The coffee machine hisses and a barista places a cappuccino on the marble counter with a clink.
It's a familiar scene, except for the setting: The café is in the lobby of Commerce Court West in Toronto. It was designed by architect I.M. Pei in the 1960s as a temple of a banking hall: 112 feet square, 33-feet high, unsullied by columns or beams and washed by sunlight through plate glass.
Now, it's got coffee and croissants, and also sofas to lounge on. Clearly, the nature of corporate work has changed, and Commerce Court – the four-building complex at King and Bay that is one of the most significant and symbolic works of architecture in the country – is poised to change, too. The question is, how do you update a modernist megaproject for the 21st century?
The plan from Vancouver's QuadReal Property Group would alter the historic complex, demolishing its two smallest buildings to add a new 1.8-million-square-foot office tower. It would restore the two most important buildings and open space. And while it needs refinement, the scheme makes a strange kind of sense: It adds a behemoth to save the details that matter.
The design, which was submitted for city approval a month ago, is led by architects Hariri Pontarini and Dialog, heritage architects ERA,
landscape architect Claude Cormier and planners Urban Strategies. So far, they are vague about the new tower's architecture and focused on the heritage and urban-design challenges.
Those are considerable. Commerce Court, the headquarters of CIBC until a planned move in 2021, is one of the bank complexes that defines Toronto's skyline and symbolizes Canada's banking industry.
ERA and Dialog are working on a refit of the 34-storey North Tower, which was the tallest building in the British Commonwealth when it was completed for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1931, designed mostly by New York architects York and Sawyer. The ziggurat-topped tower is ornately decorated from the plasterwork of the lobby to the giant stone heads at the top.
After a merger with the Imperial Bank of Canada created CIBC in 1961, the new megabank set out to design a megaproject. They hired I.M. Pei and Partners, who had just completed Place Ville Marie in Montreal.
The art-deco tower was preserved and wrapped into a modernist superblock to its south. Two sections of public street were closed; a new formal plaza, faced with granite, was placed in the middle; two low buildings, five and 14 storeys wrapped in slabs of Indiana limestone, slid into the southeast corner of the site. The key was – and is – the 57-storey West Tower, designed by Pei's office and completed in 1972.
This tower has a surface of stainless steel, embossed with tiny dots for a subtle texture; panels of this material surround rows of 11 rectangular windows, which pause for the massive structural columns of the building. The design has a rhythmic rigour, which, like its dark counterpart, Mies van der Rohe's TD Centre across the street, is effortlessly and timelessly elegant.
And yet, the tower is of its time. The office floors in the 1970s were lined with offices along the outer walls for senior staff, while support staff were relegated to the windowless middle.
But today's corporate employers want a completely different model, as the lead design architect, David Pontarini of Hariri Pontarini, explained on a recent tour of the site.
In offices designed now, almost no one has private space and everyone is allotted much less room – roughly 90 square feet a person, down from 180 a generation ago. "They're looking for new, larger floor spaces," Pontarini says. Employers "are looking for energy-efficient workspaces, which are cheaper to run; and as they rethink their organizations, they're looking for a clean slate."
Plus more amenities – just as small condos imply more use of public space, smaller cubicles "push people out into the lobbies and the cafés," Pontarini says.
Thus, the new proposed 64-storey tower is much thicker then Pei's main tower. To make room, the architects propose tearing down the smallest buildings in Pei's ensemble. The smallest would be replaced by open space and a new glassy pavilion, partially open to the busy Path underground mall below. The 14-storey one would be replaced by the new behemoth. The architecture of that building is still, for now, not fully designed; Pontarini and his colleagues are designing what is essentially a glass box, "carved away at the corners," he suggests, "in a way that speaks to the stone carving on the 1931 tower."
The loss of the two smaller Pei structures is a loss of built heritage, but one few people will notice. Designed as complements to the deco and modernist showpieces, they are quiet outside and generic inside. Unlike their very similar counterparts at Place Ville-Marie in Montreal, they have little presence in the cityscape.
The tradeoff of sacrificing those buildings is retaining the plaza, which would be crowded by the new tower on the east, but expanded to meet the streets in the southwest corner. It represents a very specific model of modernist architecture and urban design, and this deserves careful but critical attention. "There was this idea that the retail would be underground, and the plaza would be this pure realm of businessmen," says heritage architect Michael McClelland, a principal at ERA. "We don't actually think cities work like that any more."
This is true. The high-modernist plaza – open, hard-surfaced, rigidly geometric – is no longer well-suited to the social life of big cities or of big banks. Cormier is planning to strip it back to largely its original state, removing some 1990s additions by Zeidler Roberts in the deconstructivist style and clearing away clunky furniture, then adding connections to the underground Path and the adjacent streets. A glass-walled pavilion building will provide space to display art and host performances, which the developers plan to program.
There is no doubt: The new tower will disrupt the geometry and balance of Pei's scheme. At a moment when landscapes of this era are receiving critical attention, and Pei himself, now 100 years old, is being rehabilitated by critics, this is unfortunate.
But is it worth it? "I am as saddened by an intervention here as anybody else is," Pontarini says, "but I think there is substantial change in this city. Given the pressure to keep a vibrant downtown core, how do you remake a site like this? We don't want King and Bay to become a museum piece."
That is a legitimate concern. As ERA principal Andrew Pruss points out, until 1920 the hub of the city's downtown was an earlier cluster of skyscrapers just east at Yonge Street. Today, CIBC is moving south to a new pair of skyscrapers. No one would have predicted this 20 years ago, and no one would have predicted the surrounding area would be filled with tall apartment towers. But here we are.
So: a revived public realm, a future-proofed new tower and two relics spiffed up for a new generation. It's a difficult balance, but a good one. The new tower and pavilion must be architecture of the highest quality. The tower should be slim, and sustainable, as possible. They're not there yet.
It's heartening, however, that the designers are looking to the past for lessons, not just to the sixties, but the twenties, too; Pontarini suggested the designers are turning to the evocative symbolism of the deco tower for inspiration. I went to the top of Commerce Court with some of the architects to tour the observation deck on the top of the tower they are planning to reopen. We walked past the 24-foot stone heads that overlook the city, Pei's steely tower and the plaza below, and it was clear that this great and sophisticated place should be a vibrant part of the city again. With coffee, and with some change.