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For Toronto condo, a famous name but a less than stellar plan

Whatever its impact on Toronto turns out to be – more on this topic presently – the 56-storey condominium tower that's been proposed for 2221 Yonge St., just south of Eglinton Avenue, has brought fresh public attention to a family name long venerated by local skyscraper fans.

It's Pei – as in Ieoh Ming Pei – the architect of the austere, elegant high-rise and landmark known as Commerce Court West. We are hearing the surname these days because his son, Li Chung (Sandi), has been enlisted by Tower Hill Development Corp. to be lead designer of the building slated to rise at 2221 Yonge. (The Toronto-based firm of Quadrangle Architects is also involved, on the managerial end of the job.)

Now 96 and living in New York City, I.M. Pei was one of those immigrant American architects who hastened the transformation of modernism, during the Cold War years, from the intellectually elitist, usually left-leaning taste it had been in the 1920s into post-war capitalism's favourite power style. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was another designer who did so.

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Like I.M. Pei himself, who was designing as recently as 2000, modernism has outlived the most creative years (roughly 1955 to 1975) of its marriage with big business. A kind of neo-modernism is thriving in various versions nowadays, if ordinarily on a modest scale, and usually without the reforming zeal of the early days.

And, of course, big buildings that look like cereal boxes from the 1970s are still going up, though they rarely have the broad-shouldered confidence of their Cold War predecessors. Li Chung Pei, for his part, soldiers on in the corporate-modernist tradition his father did much to shape. In his Yonge Street building, however, he claims to have freshened up the old formulas a bit.

"We sought," the younger Mr. Pei said in a statement, "to distinguish this project from ubiquitous glass tower schemes by highlighting its wraparound balconies as a unique design feature, rather than as appendages to a large glassy mass. Ours is an updated version of the modernist concept that provides abundant outdoor living space, shading, and privacy from adjacent buildings."

For the record, prices start around $200,000, and suite sizes vary from just 386 square feet to 997 square feet. Amenities include a lounge on the 56th floor and a "resort-inspired" spa with three pools. The common areas, such as the lobby and the lounge, will be designed by the Toronto firm of Munge Leung.

The "adjacent buildings" that residents of 2221 Yonge will need shielding from are, as a glance at the map shows, the towers of Minto Midtown, the bulky, tall condo complex right next door. Mr. Pei's high-rise takes the form of a slab, its narrow end fronting on Yonge, its broad sides running between Yonge and Cowbell Lane. The architect's solution to the structure's tight fit with the neighbouring towers includes faceting the south wall of his building, so that the suites open toward the southwest and southeast instead of directly southward.

It's a simple gesture. It's not one that's particularly inventive or original. And, so far, it has not convinced the city's planning department that the relationship between Mr. Pei's skyscraper and Minto Midtown meets the standards set by the new official tall-building guidelines.

The objections of the planners, as it happens, have to do with set-backs and other urban-design details in Mr. Pei's scheme. My problem with it lies elsewhere, in its aesthetic shortcomings. Apart from having floorplates that are five-sided, this project differs very little from the many other homely, run-of-the-mill apartment blocks that have become common sights – and eyesores – in Toronto since the onset of the current condo boom.

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The main entrance is bland, the porte-cochere, advertised as "grand," is dull. True, the building will show a little more concrete than we're used to seeing in glassy high-rises – the edges of the floorplates flip up to form balcony fronts here and there – but this move isn't enough to relieve the tedium of the tower's appearance. The best thing that can be said about the project is that, viewed as a whole, it isn't entirely awful – though the Yonge Street façade of the six-storey podium, which looks like a parking garage, is in fact pretty awful.

That's not good enough. Every condo tower in this city doesn't have to be a stunning show-stopper. But every one can and should do Toronto the favour of not being tiresome – especially one that's set to go up in an interesting, busy neighbourhood such as Yonge and Eglinton. Every tall structure should contribute something, however small, to the local conversation about the art of building and living tall. This one doesn't.

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John More


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