Earlier this summer, the creative people who thought up and then spearheaded the Pug Awards for Toronto architecture almost a decade ago – notably, interior designer Anna Simone and financier Gary Berman – passed out prizes for the last time.
I, for one, am sorry to see the Pugs go.
Each spring since 2005, the Internet referendum on the previous year’s completed buildings has given Torontonians an enjoyable chance to express publicly their opinions about the city’s newest architecture. And folks didn’t have to defer to a jury of experts. Each architecturally interested citizen who wanted to take part could declare, online, his or her love, liking or loathing for recent Toronto structures (as a rule) 50,000 square feet or more in area.
The developers and designers of the best-loved projects took home the trophies and honourable mentions. By the end, the Pug process had become a fixture on Hogtown’s cultural calendar, like Luminato or the Beaches jazz festival.
So what have we learned from the Pugs?
One thing is that the surge in multiunit housing construction, at least in the eyes of the Pugs’ self-selected judges, is an aesthetic calamity more serious than some imagined.
Of the 32 residential projects nominated for recognition in the 2014 race, merely seven received positive scores. The other 25 received scorn. These numbers suggest that folk wisdom about the real-estate boom is true: Toronto is intensifying rapidly, which we should be glad about – a total of 32 new apartment buildings is not too many for one year – but not beautifully. (The Pugs held architects and developers publicly accountable for what they did to the city, which was a necessary community service.)
Few of the buildings that have garnered high marks over the years recalled stylistic epochs or movements earlier than the last mid-century. If the Pugs have provided a credible index to popular taste in this city, the roster of winners in the residential category show that culturally savvy townsfolk are most comfortable, most of the time, with abstract, postwar, homegrown modernism.
It’s true that, in 2009, voters stepped back in time and gave the top prize to the luxury condo tower called One St. Thomas, a Deco-inspired pastiche by the retrospective American architect Robert A. M. Stern.
More typically, however, the “people’s choice” (highest) award has been handed over to Canadians working in a late-modernist manner. ArchitectsAlliance got it in 2006 for the firm’s trim, elegant 18 Yorkville, and Stephen Teeple in 2010 for his terse and subtle housing co-operative at 60 Richmond St. E. Core Architects were chosen in 2011 for their mid-rise Seventy5 Portland, and in 2013 for the deluxe apartment house known by its address, 500 Wellington St. W.
The pick from the residential field in 2014 was in line with the Pug public’s tradition of celebrating modernity, though it did signal a willingness to look for excellence beyond the direct legacy of the Bauhaus. The people’s choice was the River City complex’s first phase, a provocatively dark, irregularly shaped condominium designed by Gilles Saucier, co-founder of Saucier + Perrotte, based in Montreal. “It is about sculpting a black art object,” Mr. Saucier told me not long ago – “something with materiality that will look very strong and expressive on the site.”
The whole River City development, now moving on into its third phase, promises to be one of Toronto’s most exciting housing ventures – or so I and the Pug voters think.
To mark this year’s swan-song of the Pugs, the organizers invited the public to choose, not only the best in show for 2013, but also Toronto’s best residential scheme finished since the contest was launched. Triumphant in the latter category was 500 Wellington West, the handiwork of Core Architects for developer Peter Freed.
Core’s 10-storey block of 15 large flats – areas range from 2,500 square feet to almost 6,000 square feet – is indeed an excellent example of animated but carefully focused contemporary styling. Its spacious interiors are expressed in the dramatic Wellington Street façade by wide, rhythmic expanses of glass that vary in visual weight from level to level. Iron-black brick and dark metal frames generate a broad, strong pulse across the surface.
Situated on a narrow lot among old warehouses and newer condo stacks, the building delivers a few volts of modernistic electricity to its elderly streetscape – but nothing radical or wildly futuristic or fanciful. It represents the kind of chaste, commercially viable architectural modernity Pug voters showed, again and again, that they admired.
Every year, the sponsors of the Pugs’ month-long online balloting period asked Torontonians to reflect, take stock of the changes being wrought in the urban fabric, to consider what kind of city we want. We’ll go on thinking about such matters, of course. But we’ll miss the annual stop-and-look occasion the Pugs gave us for doing so.