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A post-modern strategy for city building Add to ...

Toronto architect Stephen Teeple’s scheme for the Gansevoort boutique hotel and condominium tower on Richmond Street West is the most original and striking residential tall-building design to come forward in Hogtown in several years.

It may never be built. The site’s ownership has changed since Mr. Teeple’s venture became public knowledge three years ago. The new landlords, of course, are not obliged to put up something agreed to by previous owners. They may well ask another architect to draw up an entirely new plan for their development.

I, for one, hope that Mr. Teeple’s design gets salvaged and translated into reality.

If built as proposed, the tower would be a sprightly stack of dwellings that jut out and tuck in as the building rises. The terraces created every few floors by this strong rhythmic structural pulse would be planted with trees, generating a park in the sky. In sharp contrast to the cascade of glazing usual in Toronto apartment blocks – cladding that’s popular with home-buyers, but hugely energy-wasting – the exterior of Gansevoort would be only 50-per-cent glass. The opaque portions would be glistening cement-based panels.

The jaunty geometry of Mr. Teeple’s Gansevoort scheme draws its inspiration from the tough stuff of the big city – sidewalks, roadways, strongly composed urban space – and from the vitality and unpredictability of urban culture. Instead of prescribing utopian perfection, as a sheer glass tower can, Mr. Teeple told me, Gansevoort has “to grow out of the city… It takes the urban condition and works it up into an emotive composition that has dynamism, expression, force and beauty.”

Toronto will get an opportunity to look inside the mind of Gansevoort’s maker on Tuesday evening, when Stephen Teeple delivers the latest presentation in the Bulthaup Spring 2011 Lecture Series at the University of Toronto’s architecture school, 230 College St. During a conversation with me last week in his Garment District headquarters, Mr. Teeple said he intends to talk about his firm’s recent works, and about his distinctive post-modern design strategy.

“We’re interested in how you can make boring realities inspirational,” the architect said. “You take those actual facts, needs, necessities and come up with solutions. I am going to reflect on the nature of what architects can bring to the world.”

The contemporary world that architects confront with their art suffers from many calamities, natural and man-made. “I don’t imagine any one doesn’t think the world is in trouble right now,” Mr. Teeple said. “It’s not totally open. It’s become closed, limited. It’s become something nearing its end.”

Speaking of his office, he said: “We are just not optimistic modernists. I don’t think any architects are. No one believes any more that functionalism will make the world better. Architecture is not about trying to save the world. It is about trying to enhance human experience in a world that’s in a certain condition.”

How does architecture do that?

“It’s so basic, I’m afraid that nobody wants to hear it. All architects do is shape measured space. The architect’s role is to turn it into something that has emotion. I just don’t like architects’ trying to take on too much. We can’t be world saviours. It’s just not going to happen. You can only make architecture that means something to someone at a certain moment.”

If he rejects the presumptions of some modernists to revolutionize reality, Mr. Teeple even more fiercely denies the validity of a popular theory about how modernism came to exist in the first place. According to this story, it was the introduction of new materials and building techniques that inspired the modern movement.

“We’re not about technique. Technique is fantastic, but it’s not going to give you architecture, ever. Every modernist can claim that reinforced concrete created modern architecture. It’s just an outright lie. The romantics led the way. Technique was an excuse to create a radically new expression.”

The central task of architecture in the present moment, he believes, is to get on with the business of city-building. Asked for an example of who knew how to do so excellently, Mr. Teeple reached back in time before either modernism or romanticism, and came up with the Georgian designer John Wood the Younger, who fashioned the splendid residential terraces of Bath.

“I like city-making projects,” Mr. Teeple said. “But we don’t know what [the city’s] shape should be any longer. John Wood the Younger knew what a city should look like. He knew how to shape a street into a phenomenally beautiful space. City-making is an open book right now.

It’s an interesting moment, when there are so many possibilities for making a city.”

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