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Toronto Light or blight? How Toronto's ugly Aura condo tower came to be

Hit the lights! When Aura, at the corner of Yonge and Gerrard, turned on its exterior decorative lighting about a year ago, the downtown Toronto skyline changed dramatically. The 78-storey condominium tower was capped by long vertical icicles of acid-white LEDs: Many Torontonians were surprised.

And so were some of the city's planning staff. Through several years of discussion and negotiations with developer Canderel and architects Graziani & Corazza, there had been talk of lights – but nobody, it seems, realized quite how big or bright they were going to be. And on the drawings that were submitted to the city for approval in 2012, there are no lights shown at all.

In other words, the brightest thing on the city's skyline, a gaudy and ugly design move that touches the lives of many thousands of people, showed up more or less by surprise.

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"It's a bit of a grey area, to be perfectly accurate," explains David Oikawa, manager of the downtown area for the city's planning office. "Decorative lighting is not covered by the Ontario Building Code, so someone could add them without a permit." And back in 2012, the city's site plan approval process didn't ask specific questions about such things.

How is that possible? In architecture and urban design, details matter profoundly. Tall buildings have a lot of details to keep track of, and Toronto is getting a lot of new tall buildings.

And some of them, such as Aura, have been terrible. The bright lighting is only the topper. The building begins in an underground mall that is utterly dead; owners of units there are suing the developers, alleging misrepresentation. Then the tower meets the street in a mess of opaque storefronts in front of a crowded concrete sidewalk; rises through a cluttery hunk of big-box store, and then keeps going up as an indecisive, inelegant collage of slab and ovoid.

To better understand how this thing took shape, I asked architect Barry Graziani of Graziani & Corazza to explain the rationale for that very visible detail, the lighting. "These linear lights capture the shape," he said, "so that at night you can see the curvature of the tower."

It turns out that the idea came up during a process of design review with city planners and outside architects, a sort of peer-review process similar to the city's current design review panel. "One of the questions was: 'Have you thought about lighting up the tower, because it is going to be prominent on the city skyline?'"

What happened next is unclear; Mr. Graziani recalls presenting these details to the panel. But Bruce Kuwabara, a prominent architect who was part of that process, says the scale and brightness of the elements weren't clear. "Aura has a much brighter tower top than anyone had anticipated," Mr. Kuwabara says. "I don't think anyone believed that the effect would be so bright and intrusive on the skyline."

And intrusive is the right word. Lights of this brightness can lure migratory birds to their deaths. This is why the city has altered its Green Standard to deal with lighting; and in the case of Aura, planners negotiated with the developer to turn the lights off at 10:30 p.m. from mid-August to mid-October, migration season.

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It's just as bad in architectural terms. The lighting arrogates a place for the building on the skyline; the form of the tower and the expression of the façade are neither beautiful nor memorable, but the powerful LEDs grab your attention in the dark. And what message do they send? They remind you what that clunky tower looks like. The building talks about itself, and has nothing interesting to say.

There are lessons to be learned.

First of all, Toronto needs more planners. The city's approvals process is arduous. In short, every large new building requires an amendment to the city's outdated zoning by-law; this means each new condo or office building gets approved through a negotiation between developers and planners, covering all aspects from height and density down to small architectural details. It's an epic haggle, repeated hundreds of times a year. As of Dec. 31, there were 2,420 development projects in progress, being overseen by 87 community planners along with other staff. Particularly in downtown or other hot areas of Toronto such as Yonge-Eglinton, this represents a staggering workload for city planners. They have to choose their battles.

On the other side, developers employ their own planners, architects, lawyers and other consultants: These people are well-paid, well-prepared and committed to their clients' bottom line. If the city refuses a project and it's appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, the same dynamic holds: well-paid consultants against harried city staff. The results are not always in the public interest – and buildings, such as Aura, will be here for generations to come.

Which leads to the second and more important point: the development industry's lack of civic responsibility. If you're going to build tall, you have a duty to make the street and the city better. That means you hire the most talented architects available and give them the budget and authority to make a good building. You don't wait for the city to coax and goad you into design quality.

This is not how developers like Canderel seem to think – and no wonder. When they sell condo units, they're selling something that doesn't yet exist. The illustrations they use to promote their proposed buildings are very handsome, but bear the small print: "artist's concept" or "artist's rendering." Then there is the real thing, as at Aura, where the bottom levels are clumsily articulated in cheap windows and precast concrete. When I raised this with Mr. Graziani, he actually laughed. "That's the rendering," he said. "… And in Toronto you build to a budget."

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Canderel declined to comment for this piece, but it's safe to assume that from their point of view (aside from the lawsuit), it was a success. They've sold the apartments, and the major retail spaces too. They have taken their profits and moved on.

But does the company care whether that massive and massively visible building, which has changed Yonge Street and Toronto's skyline, is good architecture?

The evidence suggests not. If they cared, the space in front of the building would be wide, and not cluttered by patios. The sidewalk would be paved with granite, not cheaper concrete. And they would have insisted on better design. At Aura, Graziani & Corazza executed what was, in Mr. Graziani's words, a "very, very complicated building" that is, all the same, ugly.

And then they put some lights on top.

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