Will Alsop once told an interviewer: "Being an architect is to some extent a performing art, because you've got to keep people up, you've got to keep the whole situation buoyant. … I've noticed that the best and most successful projects are when everyone just keeps smiling."
Judged by that measure, the British designer's latest Toronto venture, called Alaska, is definitely shaky. (It's a co-production by Mr. Alsop and Toronto's Quadrangle Architects.)
Unsmiling residents in Yonge Street districts between Eglinton Avenue and Lawrence Avenue have dotted their lawns with signs that ask, "Why Alaska?" and call for the 130-unit residential development to be squashed. Leaders in the local citizens' group (the Uptown Yonge Neighbourhood Alliance) were surely not smiling when they pinned up their well-researched objections on the organization's website.
For my own part, I had to smile when I saw the renderings of what Mr. Alsop has in mind for the corner of Yonge Street and Strathgowan Avenue. Alaska, after all, is exactly the kind of design I would have expected this perennial outsider to propose for a site in staid, conventional North Toronto.
It has a pugnaciously eccentric podium composed of six storeys that curve inward as they rise, giving this feature the wide-bottomed profile of a Victorian greenhouse or a Quonset hut. The seventh storey is a short waist between the podium and a three-storey glass-clad slab that is smartly cantilevered out toward Yonge Street. The lower part of the building is to be draped with lacy metal netting. It is all very white, which further sets it apart from the brown brick facades of single-family homes round about.
In fact, the building makes no polite bows at all toward its sedate architectural context. Like OCAD University's Sharp Centre for Design in Toronto, and like other punchily poetic works Mr. Alsop has recently done in Britain, Alaska (if built out as proposed) will be brusquely indifferent to the virtues (much admired in these parts) of fitting in. It will draw its attitude and artistic energies from the new city of commotion, surprise and high density, and argue against what's routine and traditional about Toronto's urban culture. One thing it won't be: dull.
We wouldn't want outspoken architecture of this sort at every intersection. Every new building does not need to make an exuberant fuss about itself (as Alaska well may) or express a cutting-edge creative sensibility. But Alaska might just work well in the spot it has been designed for, as a starkly dramatic contrast to all that surrounds it. The structure could freshen up the old, rather tired streetscape, like a brand-new tie worn with last year's suit.
Now I'll wipe the grin off my face and deal with one of the non-aesthetic questions that will, or already have, come up during the city's official approvals process.
One that I take seriously has to do with the demolitions necessary to clear the ground for Alaska. In all, four older buildings will have to go. None is a treasure, but three of them contain a total of 28 units of rental housing. As everyone knows, Toronto's real-estate industry has not been investing in new rental apartments over the last several years. This situation could change in the near future. But even if it does, the city will still need to hold on to every rental property it has.
True, a planning staff report issued last spring indicates that developer Bianca Pollock will make 28 of Alaska's 130 suites rentals. But that's just one-for-one replacement of what will be lost. If the citizens of North Toronto want to mount a crusade, they might try to persuade Ms. Pollock to build in even more rental units.
Such an effort might have a desirable social outcome, whereas their campaign against Alaska's anti-contextual art will do nothing more than get in the way of an interesting experiment.
Unless, of course, the city, for its own reasons, stops it first. According to the neighbourhood group's website – and their contentions appear to be correct – Alaska would break every rule in the city's official bible. It's too tall. It doesn't step back from the street properly. Above all, it's rude – and the Official Plan specifically forbids new developments to be rude.
I understand the need for enforceable municipal regulation – without it, the people next door would be raising chickens – but I draw the line when it begins to frustrate invention and curiosity.
So what if Alaska turns out to be irresponsible? We'll survive. What we won't survive is timidity and mediocrity of civic imagination. Toronto needs this project, just to find out if we are still capable of thinking boldly about our urban fabric.
Why Alaska? That's why.