Long-time readers of this column know how I think downtown Toronto's new condominium projects should look (and too seldom do): sleek (but not entirely glassy), urbane and formally imaginative, and free of allusions to comfy, antique high styles.
In fact, they are best without references to any kind of pre-modernist styling, including that of the Victorian and Edwardian factories and warehouses standing thick on the ground in the core's former blue-collar districts.
I don't hate Toronto's proletarian architecture, by the way, or the rugged old low-rise and mid-rise industrial buildings that have survived from the past into the present – even if few are as interesting as those in, let's say, the Distillery District. It's good that developers have saved many of these elderly structures – or at least some of the better ones – from destruction by transforming them into handsome apartment and office blocks. And it's surely not entirely bad that the city's planning and urban design bureaucracy, by its insistence on "contextualism," is continuing to remind local developers and architects of what their forerunners got right a hundred years ago.
My problem with contextualism comes out of a belief that contemporary Toronto architects, while they ought to be good students of the things that have historically made cities work well, should be able to design mid-rises and high-rises without having to worry about forcing their new buildings to curtsey to old ones. Under the city's current planning regime (and also, of course, due to the conservatism of many Toronto developers), that's exactly what the architects of downtown residential stacks do worry about. The designs that result are sometimes sober and serious, but even the good ones usually lack the high visual voltage our inner-city neighbourhoods need badly.
For an example of the phenomenon I'm talking about, take the new residential project known as Fabrik Condos.
Fashioned for Menkes Developments by architect Ralph Giannone, a founding partner in the Toronto firm of Giannone Petricone Associates, in association with Giovanni A. Tassone Architects, this 16-storey, 169-unit building is slated to rise near the garment-district intersection of Spadina Avenue and Richmond Street West. The available suites range in area from 424 square feet (for a studio) up to 1,388 square feet (for three bedrooms). Prices start at under $300,000.
The Fabrik site is located in a gritty, former workshop and warehousing patch of central Toronto that the city has targeted for redevelopment since the 1990s. This encouragement of property-owners to gentrify, however, has come with a proviso: that new construction in the district sing in harmony with the old brick-and-beam structures round about. (It hasn't always done so, by the way: Residential developers have recently gotten away with multi-unit designs varying across the stylistic spectrum from a kind of awful baroque to Art Deco and some quite decent modernism.)
Menkes Developments, at least in the case of Fabrik, has tried to honour the city's architectural intentions for the zone, and Mr. Giannone has designed accordingly. The grid-like face of the building's 11-storey podium, which is framed with embossed precast concrete, is a respectful nod to all the century-old warehouse façades in the neighbourhood.
The futuristic five-storey glass box Mr. Giannone has dropped atop this podium might mitigate the factory-like plainness of the base it rests on, if it were larger or the whole building were taller. (The box, the architect told me, is meant to terminate the view from westbound cars coming along Richmond Street.) And the polka-dot patterning of the concrete, an interesting touch that creates an appearance of what the architect calls "tough lace," might offset the machine-age solemnity of the podium, if its improbable delicacy and playfulness were allowed to infect the form.
As we have it, however, Fabrik is a studious, unsmiling work that bows in all the right directions, doesn't get above itself, and certainly doesn't shout. It promises to stay nestled down well among the older items of garment-district architecture that it imitates.
I can appreciate Mr. Giannone's energetic effort to bring Fabrik into line with the historical character of the area. It's harder for me to appreciate the politeness of the outcome.
Not every new residential building has to make a great fuss about itself, of course. But just because Toronto's main streets are dowdy and tired, and the downtown's former industrial strips are dull, developers should take every new condo-block commission as a fresh opportunity to make something terrific and freely contemporary. I am under no illusion that the development community will take my suggestion seriously. But even now, some members of it appear to have arrived at the same conclusion I've come to: that, in a city where the historical context is so pedestrian, contextualism really doesn't make a lot of sense.