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Toronto architects look to infinity and beyond

Shame on you, Ontario Association of Architects.

No, really, you're a great governing body and you've always been very nice, but how dare you leave us wanting more with your tiny, tantalizing Nuit Blanche tidbits.

You even made your installation all mysterious. Sure, the topic was the "Future of Architecture," but did you have to use a crazy collection of video screens – the diamond-shaped screen containing the speaker's head was placed on a podium, which sort of reminded me of the heads-in-jars on television's Futurama – and dry ice to get your point across?

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"The Ontario Association of Architects has been given a mission by the Province of Ontario to promote architecture that benefits the public," explains OAA president Sheena Sharp. "To this end, we created the 'Future of Architecture' installation at the Design Exchange to display our members' creativity, predictions and optimism for the future."

Oh, okay, you're on a mission – that's good. But, still, my head was spinning after leaving the old trading floor the night of Sept. 29. I mean, think about what the 28 OAA members said on that 23-minute looping video. For instance, Fadia Pahlawan of Studio ArchiFad predicted the future was going to involve building our residences and workplaces on "platforms" in the water, using the waves below for transportation.

In "Pavilion City," Pro Vision Architecture's David Eqbal replaced roads with elevated, solar-powered tunnels; but will we feel like messages-in-a-bottle shunted around in one of those old department store pneumatic tube systems? Sheldon D. Rosen has conjured up building sites out of the thin air over major intersections by straddling structures over top and planting their "feet" on each corner. Crazy! And what are those swoopy, green "creatures" Melissa Mazik has attached to our office towers? Are they really giant gas masks that will filter their air?

Heady stuff, so I decided to follow up with a few more of these architectural prognosticators.

Onespace president and principal Rod Rowbotham thinks future Torontonians will live in First Canadian Place or the TD Centre.

C'mon, seriously? "You know what, we're already doing that," he answers, referring to his company's transformation of the 1957 Imperial Oil building at 111 St. Clair Ave. W. into a home for 700 people, give or take. "Did these architects ever think for a minute that this would no longer be a corporate headquarters?" he asks rhetorically. One hundred years from now, he explains, technology will make commuting to a physical workplace obsolete. Plus, our extra-green descendants won't allow the demolition of a multi-storey skyscraper: "You'll want to reuse it," he says. "What [our] concept does is it allows new memories and new life experiences to be implanted onto a structure that we created as a society."

And to ensure those structures will still be recognizable, Mr. Rowbotham and his team dreamt up a "transparent building material" that "cradles" the towers so they'll still be visible, but new mass containing residences, public space, and even transit can be added both vertically and horizontally. Now all Onespace needs is for Star Trek's Mr. Scott to travel back in time and hand over the formula for transparent aluminum. The suburban home of the future will surround us with a "technological web simultaneously physical and virtual," says Duncan Patterson, who studied present-day items, from expensive automation systems to everyday adjustable beds for his master's thesis. Then, he projected: "Well, we've got this mirror here, but people also want to catch up on the news while they're shaving, so why not also embed an LCD screen … but then, why not also install a multi-touch sensor, so rather than just passively experiencing that information, you can interact with it?"

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Since the fireplace is passé in the future, we'll get a "new hearth" that is more of a "theatrical space" where family members will gather around a large wall screen that's linked to their personal tablet computers. Some will choose to share videos, while others will quietly read a book on their private screens. The bathroom will become a "home health care centre" by calculating your body mass index and taking a urine sample while you're otherwise, er, occupied. And even the humble coffee cup will become wired, he says…or not: "I was trying to be provocative, I admit it," Mr. Patterson laughs.

The role of the architect in all this, he finishes, will be to marry this technology to our living spaces so that "a lot of the things we've come to expect, or like about our homes, aren't completely destroyed."

And speaking of not destroying things, that's Danielle Sernoskie's conclusion after studying laneways while at U of T. Exploring all 36 kilometres (her estimate) of Toronto's alleys over a summer – many of which she had to ferret out herself since records are sketchy – she began her journey thinking about what she should build or install: "As an architecture student you're thinking in the back of your mind, 'I should be designing – that's the whole point – I need to produce something.'"

Try as she might, her mind never wandered to big gestures, such as bridges, single houses or, worse, rows of houses: "My gut wouldn't let me do it," she says. So, she came up with "unique little interventions that would make people want to hang out there," such as seating, lighting, or the replacement of pavement with soft grass. After more research, which included speaking with graffiti artists and architects of laneway housing, she finally decided to design nothing at all, but rather be a sort of "curator" of the grittiness that already exists.

The future, then, for Ms. Sernoskie is one of "restraint" in the face of "rapid urban growth.

"Luckily for me, my professors were really supportive of the idea of letting go and saying that sometimes, as an architect, you have to know when to say when."

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"When" is a good word to end this on, since that's the big question, isn't it? But there's no shame in the Ontario Association of Architects doing the asking for all of us.

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