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Architect Tony Coombes helped reshape Toronto’s core

Tony Coombes had a keen sense of aesthetics and place-making that informed both his personal style and his philosophy of city-building. Tony Coombes for Obit. "3 COL. ABSOLUTE MAX - NO CROPPING - 3 COL - ABSOLUTE MAX"

More than a decade into what's been called the urban century, Toronto has emerged as a global centre that has caught the attention of planners around the world. Despite gridlock and a scandal-plagued mayor, the city's 24/7 downtown has attracted a sustained run of investment from commercial and residential builders, homeowners, employers, cultural institutions and research organizations.

It would be easy to assume, as many do, that Toronto's boom is due to a mix of market forces and demographics. But the seeds of this renaissance were sown by a team of young planners in the early 1970s, chief among them Tony Coombes, an Australian-born architect whose fingerprints are all over the strategy that transformed Toronto's stagnating core into one of North America's most successful examples of mixed-use urbanism.

Mr. Coombes, whose career as a city builder took him to New York, Beirut and London, died June 10, 2013 at the age of 75.

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After leaving Toronto's planning department in the mid-1970s, he served as a senior adviser for Olympia & York, the Reichmann-owned development powerhouse that built New York's World Financial Center and London's Canary Wharf. He returned to Toronto in the early 1990s, and played a pivotal role in the creation of the tri-level agency now redeveloping the city's waterfront.

Friends, family members and colleagues describe him as a quiet and deeply cerebral figure who never sought the limelight. He kept a quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein over his desk: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

"He was infuriatingly determined to get to the heart of any matter," says planner Joe Berridge, who worked with Mr. Coombes at the city in the early 1970s and later in a consulting partnership.

Burton Kassell, an old friend in New York, recalls that he once asked Mr. Coombes for his advice on building a house. "Coombes said, the way to approach it was to first ask, 'What is a house?'"

Yet Mr. Coombes also had a keen sense of aesthetics and place-making that informed both his personal style and his philosophy of city-building. "My Dad," says his daughter Zoe, an architect, "understood beauty, understood and trusted beautiful objects, and atmospheres that exceed understanding."

Patricia Goodwin, Mr. Coombes' partner, says that whenever they visited a city, he'd pore over local maps before setting out on foot to explore. "Whenever you walked into a city with Tony, the first thing he'd notice was how the streets related to the buildings. He'd say, 'this street works,' and start talking about it."

Anthony Christopher Coombes was born in Sydney in July 17, 1937, the younger of two children. His father, Ben, worked as a salesman for an Australian broadcaster and his mother, Enid, was a secretary. As a child, recalls Martha Shuttleworth – who was married to Mr. Coombes in the 1970s and later collaborated with him at the Neptis Foundation, a regional-planning think tank – he showed artistic ability, once painting a Madonna that was sold in a local gallery.

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His parents sent him to a Jesuit high school. Mr. Kassell recalls that he disliked the institution, and would later recount with pleasure how he once managed to "corner" one of the priests in a debate.

Although his father wanted Tony to learn a trade, he obtained a degree in architecture at the University of Sydney. There, he gravitated towards a left-leaning intellectual salon whose members met in pubs and called themselves "the Sydney Push." The group included art critic Robert Hughes and feminist Germaine Greer.

After he graduated, Mr. Coombes moved to Britain. But Ms. Shuttleworth says he so detested the rigidity of the British class system that he soon relocated to Stockholm, where he worked briefly in an architectural practice before enrolling in the graduate planning program at Columbia University.

New York, at the time, was ground zero in the epic battle between modernist planners and a populist movement, led by Jane Jacobs, to protect working-class neighbourhoods threatened with demolition.

In the midst of that tumult, Ms. Jacobs moved to Toronto, where a similar version of the same conflict was playing out with fights over the Spadina Expressway. In 1972, reformists led by David Crombie took control of city hall, and moved to ice plans to raze older neighbourhoods in favour of slab high rises.

Mr. Crombie knew he needed to completely rewire the city's zoning rules and hustled to assemble a team of ambitious planners to create land-use policies that would encourage people to both live and work downtown – a radical notion.

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A senior Toronto planner contacted a colleague at Columbia and asked him to recommend his brightest graduates. Mr. Coombes, who had started working for the City of Toronto in 1969, was on the list. He soon found himself appointed as central area planner. "Crombie attracted this incredible cadre of young talent," recalls Mr. Berridge. "He needed people to set the city on the new direction that the election had mandated. Tony was absolutely central to that effort."

Mr. Crombie recalls Mr. Coombes as a reserved figure with a rare ability to question even the policies that he himself was advocating. "Tony," he says, "was regarded by many as the guy who understood the theory the best."

The result of this hot-house reform was the "Central Area Plan" that paved the way for the downtown office boom as well as zoning rules meant to entice residential developers and homeowners to return to a core that was abandoned at night and scarred by parking lots.

In the years after that reform drive, many of Mr. Crombie's top planners, including Mr. Coombes, left to set up consulting practices or work for the Reichmanns, who referred to that group as their "Toronto tool box."

He took a position with O&Y's World Financial Center project in lower Manhattan. At one point, O&Y's architect, Cesar Pelli, suggested cladding the elevators in a rich fabric as way of discouraging hyped-up bond traders from defacing the interiors.

He commissioned a woven silk cloth in salmon, pale blue and gold, with a geometric pattern. The decoration plan didn't take, but Mr. Coombes kept the sample as a treasured object. "In the last little while," says Ms. Goodwin, "Tony and I had started working out how to hang this. It's now fallen to me to complete that project."

After Battery Park, Mr. Coombes relocated to London to advise O&Y on Canary Wharf, a controversial scheme to create a high-rise office cluster in the city's derelict east end.

On the day of the sod-turning, Mr. Coombes rode in a boat with Paul Reichmann and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher down the Thames to the ceremony. Ms. Shuttleworth says he wasn't star-struck, but came to admire Ms. Thatcher for her determination.

During the planning, he insisted on urban design moves meant to ensure that Canary Wharf would function as a piece of London and not just an office park. Mr. Berridge says the project, now widely accepted by Londoners, paved the way for last year's Olympics.

Mr. Coombes returned to Toronto in the early 1990s and set up an international consulting practice. With Mr. Crombie pushing an Olympic bid focused on the waterfront, Mr. Coombes was tapped to write a crucial report laying out the foundations for a development corporation that could cut through the knot of bureaucracy that had stalled development along the lake's edge. As part of that effort, he energetically argued for removing the Gardiner Expressway, describing it as an impediment to both investment and pedestrian access to the waterfront.

While Toronto didn't win the Games, the three orders of government agreed to invest $1.5-billion in the project and take up Mr. Coombes' advice on setting up a development corporation like the ones he'd seen in New York, London and his hometown, Sydney. Waterfront Toronto this spring celebrated the halfway mark of its mandate, with numerous projects on the go. The City of Toronto, meanwhile, appears to be rekindling the debate about removing a portion of the Gardiner.

Late last fall, Mr. Coombes fell ill with a suspected bronchial infection that turned out to be lung cancer. Ms. Shuttleworth says he refused to submit to self-pity, and continued to work, insisting he had more to accomplish.

By earlier this month, Mr. Coombes had been in and out of palliative care. He managed to spend his final days in his sun-drenched downtown apartment, accompanied by his daughter Zoe, Ms. Goodwin and Ms. Shuttleworth. Ms. Goodwin says he remarked that the disease progressed curiously, because he didn't lose his appetite or experience any pain; he mainly saw his energy ebb away.

One evening near the end, Ms. Shuttleworth recalls, the four of them settled into a meal of haddock, quinoa, asparagus and assorted fruit with whipped cream. "Tony insisted on bringing out delicious wine and we all clinked glasses."

As for Mr. Coombes' legacy, Mr. Berridge says this of his old friend and colleague: "Look around you. The fact that we have such a vibrant, mixed-use core is all because of the things he put in place."

A public tribute for Mr. Coombes will be held at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 25, 5 to 7 p.m.

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