Toronto has taken a long time to decide what we want Yonge Street south of Yorkville to become.
Laid out by city founder John Graves Simcoe in the 1790s as our great road north, Yonge seemed destined to be an important commercial thoroughfare. This did not happen during the Georgian or Victorian eras. Then, in the 1920s, the Eaton family of retailers decided to plant an Art Deco skyscraper and department store at the intersection of Yonge and College. For a moment, it seemed as if this stylish tower might provide the focus for a new downtown concentration of office buildings.
But the Great Depression scotched the scheme. Even architect Eberhard Zeidler's wonderful Toronto Eaton Centre, opened in 1979 – the family's second project that might have regenerated the avenue – did not give Yonge Street an urban identity in sync with its central location.
Now, however, late in the condo boom that has transformed the inner city, Yonge is on track to acquire just such an identity. It will be, for at least the next couple of hundred years (if the buildings last so long), a strip of tall, often very tall, residential towers.
This definition of the southernmost extent of Yonge Street as a place for high-density dwelling is (for better or worse) an important event in Toronto's ongoing understanding of itself. And future Torontonians will surely view the results of this definition – the structures that are actually raised on Yonge according to it – as evidence of the quality of imagination and flair possessed by developers, planners and architects in this town at the dawn of the 21st century.
How will citizens a hundred years hence think of us, for example, when they consider the 78-storey retail and residential building known as Aura, now nearing completion at the corner of Yonge and Gerrard? (For the record: Aura is the handiwork of Toronto-based Graziani + Corazza Architects, who designed it for Candarel Stoneridge Equity Group.)
They will know, I imagine, that we weren't people afraid of great heights or big volumes. After it is finished and occupied later this year, Aura will be (for a while) the tallest and (with nearly a thousands units spread over 1.1 million square feet) the largest condo block on Yonge Street, or anywhere else in Canada. Retail operations, including a huge Bed Bath & Beyond store and pop star Madonna's own Hard Candy Fitness centre, take up 180,000 square feet in the tower's three-level base, which is open for business even as construction on the residential segment continues high overhead.
People in the future may congratulate present-day engineers on their skill in reconciling physics with the needs of the commercial real-estate industry. The immense weight of Aura, for example, is carried elegantly downward into the ground via a massive central tube and just eight perimeter pillars. To the greatest degree that gravity will allow, then, the retail interiors at the base are column-free.
But it is possible that, judging from Aura and other tall condo buildings put up in Toronto at the same time, these critics in the year 2114 will also think our developers, architects and planners were too intimately wedded to design formulas that limited the art of the skyscraper.
Back in 2014, for instance, every new high-rise had to rise from a stout podium. Though the know-how existed to vivify the shapes of towers – by variously stacking, twisting or bending the volumes – few designers were willing to challenge the old modernist orthodoxy of right angles in plan and elevation. And though top-to-bottom glazing had been exposed as environmentally inefficient, towers were still being clad, for the most part, with routine expanses of glass. At the turn of the third millennium, the practical crafting of tall buildings – the aesthetic daring of the enterprise – seemed to have advanced hardly at all since the 1970s, despite quantum leaps forward in imaging technology and creative thinking about what the tall building could be.
Granted, the glassy upper portion of Aura's shaft is tamely convex. But this move is not bold enough to cancel the general impression of same-old, same-old projected by the building as a whole. The makers of Canada's largest apartment tower should have been equally expansive in their artistic ambitions. They weren't; and the result is a very big chunk of steel, glass and concrete that adds little architectural beauty to a city in need of a lot of it.
But Aura is not the end of this transformative chapter in Yonge Street's long history. Other tall residential structures – including some that promise to be better, if not bigger – are under construction, or are on the drawing boards. I'm sure that still other skyscrapers will be proposed for spots along the downtown stretch of Yonge. We can hope that they embody some of the fresh ideas about building tall that are currently making the rounds of skyscraper fans everywhere.