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Moshe Safdie’s waterfront Toronto condo complex gets a makeover

News from the condo front: Great Gulf Group, the Toronto-based international development company, has brought to market 140 redesigned suites in its waterfront complex called Monde.

Apartments in Monde's nine-storey lower building were apparently not moving as quickly as the sales people would have liked, so the firm sent the designer, renowned Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, back into the studio with instructions to make the suites more likeable.

The revised units, according to Alan Vihant, the developer's senior vice-president for high-rise, are wider and shallower than before. "They let more light in, and there is more exposure east and west," he said. In the new configuration, each room has an external window. This set of so-called "Boardwalk Suites" has its own bank of elevators and its own lobby.

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For the record, the Boardwalk Suite units range in size from about 600 square feet to 1,000 square feet, and in price from around $280,000 to $550,000. The common spaces in both Monde's nine-storey component and its 44-storey tower are being crafted by the prolific interior-design firm of Cecconi Simone.

The fashioning of Boardwalk Suites is the latest move in a process of change that has been going on since Monde was launched, almost four years ago.

It was in late 2009 that Waterfront Toronto, the Crown corporation overseeing the revitalization of the city's post-industrial brownfields, unveiled this development – the first private-sector residential venture in the agency's 55-acre East Bayfront district. Called Parkside in those early, provisional days – a nod to its site, which is just east of Waterfront Toronto's new Sherbourne Common park – the complex, as originally proposed, was to feature a 38-storey point tower atop an 11-storey rectangular block.

The dramatic façades of the taller portion were to be composed of long diagonal panels of concrete frames that projected outward from the building's skeleton and alternated with recessed expanses of glass. These moves would have produced an interesting slashing pattern on the surface, rather like a cat scratch.

Then came the official design-review process, which Waterfront Toronto takes very seriously, and the onset of the alterations that have, over the years, given us the 544-suite Monde as we envision it today.

The tall part has become taller, for one thing, and the lower part has been shortened, Mr. Vihant said, in the interest of better proportions. Instead of being the simple rectangular solid it was in the beginning, this lower structure is now shaped (in cross-section) like a ziggurat, with terraces stepping back as the building ascends. The tower, too, has been chiselled into an uncommon form: In plan, it resembles a snub-nosed wedge of cheese, with its big end facing the Gardiner Expressway and its long sides angled so as to provide views toward the inner harbour.

The more conspicuous changes to the original scheme, however, have occurred on the tower's exterior. Earlier, the façade treatments were forthrightly sculptural, with strong pushes and pulls mediated by much precast concrete. Now, there is more extensive glazing – hence more transparency, and less weightiness. The sheer glass curtain wall, here and there punctuated by cantilevered glass-fronted balconies that punch out from the interior, is definitely more shiny than it was, and it's more prickly than stolid. (The base is still a heavy arrangement of large pre-cast frames.)

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On the whole, I think, the changes to the design have improved Monde's artistic performance. The tower façades are now less theatrical than they were, but they have not been muted completely. And Mr. Vihant is surely correct in his belief that pulling the tower up and dropping the lower part a couple of storeys have enhanced the overall balance of the composition.

But we are reminded by the early sketches of the project, as well as by what we know of Moshe Safdie's other works in Canada and abroad – one thinks especially of the highly sculptural Habitat housing development in Montreal, from 1967, and his National Gallery in Ottawa – that he likes to make sweeping architectural statements. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. Be that as it may, at least one of the architect's characteristic grand gestures is evident in the final version of Monde – and I'm not sure it's a good thing.

I'm talking about the enormous lobby. If renderings can be believed, this looming space could make coming and going seem like a trek through an airport or some other vast institutional transit zone. It certainly doesn't say "home" to me. Somehow, a front door should always say that, even when the place you call home is just an apartment alongside 543 others.

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John More


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