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What does a brick want to be? That's the sort of question that architect Louis Kahn used to ask his students, and for Kahn the answers could be surprising. He employed brick, that ancient material, to produce buildings that were unique and distinctly modernist.

But what if a brick wants to be part of a condo – a solid and sculptural component of the 21st-century city? That's the conclusion of Toronto firm architectsAlliance, whose design for 383 Sorauren Ave. sets a valuable precedent for Canadian architecture – nodding to history while exploring new ground.

The exceptional mid-rise building was conceived modestly. It sits near Toronto's Roncesvalles neighbourhood, a century-old streetcar suburb. "It seemed that brick was a logical starting point," explains Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance. "You're on the edge of a neighbourhood that's all brick, and next door you have an industrial building that's all brick, so it seemed to make sense."

But where architects would usually build on this context by wrapping the building in a thin skin of red brick – a veneer – Clewes and his office, including project architect Adam Feldmann, did something else. Brick stands around the edges of the building in thick, brawny piers. At two corners where the building isn't square, the brick pinches and stretches to catch the angles. The geometry of the surface plays tricks on your eyes as its surface shimmers with a mineral sheen.

This, Clewes says, is "a riff on a Lou Kahn approach, almost like the building is carved out of brick – so there's a sense of mass and depth to it."

It is successful, and all the more remarkable for being a developer building of modest size – 142 units over 10 floors. Buildings of this scale, in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, tend to come with limited profit margins and accordingly limited architecture.

But brick is everywhere in low-rise housing – why not in condos? "It's a reasonable question, particularly in Toronto," Clewes says. Central Toronto, he argues, "is a nearly intact Victorian brick city. And there is a reasonable opportunity in these mid-rise buildings to explore it as a cladding material."

But if you're going to choose brick, he says, "you need to choose the right brick." Here that meant a pricey brick from Nebraska – an ironspot variety, its surface speckled with iron salts. The texture and the colour – a deep pinkish red – are what make the building shine.

Approving that choice was developer Bill Gairdner, 34, who worked for local condo king Peter Freed before setting out to build his own boutique company, Gairloch.

"As a smaller developer, you can carve out a niche by producing something better," Gairdner tells me, his bike helmet in hand as we enter the building's tall, wood-panelled lobby. And here, better design "amassed over a million dollars in additional costs," he says. "But in my view they were critical to the final design. … My formula is to build real places where real people would live."

In other words, the building is pitched at end users – people who will buy and occupy the units – rather than buyers who plan to rent out or simply flip the units. Gairloch's buyers, in what is now a solidly creative-class neighbourhood, appreciated the sophistication of the architecture.

Gairdner allowed his architects room to run. Glass balcony rails are printed with a subtle pattern that evokes the running bond of the adjacent masonry; accents of a darker ironspot touch the building on the sides, resembling Victorian two-tone ornamental brickwork.

This represents an interesting current in architecture, in which designers are viewing brick as a tool for the expression of contemporary ideas. Ironspot brick in grey-to-purple shades has come into favour in the past decade; in Canada, Diamond Schmitt Architects used it to wrap Toronto's new opera house, opened in 2006, and that hue of brick can also be seen on buildings by Naturehumaine in Montreal and Michael Green in Vancouver.

But where those buildings' dark faces feel unmistakably modern, the Sorauren Avenue building seems more friendly, even familiar. It speaks in a meaningful way to the place where it is built – as good architecture always does.

In this it evokes a different, less showy tradition. In London, many sensitive new buildings employ brick, often in a yellow that recalls the local clay. This is a tendency that Edwin Heathcote, the architecture critic of the Financial Times, has identified as "brickism": "brick-faced buildings characterized by flat, austere facades and a certain self-effacement that seems to bow to its predecessors."

The prestigious practice Caruso St. John – co-founded by McGill University architecture graduate Adam Caruso – is among those pursuing this approach; it received much praise a decade ago for its Brick House, a highly sculptural house tucked into a back lane that puts brick on display. And Canadian-born Jamie Fobert won a national award for his Levring House in London's Bloomsbury area; though large and radically modernist in its interior, it pays homage to its neighbours through the use of brick.

Perhaps there is something particularly Canadian in the combination of avant-garde form and a familiar material. And perhaps small buildings such as 383 Sorauren Ave., what architects call "fabric" buildings, would benefit from looking to the past for material.

This, Clewes says, is an ambition of his office. "We're interested in creating buildings that have a greater sense of material response," he says. "We have enough glass towers to last a lifetime."