Torontonians often wonder if we are getting multi-unit residential architecture of the same high quality that residents (and countless visitors) find in other aspects of the city: Its very liveable neighbourhoods, for example, its vivid musical, film and other arts scenes, and so on.
If by architectural "quality" is meant gorgeousness or avant-garde styling or physical longevity in the usual downtown condominium towers, then the answer is: No, we're probably not. Too many of the apartment stacks put up since the onset of the current real-estate boom, for example, are humdrum (or merely novel), and they add nothing or very little that's aesthetically engaging to the streetscape or skyline. And some expert observers worry that those popular, but hastily-constructed all-glass tower façades, which appear so sleek and neat in the short term, may not hold up well against harsh Canadian weather over the long haul.
But looking elsewhere – closer to the ground, that is, at the numerous lower-density housing complexes Toronto architects are crafting these days – one more frequently witnesses the interesting design quality we want to see on our urban streetscapes.
In this column, you have recently encountered some memorable instances of what I'm talking about: Among others, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg's Canary District Condominiums, Richard Witt's Abacus Lofts and David Anand Peterson's six-storey Ritchie Avenue condo building. As far as exterior style is concerned, each of these structures differs from the others on this roll. All, however, are mid-rise residential projects with good modernist bones, sensible attitudes toward context, sidewalk and street, an air of aesthetic seriousness – and no faux-Victorian flimflam or laboured "contextualism."
Here's another one to consider adding to the roster: Toronto designer Roland Rom Colthoff's 109OZ condo block, an 85-unit structure that will have some architectural features that we should welcome in new mid-block, infill housing. But before I tack it on the list, I want to see the completed building. Judged solely on renderings and the model in the sales centre, 109OZ could be too genteel for the quick-paced place it's going into: The strip of galleries, restaurants, bars and shops in antique storefronts along Ossington Avenue just north of Queen Street West.
This is, of course, Toronto's current magnet for affluent, design-savvy hipsters. (It was ground zero for more indigent local cool-hunters just a couple of years ago, before the hipsters took over.) "Young professionals in the neighbourhood," as Mr. Rom Colthoff politely called them, are the people to whom 109OZ is pitched.
They, and the odd empty-nester couple, will find that the six-storey complex has several practical things going for it: an interesting downtown location with excellent public transit, fairly generous lofts (504 square feet to 1,160 square feet in area) and fairly standard new-condo prices – from around $285,000 to $700,000. The open-plan apartments come in one- and two-bedroom formats. Some have dens. There are no three-bedroom suites. (For the record, the developer is Reserve Properties Ltd.)
The site of 109OZ is about 150 feet wide and is currently occupied by a parking lot, a former car-repair spot (now the spacious sales office), and another elderly building. The lot stretches a considerable distance along the east side of Ossington, in other words, and Mr. Rom Colthoff will reinforce the walkable, shoppable sense of the street by devoting the sidewalk level to retail. The residents' entrance is off at the south end of the block, and it's small and quite inconspicuous – a sound, neighbourly move that makes the bottom of 109OZ mostly about strolling and getting and spending, like the rows of old storefronts that adjoin it.
To animate the façade above the sidewalk and cause it to vibrate in sync with the irregular streetscape round about, Mr. Rom Colthoff has broken up the horizontal, buxom chunk of architecture into so many jauntily stacked, punched one-storey boxes meant to jump and jive. Some of these elements thrust outward, others fall back. Two swing out at somewhat rakish angles vis-à-vis the long axis of the fabric.
My problem is that all this pushing and pulling and swinging is not as rakish and bold as it should be – not in this style-conscious neighbourhood, anyway. Earlier versions of the scheme sported large splashes of colour on the façade; the final rendition shows the exterior clad in Bay Street black and grey. By jostling the façade, the architect has created a design that probably manages to avoid middling modern tastefulness – though by a margin that's not nearly wide enough.
I could be wrong about 109OZ's conservative tendencies. We'll know for sure when the building is up and running in hipster heaven, and standing among the many other new mid-rise residential projects that, for better or worse, are reshaping Toronto's arterial streetscapes.