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The Globe and Mail

In Toronto, new condo is a chip off the old block

The small office block that stands at the corner of Wellington Street East and Scott Street, on the eastern edge of Toronto's financial district, is surely not one of the city's shiniest architectural treasures, but it rates at least a footnote in the story of our downtown development.

Crafted around 1950 by Toronto architect James Allen Parrott, the sturdily graceful limestone and red granite cladding of a very ordinary frame eloquently recalls the Art Deco styling known as stripped classical. This pared-down exterior treatment had enjoyed an international vogue among the architects of public and commercial buildings in the 1930s, before going out of fashion after the Second World War. But if late and a bit backward-looking, Mr. Parrott's streamlined design for the façades, realized in upmarket materials instead of concrete, is a good local example of Deco elegance applied to what would otherwise have been just another 1950s stack of steel and glass.

That said, few people would object, I imagine, if Concert Properties Ltd., its current owner, were to sweep the little structure off the map and bring the 58-storey 88 Scott residential tower now proposed for the tight inner-city site down to the level of the sidewalk. Fortunately for fans of Toronto's modern architecture, Concert has decided to do something better. It aims to save the plainly patterned natural stone cladding – the only distinctive thing about Mr. Parrott's building –and attach it to the outside of the tower's new podium.

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If I correctly understand what Concert has in mind – it was explained to me last week by Kelly Wilson, the company's vice-president for development – this move will not be another instance of the disagreeable practice of pasting a few scraps of architectural salvage onto an obviously contemporary building.

The height of the new base will exactly match that of Mr. Parrott's five-storey office block, which will be denuded of a clumsy two-storey addition piled on top of it in the early 1980s, and given back its original cornice. And the 1950s façades – on Wellington, Scott and Colborne Street – will be returned, largely intact, to their old positions. At the end of the day, Toronto should have a credible reconstruction of the most attractive aspects of the office building – the faces it turns to adjacent streets and to the city – and an item of historical preservation that acknowledges the past with a gesture more effective than the usual perfunctory nod.

In addition to this platform, the large 88 Scott complex includes a deep parking garage, retail outlets opening onto Wellington and Scott streets, a wing of office space stretching west from the tower along Wellington, and 479 residential suites. Except for the notably wide variety of unit layouts – there are 70 of them – the apartment sizes and prices are usual for the financial district.

The most plentiful suite type on offer, for example, is the one-bedroom plus den, which ranges in area from around 550 square feet up to 750 square feet. The average price, sales office staff told me, is $690 a square foot. The numbers suggest that 88 Scott's customers, predictably, will be drawn from the pools almost every developer is fishing in these days: affluent single professionals, high-earning childless couples, downsizers, empty-nesters and, of course, real estate investors.

Less predictable, however, is the tower that Concert plans to raise over Mr. Parrott's reconstituted office building. Designed by Brian A. Sickle, a principal and executive in Page + Steele/IBI Group Architects, the soaring structure certainly will be different from the modernist glass boxes (and assorted other glassy shapes) that have dotted the downtown landscape since the onset of the condo boom.

Instead of meeting the city with sheer glazed surfaces that rise smoothly from base to crown, Mr. Sickle's skyscraper bristles with busy details. Grids of precast concrete start to climb up the tower, get part of the way up, then evaporate, as though they had changed their minds. Large, transparent, two-storey volumes thrust out from corners here and there, with no visual logic that I can make out. The jumbled upward motion of the façades terminates in a bundle of glass oblongs that manages to be odd and banal at the same time.

Heaven knows that the art of building tall is in need of rejuvenation. And I can appreciate the developer-driven pressure on Mr. Sickle and every other tower architect to try out new approaches, new ideas – anything, in fact, to avoid bringing yet another routine housing product into the marketplace.

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But mere novelty, of the kind we will see in the tower of 88 Scott, is just not good enough. What does work for me is the tower's base – James Allen Parrott's very modest but dignified contribution to Toronto's streetscape that Concert has happily decided to conserve.

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