While visiting a Rosedale house a few weeks ago, I glanced out an upstairs window and caught sight of the glistening, almost-finished tower of the new Four Seasons hotel and condo complex. I was surprised to see it, since uninterrupted summertime views of distant things are not common in this densely populated and heavily forested neighbourhood.
Prompted by that glimpse, I began looking for other unlikely prospects of the Four Seasons tower wherever I walked or drove downtown. And, sure enough, there it was, rearing up often against the sky: a slender, glassy 55-storey stack of hotel rooms and top-end condominiums soaring above low, mixed-rise Yorkville, and uncrowded (so far) by any nearby edifice that might rival its height. (After a grand opening in October, the building I saw will house the five-star flagship hotel in the Toronto-based Four Seasons international chain of lodges and resorts.)
Structures this conspicuous are sometimes called landmarks, just because they are big. But the Four Seasons hotel and condo spire, which is surely big, will probably be a landmark for a second reason: because it injects a particularly strong jolt of intelligent, urbane elegance into its uptown location.
Peter Clewes, the prolific high-rise designer and founding partner in the Toronto firm of architectsAlliance, is the author of the whole $500-million Four Seasons development on Bay Street north of Bloor Street West. The complex includes the 55-storey tower and a 25-storey companion, a new park and an eight-storey pavilion (or, to use hotel industry jargon, a public function block) containing ball rooms, meeting quarters, restaurants and other facilities. Last week, I spoke with Mr. Clewes about this project, and about the art and craft of building tall in Toronto.
"It's really a building that operates at a metropolitan scale," the architect told me. It had to be high – but it also had to be light on its feet. "If you want to put up a very tall building in an area that's not generally considered to be an area of tall buildings, you have to attempt to lighten the mass. So the hotel portion of the tower, in the first 23 floors or so, has conventional closed corners. When the tower becomes residential, above the hotel, there are open corners that contain the terraces. The floor plate is reduced, and there's a gradual reduction of the building mass as you go up the tower. There's a kind of fading of the tower where it meets the sky."
Crucial to producing this effect of lightness, of course, was the cladding, which was to be glass held in place by a curtain wall system. "We spent a long time researching and testing different types of glass," Mr. Clewes said. "We settled on four types, and tested them by building a full-scale mock-up of a section of the façade. We hoisted it up on a crane to about the 10th-storey level of the building to see how it would appear against the sky."
In the end, the nod went to an untinted, high-performance product made in the U.S. "Toronto has more than enough green glass buildings," Mr. Clewes noted. "We wanted something more transparent – much more neutral – but something that would take on the character of the sky without being hyper-reflective. I think [our choice] is pretty effective. You will get a sense of what's going on inside, as the building becomes inhabited, but [the structure] will actually just blend into the sky."
(The glazing of the eight-storey pavilion has been fritted to reduce the skin's transparency. The hospitality industry standard for the surfacing of those public function blocks is opacity, Mr. Clewes told me. His solution for the Four Seasons' block is a fine translucency.)
For residential structures, the two towers have exceptionally smooth and neat surfaces – a cosmetic touch that says they are definitely not ordinary. "We're not often given the opportunity to do such such sophisticated cladding systems in residential buildings in Toronto, just because the market demands affordability, " Mr. Clewes explained. "Given the budget, this project is a cut above what you find in garden-variety residential buildings in Toronto."
In its general shape, the taller of the two high-rise elements in the project is not cut to the now-usual Toronto pattern of a shaft rising atop a mid-rise podium. Instead, the building is firmly grounded by a two-storey base, finished in Turkish slate, from which the glassy tower springs toward the clouds.
"I'm getting a little tired of towers and podiums," Mr. Clewes said. The Four Seasons "is successful because it's not trying to be something other than what it is, which is a major building inserted within the grid of Toronto in a very decidedly modern way."