Less than a generation ago, the downtown Toronto swatch of warehouses and factories south of Queen Street West, between University Avenue and Bathurst Street, was a quiet, interestingly desolate place to go for lonesome late-night strolls.
Many of the little businesses and small industrial operations that once animated the rugged district had disappeared. Apart from the artists who lived and worked in the abandoned workshops, few people called the area home.
Then, in the 1990s, city officialdom decided to change all that. The winds of gentrification and reinvestment started to blow along deserted Adelaide and Richmond streets, and among the Victorian and early 20th-century buildings that line them. Condominium stacks began to replace unsightly parking lots. Landlords turfed the artists out of century-old storage facilities and invited new information-age enterprises to take their places. The erasure of yet another trace of Toronto’s working-class social history was under way.
But while city officials wanted to rid the district of its down-market, blue-collar character and culture, they also vowed to preserve the obsolete architectural shells of that culture. (At least in its current form, the heritage industry is a cult of relics.) Old brick-and-beam buildings, however worthless architecturally, were to be saved. And new construction was to mimic the old fabric wherever possible – even if it meant compromising the design integrity of the 21st-century architecture being dropped into the site.
For a new example of what I’m talking about, take the 40-storey tower known as Peter Street Condominiums, set to go up deep in the former industrial area south of Queen Street West on the northeast corner of Adelaide Street West and Peter Street.
Designed for CentreCourt Developments by the prolific Toronto tall-building architect Peter Clewes, founding partner of architectsAlliance, this slender structure will contain 429 suites ranging in size from 303 to 772 square feet. These small units are priced accordingly, from the low $200,000s for a studio to more than $500,000 for a three-bedroom unit.
Once again, it’s a downtown high-rise condominium project pitched mainly to first-time buyers and working singles, when what’s needed in the inner city is more housing suitable for families. If home-owning couples are ever to be coaxed into rearing children downtown, thereby rescuing the core from being one generation deep, developers must provide affordable, imaginative and large units where they can live comfortably. The provision of such high-density accommodations is surely crucial to the enrichment and desirable complexity of the city centre. Raising the attractiveness of deep downtown as a place to live throughout the life cycle is also our best hope of slowing the spread of suburban sprawl.
So much for demographics. My principal problem with Peter Street Condominiums has to do with the art of building tall.
What role can this 40-storey building play in a neighbourhood composed mostly of elderly mid-rise blocks, indifferent low-rise structures and parking lots? The tower is too big to hide. It won’t fit into the antique streetscape invisibly, no matter what’s done to mute its impact. Its taut elegance and forthright modernism – all of Mr. Clewes’s buildings, including this one, feature both qualities – will make it stand out sharply from the architectural muddle round about.
Instead of moving with the ordinary energies of tall building design – the stark contrasts injected into the city at the street level and on the skyline, the bold reach for the clouds that even a mediocre skyscraper brings to the urban environment – Mr. Clewes has worked hard to make his Peter Street building sociable. A web of black masonry stretched across the bottom storeys of the white tower, for example, is supposed to remind us of the large brick-framed windows in the area’s warehouses. The height of this façade treatment has been determined not by some inner necessity of the building’s artistic strategy, but by the stature of an old block across the street.
Mr. Clewes justified this nod to the neighbours as a response to the specific urban condition. “There is not enough of the old city left to provide a context for a dramatic statement,” he told me. What’s needed here is an architecture that patches up holes in the city fabric, that slides easily into the built environment instead of contesting it.
While Mr. Clewes’s argument is appealing, I am not convinced by it. Tall buildings are modern technology’s greatest visual contributions to city life. If we are to have these things at all, their designs they should soar free above all that came before, including the humdrum architectural texture of Toronto south of Queen Street West.Report Typo/Error
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