wanted to plug, but also the entire block, including the public spaces and passageways needed to open the block to the pulse of metropolitan life. In every respect, Context King West is mindful city-building – something that urban architecture should be, always and everywhere.