As long-time readers of this column know, I talk often with Peter Clewes. I do so because, in my line of work, it's inevitable.
Of the local designers who have ridden the wave of Toronto's inner-city condominium boom, none has been more prolific.
His buildings have dotted (or are on track to dot) streetscapes all over downtown. If he never crafted another structure, his distinctive brand of pragmatic modernism would already have given this era in Hogtown's real estate history several of its most memorable architectural expressions.
As it happens, of course, Mr. Clewes isn't stopping at all, and one of his office's recent proposals was the prompt for the conversation I had with him last week.
The topic was a multi-storey residential block slated to go up on an old industrial site at 383 Sorauren Ave., on the edge of the comfortable, attractively eclectic Roncesvalles neighbourhood. For the record, it's the first project by developer Bill Gairdner, who was, before going independent, a vice-president in Peter Freed's real estate group. Interior design is by Johnson Chou.
Also for the record: The stolid exterior treatment of the
building is largely the handiwork of Heather Rolleston, Mr. Clewes's associate in his firm, architectsAlliance. But the result of this in-house collaboration embodies characteristic themes in Mr. Clewes's recent thinking about architecture, hence in the artistic culture of the office.
Not so long ago, for instance, architectsAlliance sought to make its buildings look and behave as differently as possible from the brick and stone fabric of Victorian Toronto. The Sorauren Avenue proposal, in contrast, nods politely to the elderly warehouses in its vicinity, picking up on their plain, working-class geometry and their robust brick facades, and generally striking a modest, amenable pose.
(It may not be modest enough for the planners at city hall. Mr. Gairdner said they were withholding permission until the architects notch back the uppermost storeys of the front façade. I hope the developer and architectsAlliance win this fight. The suggested move, in my view, would weaken the building's firm, resolved presence on the streetscape, which is the most interesting thing about it.)
Old-fashioned Toronto brickwork has been an important source of inspiration for Mr. Clewes and Ms. Rolleston. The glass terrace fronts are fritted to suggest patterns of laid brick. The recessed glass walls of the suites are framed by bold brick strips and angled brick planes. This block is certainly modern, but it's no modernist glass box.
When I mentioned that I found the solidity and opacity of the building appealing, Mr. Clewes replied firmly that its surface is still to be "about 65 per cent" glass.
In other words, he drew attention to the structure's transparency. That's an unfashionable move for an architect to make nowadays. It's much more stylish to damn glass walls as inefficient and cheap and liable to fall apart, and to hail the revival of more substantial facades as a return to sanity.
Numerous voices, popular and professional, have been recently raised in the anti-glass chorus. CBC Toronto's Metro Morning website, for example, advises us that "building scientists have known for a long time that glass-walled structures are less energy efficient than the stone and concrete buildings that were put up 40 or 50 years ago. … [I]ndustry insiders warn that as energy costs climb, glass towers may become the 'pariah' buildings of the future."
The same series of articles and broadcasts (first aired in 2011, and now available online) cites important researchers who have weighed in against glass, including Ted Kesik, an engineer and professor of building science at the University of Toronto.
Not so fast! Mr. Clewes and Ms. Rolleston told me. If properly designed, manufactured and installed, a glass wall can perform as well as, and even better than, a traditional solid wall system.
But those are sizable "ifs" – and nobody, as far as I can tell, is saying the usual condo suite launched in Toronto during the last 20 years has been outfitted according to the highest standards.
The complaints about glass walls catalogued in the CBC broadcasts, in other media and in the scholarly writings of Ted Kesik and other experts appear to be grounded in fact.
I wish the reality were otherwise, since I like the shine, lift and futurism of glass towers – including the beautiful ones that architectsAlliance has brought to Toronto. Unless developers become able and willing to make better glass buildings, however, the towers of the energy-conscious future may well look more solid than they have in recent years.