When it comes to residential skyscrapers, Toronto could use more haute couture. A high-fashion high-rise, especially when raised at a key intersection or other conspicuous place, can be an exclamation point in an otherwise prosy cityscape. It can express the importance of a given spot on the urban map.
That said, effective city building only occasionally requires the services of a grand architectural couturier. Most sites, even at crossroads, merely ask for good tailoring – and some seem to cry out for nothing more glamorous than a little respect.
Take, for example, the misbegotten intersection of Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue, out in the old suburban vastness of North York. As a major junction in both the street and rapid-transit grids, it has long deserved special attention.
Until recently, it hasn’t gotten much. On one corner is a homely parking lot, development destiny unknown. On another is an unsightly strip mall with a fast-food joint and a 7-Eleven. The hulking concrete façades of the Sheppard Centre, an office-retail complex, frown down on the street from the north-east side. (Quadrangle Architects’ impending overhaul of the Sheppard Centre promises to do good things for the interior shopping mall – currently downmarket and dull – although the dowdy exteriors of the 1970s-era towers are to be largely untouched.)
Something different has happened, however, on the south-east corner, where the two-tower, mixed-use scheme called the Hullmark Centre is nearing completion. It’s not haute couture. It’s not flamboyant, ingenious, or show-offish. Rather, the project is sound architectural tailoring – a trim, bold, dignified instance of commercial Modernism – and it brings welcome respect to its particular location in the city.
Designed by Carlos Antunes and Clifford Korman, partners in Toronto’s Kirkor Architects and Planners, for Hullmark Developments and the Tridel real-estate concern, the Hullmark Centre is a small town stacked into the sky. The complex comprises 683 residential units, 240 commercial suites and 67,000 square feet of retail, including a spacious Whole Foods grocery store. There are 1,061 spaces for cars, and 700 for bicycles. (Showers are provided for bikers.)
Without going out into the weather, a homeowner can muscle up in the gym, have a movie party in the bookable theatre, visit a doctor, dentist, lawyer or accountant, and even get a nose job. Those residents who are employed in the downtown core moght find dressing for Toronto’s awful winter to be unnecessary on work days, since the buildings are connected directly to the subway. On fine days, residents and their friends can lounge or picnic in outdoor gardens that are as attractive and well appointed as any I’ve ever seen in a condo project.
The common areas – lobbies, lounges, theatre and so on – have been decorated and outfitted by Toronto interior designer Mike Niven. Working with a palette of rich woods and warm stone, Mr. Niven has fashioned spaces that are simple and inviting – plain, slightly formal, but not austere. The distinctive atmospheres he has created range from a sort of middlebrow chic (in the soaring lobby of the north residential tower), to gently rustic (in the outdoor areas). The art he has chosen catches the eye of the passerby, and (unlike the decor one usually encounters in condo corridors and amenity spaces) is lively and even memorable.
But for those of us who won’t be seeing much of the Hullmark Centre’s insides, what matters more than pictures on the wall is the urban design of the project – the way it addresses its site and the city beyond. In this regard, Mr. Antunes and Mr. Korman have done a solid job. The exterior geometry of the towers is well mannered and rational, and the surfaces of the volumes – composed of dark glass expanses outlined by white strips and stripes – are as energetic as they should be in a large, big-city building.
While the shafts of the towers make firm artistic statements in the rising skyline around Yonge and Sheppard, some of the nicest things about this project happen at grade. The sidewalks on the three street-facing sides of the complex, for example, are graciously wide. And instead of filling up every square foot of the 3.5-acre site with architecture, the designers have pulled back the most prominent façade of their building from the intersection, generating a new, curving piece of public realm at this otherwise indifferent corner.
The inner edge of this plaza is occupied, rather disappointingly, by a drugstore and a bank. It would have become a more sociable, successful place had a bouncy café or popular restaurant been found to face onto the open space, and perhaps spill out into it.
Blame for this mistake, of course, can’t be laid at the feet of the architects, who carved out the place for whatever tenants the developers could find to fill it. For what it is – not fine art, but architectural tailoring on an urban scale – the stone and steel fabric of the Hullmark Centre works.