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The Toronto Islands are a magical place, a world apart from the city. And yet getting there is a grim and disorienting experience. You walk past the two-lane maw of a parking garage, along a narrow plaza, and – after lining up to buy a ferry ticket – you are steered into an open-air holding pen. Visitors have no choice but to be pushed along by the mob. Locals, as in so many other parts of Toronto’s public realm, take the dysfunction for granted.

But that could change. This week, a design competition run by Waterfront Toronto brought forth five distinct visions for the site from five teams of top-flight designers. The proposals represent the rich state of landscape architecture today: bold in form, sometimes whimsical, attentive to ecology and hard-headed about the way people use public space. It’s a set of ideas as deep and nourishing as a Great Lake.

Some of the proposals, presented publicly at City Hall Monday night, dramatically reshuffle the site, which comprises Jack Layton Ferry Terminal and Harbour Square Park. Two effectively make the terminal disappear, merging it into large multi-purpose structures: KPMB Architects’ Bruce Kuwabara calls this “a fusion of terminal and park.” They assume that new ticketing technology would likely eliminate the need for a holding area, thereby freeing the whole park to serve as a waiting area full of lures and attractions.

One turns the park’s ground into a roof: the proposal by KPMB with landscape architects West 8 and local urban designer Ken Greenberg creates a lawn and then pulls up part of it, like an enchanted carpet, to form a green roof on top of a complex and beautiful skeleton of wood.

Another, “Civic Canopy,” by the New York architects Diller Scofidio+Renfro (with landscape architects and Hood Design and Toronto’s architectsAlliance), imagines a sculptural canopy that spans the site – a parametric trellis, that would provide shade for passengers and, at other times, for farmers’ markets or other community events. “There is an amazing opportunity to cap Bay Street with a new civic building that should be an icon,” DS+R’s Charles Renfro said in an interview. But that iconic quality “should grow out of a close read of the islands themselves. We tried to develop a building image which is distinctly architectural, but also tapping into the DNA of natural structures and systems.” Their canopy does that, evoking a whale skeleton while fitting into the architects’ oeuvre of digitally enabled formal explorations.

The five proposals

Cloud Park: Stoss Landscape Urbanism, nARCHITECTS and ZAS Architects

The opening move of this plan would be a literal cloud – mist, to provide a sense “that this is a fantastical place, a place like no other,” Chris Reed said. A series of treed mounds generate a rolling landscape that surrounds a splash pool/skating rink, and a play area. A new terminal building – relatively small in size – would serve as a park pavilion in the cold months. The designers imagine a swimming pool set within the water of the harbour, providing visitors the chance to feel immersed in the lake. The basin to the west would become a site for kayaking, active recreation in the water itself.

(summary and full proposal)

Clement Blanchet Architecture, RVTR and Batlle i Roig

The plan’s central element is a long pier-like platform that extends the line of Bay Street up a grand stair (“social carpet”) and reaches out south over the lake; this would meet a belvedere – an open, elevated platform, shaded by trees, that runs east-west across the site. To the east, a new glassed-in terminal building that Blanchet compared to a new Crystal Palace would be brightly illuminated and form “a lighthouse,” a beacon at night. To the west, a new swimming pool (which converts to a skating rink in winter) and playground would help keep the park busy year round. A formal garden that samples the landscapes of the region – orchard, forest, wetlands and sand dunes.

(summary and full proposal)

Civic Canopy: Diller Scofidio+Renfro, architectsAlliance and Hood Design

The site, Charles Renfro said, “has an obligation to become Toronto’s new civic icon.” The proposal eliminates the need for a terminal and holding area by wagering on new electronic ticketing technology. Its main element is a soaring wooden structure, “a lifted boardwalk” that will serve as a gateway to the islands and the harbour. Underneath the canopy, a smaller glassed-in “grow house” provides enclosed waiting area. Soft naturalized landscape along the water’s edge, designed by the landscape architect Walter Hood, would also include a large swimmable beach across about half of the site.

(summary and full proposal)

Harbour Landing: KPMB Architects, West 8 and Greenberg Consultants

In this proposal, a new terminal building becomes part of the landscape – its undulating wooden structure topped with a green roof that serves as space for play, recreation and a route for meandering across the site. Underneath this roof would be a glass-walled waiting area. As a quieter counterpoint, the adjacent green space would be planted with a mixture of lawn, glades of trees and flowerbeds, and the main pedestrian route would be a piazza paved in brick. To the west, an enclosed slip would be used for kayaking and, in the winter, converted to a skating rink. The promenade along the lakefront, which was designed by West 8, would be strongly defined here as a treed corridor across the site.

(summary and full proposal)

Quadrangle Architects, aLL Design, Janet Rosenberg & Studio

This proposal, led by the English architect Will Alsop, clads fairly straightforward buildings with some wild forms and hot colours. It would create a new terminal building, running east-west along the lake – open at the ground, with a “bar (juice or real)” upstairs, overlooking the harbour and connecting to a long, covered elevated walkway. The terminal building is hot pink, and both the paving of the pedestrian plaza and the roof would feature a bold waveform pattern. And the ground would be spotted with the designers “street creatures,” blobby, vaguely humanoid shapes that enclose waiting areas and ticket booths. The proposal also calls for a wading pool with an “urban beach” that borders a wading pool/skating rink; a swimming pool, at the level of the lake, would occupy the west end of the site.

(summary and full proposal)

Innovation to impress

DS+R are the closest thing to star designers in the competition – they are best known for their work on The High Line in New York, and will be in the spotlight for the new Broad Museum in Los Angeles later this year. (The office once contrived a “building” that consisted entirely of mist, a precedent that came up in its own proposal and another one, too.)

But the competition field includes a healthy mixture of well-known innovators, such as the English troublemaker Will Alsop, who led the design of OCADU’s Sharp Centre for Design, and West 8 and nARCHITECTS; skilled but under-the-radar practitioners, such as landscape architects STOSS; and seasoned locals, such as KPMB and ZAS. It’s pretty much the ideal blend to produce a mixture of careful analysis and new ideas.

Which is precisely the point. The site belongs to the city proper, but Waterfront Toronto – an arm’s-length agency that is charged with redeveloping much of downtown’s eastern waterfront – was brought in to run the design competition thanks to a push from local Councillor Pam McConnell. The waterfront agency has both the expertise to run a good competition and the backbone to make it happen. which is crucial since a competition such as this one doesn’t necessarily produce a finished and buildable design.

“We want it to be something exceptional,” says Waterfront Toronto vice-president Christopher Glaisek. “Our record is of using competitions to bring ideas that maybe haven’t been seen in Toronto before.” He cites Sugar Beach and Corktown Common – both the products of international competitions, both first-quality works of urbanism and landscape.

And they have been controversial: Sugar Beach was the topic of more than one attack from Rob Ford, as mayor, and councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, in each case claiming, falsely, that the parks were unreasonably expensive. Mr. Minnan-Wong now represents Mayor John Tory on the board of Waterfront Toronto. Given the political and economic realities of the city today, how likely are any of the schemes to be realized?

In the short term, they won’t. In the first place, the competition’s jury will recommend a winner or a combination of proposals. A first phase will use up a modest pot of money that the city’s parks department had allotted to improve the park, making sure that spending serves a long-range strategy. That larger strategy is unfunded, but Mr. Glaisek suggests that the strength of the ideas may drive the popular and political will to make it happen.

It’s a strong strategy, and I think when many Torontonians see the proposals – and vote on them this week – they will express enthusiasm, as Mr. Tory himself did in a warm speech at the presentation Monday night. From there, a jury will help develop a master plan for the area, which the city can then use to move ahead with rebuilding of the park.

If one proposal gets approved as is, it is likely to be Cloud Park, from the team of Stoss, nARCHITECTS and ZAS Architects, which appears to require the smallest budget and the fewest major moves. It is handsomely detailed, carefully considered and efficient – using a new terminal building to serve as the centre for the park’s new skating rink. Seeing even this built would be a victory.

But there are a range of other ideas – including hot tubs and swimming pools set into the lake, and the grand civic staircase suggested by Clemént Blanchet’s team – that deserve to be considered. Not to mention the grand ambitions of the DS+R and West 8/KPMB proposals. I hesitate to argue on their behalf, simply because they would require a very un-Fordian vision of what the city needs and deserves. But the mayor and the jury heard a good counterargument from Will Alsop, whose team offered a pragmatic and clearly considered design dressed up in hot pink accents and blobby “creatures.”

It’s difficult, Mr. Alsop suggested, to talk about fun when you talk about public space; no architect or politician, he implied, wants to be seen as frivolous. “But fun is very serious business,” Mr. Alsop continued. “Fun is how a space is judged, in the long term: Whether people enjoy being there.”

Call it fun, call it beauty, call it wonder – these qualities deserve a place in Toronto, and may yet find one.

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