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Economy and good city-building don't always have to generate bland glass boxes. Can 'radical pragmatism' shake up Canada's boring urbanism?

MVRDV’s work, such as this building in Seoul, balances innovation with urban restrictions.

MVRDV’s work, such as this building in Seoul, balances innovation with urban restrictions.

Kyungsub Shin

Canada: Why do your new buildings all look the same?

That is the question posed by Dutch architect Nathalie de Vries. When she arrived in Toronto recently for a lecture at Ryerson University, the partner in the firm MVRDV was struck by the "generic" quality of the new construction that is reshaping much of the city's downtown.

"I want to ask, what are you building here?" she said, as we sat in a borrowed office surrounded by the cranes and construction cacophony of the King-Spadina neighbourhood. "What kind of city are you building, and for whom? What is your vision for the future?"

That's a tough question. A single building type, the condominium "point tower" bred in Vancouver, is rising relentlessly in Toronto as in most of Canada's major cities – and yet despite the best efforts of Toronto's planners, downtown streetscapes remain chaotic even as many new buildings are bland. Could there be another way to build? Is there room for some wild cards?

The Pushed Slab is an office complex with an irregular form and a four-storey gap in the middle.

The Pushed Slab is an office complex with an irregular form and a four-storey gap in the middle.

Philippe Ruault

MVRDV specializes in wild cards: The company believes that each building should embody a vision of the future, and their designs often feel like fever dreams.

The office's work bears a sensibility that de Vries calls "radical pragmatism." The architects begin with constraints: zoning restrictions, access to sunlight, the movement of people and the design language of the city that surrounds their work. Then they slice and direct that data into an analysis – and building form – that is utterly unexpected.

"Our work is radical in the sense that you say, 'This is the future I'm seeing,'" de Vries told me. "'These are the facts, and somebody has to transform them into buildings that can handle this reality – and help us to move on a little bit.'" MVRDV has designed housing, but their best-known building is Rotterdam's Market Hall, which opened last year. The building includes an upscale food market, underlaid by a massive underground parking garage; on top of these rises a 228-unit apartment complex in the form of an arch. The inside of that arch is wrapped with a bold mural of supersized produce, punctured by the windows of the apartments; faces peek from within a gargantuan flower or a giant berry into the covered market. And it is that unusual social interaction that drives the design; the building is designed to accommodate, and shape, the forms of social interaction that are taking place in today's city.

MVRDV specializes in ‘wild card’ buildings that embody a vision of the future, such as the Silodam in Amsterdam.

MVRDV specializes in ‘wild card’ buildings that embody a vision of the future, such as the Silodam in Amsterdam.

Rob ‘t Hart

But this could never happen in Canada! That's the obvious counter-argument. The Netherlands is a hotbed for architectural innovation: prosperous, socially progressive and receptive to big ideas. What's more, Rotterdam, the country's second-largest city, was levelled by German bombs during the Second World War. It was, and remains, a lab for all sorts of urban experiments.

It's also home to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the firm led by the famous architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas. His characteristic mixture of deadpan provocations and wild innovation inspires MVRDV and some of its colleagues. The architecture comes out of this very specific context.

And yet. MVRDV has been able to work successfully in many other places; in China, but also in Paris. There, on the fringe of the historic city, the firm completed an office complex it calls the Pushed Slab, which has an irregular form and a four-storey gap in the middle. "The hole in the building creates value," de Vries says. The distinctive quality of the building, and the outdoor terrace, are worth something in euros and cents.

It also creates an open space which adds something to the street around it. De Vries talks fervently about the importance of "activating" a street, and bringing the public realm of the street "up into three dimensions." MVRDV's buildings often provide above-ground terraces and walkways that make for a richer and more complex spatial experience. And the hybrid nature generates something interesting. "The product of innovation," de Vries says, "is new forms."

MVRDV’s work bears a sensibility they call ‘radical pragmatism.’

MVRDV’s work bears a sensibility they call ‘radical pragmatism.’

Rob ‘t Hart

Those new forms have to be chosen carefully. Innovation is risky when you are dealing with streets, blocks – and, ultimately, people's lives. But Canada's cities are getting new buildings that are too often indistinguishable: Level a site, build a block of stores and apartments about four levels high, and drop a narrow tower on top of it. This tower-and-podium model, as it's called, is born from Vancouver's thoughtful urbanism. It is emerging as gospel in most of Canada's major cities. And that's fine.

But you can't shape an entire city with a formula. In a panel discussion hosted by Ryerson's Department of Architectural Science, de Vries spoke with the Toronto architect Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance. Clewes presented a criticism of the city's tall-building guidelines: "If regulations keep us focused exclusively on one [type of building]," Clewes said, "we run the risk of a banal city."

Economy and good city-building don't always have to generate glass boxes. This is the lesson of MVRDV's radical pragmatism. As working architects, they have learned "which things you can steer, and which things you can manipulate in a certain direction," as de Vries told me.

And sometimes variety and innovation are crucial in architecture, as they are in every other part of urban life. Toronto, and Canada, could go a little bit Dutch. If not? "If we accept the conditions we are given," de Vries said, "and endlessly multiply them, nothing new will ever happen."