Frank Gehry's work of art in Toronto has gotten a rework. And it looks great.
David Mirvish, the impresario-turned-developer, introduced the major Mirvish + Gehry project with the architect last year, and he presented it as a challenge to the city. Playing on Toronto's civic insecurity, he laid out the terms: This is Mr. Gehry's vision, he said; the city should accept it entirely if we have the guts.
This was never going to happen. The scheme had serious problems and had no chance of winning approval. Mr. Gehry's model was vague, and it was never clear how the cascading sheets of glass would actually get detailed and built. The whole thing was, as I wrote at the time, basically a bluff. But this week, after an unusual planning process, Mr. Mirvish revealed the end result: a new plan that is both realistic and much improved.
The new project – which now includes very tall condo buildings, a new art gallery open to the public and space for OCAD University – represents a 21st-century city that is thriving and culturally ambitious. If and when it's built, it will create two of Toronto's most important buildings. There's nothing timid about it.
The architecture of the scheme is still in flux, but the model on displayed this week is compelling. It shows two towers on King Street West, down from the original three but reaching a greater height: one (east of Duncan Street) at 82 storeys tall, the other to the west at 92 storeys. Each would have an irregular form, rising straight up before veering out into space with dramatic cantilevers. Each would be two-faced: one glassy on the south face, and solid (perhaps wrapped in terra cotta) on its north side; the other, the opposite.
Down on the ground, the new plan spares three of five buildings that currently occupy the site, including two warehouses – designated heritage buildings – and the Princess of Wales Theatre. One of the warehouses will become the home to Mr. Mirvish's new museum, showing his collection of modern sculpture and painting. The glass facades ruffle and billow like skirts in the breeze, evoking his lovely IAC Building in New York.
Mr. Gehry is famous for continuing to work with his designs until as late as possible. But I have faith it will come out well. Mr. Gehry is famous for wildly expressive buildings that are sculptural in the best sense of the word – but he also makes buildings that work. By all accounts he runs a tight ship, and his office builds well. Mr. Gehry's renovation of the AGO, a sublime and very finely detailed project, is proof.
The King Street proposal is big, aesthetically bold but urbanistically sensitive. It now has the explicit support of the city's staff and political leadership, councillor Adam Vaughan and chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat – who to her credit answered Mr. Mirvish's challenge publicly, with ambition and backbone. Ms. Keesmaat publicly called out the project for overreaching, toughed out some ill-informed criticism, and sent it to a special panel for some quiet study and negotiations with Mr. Mirvish.
For his part, Mr. Mirvish – a novice developer – played the politics of development very well. When he introduced the project last year it was with bold rhetoric about creating "a work of art." He wondered whether the city was ready for Frank Gehry's vision. "The made-in-Toronto solution is 'Fit in with what exists,'" he said in a speech to the Empire Club.
This focused the debate on Mr. Mirvish's civic ambitions and the promise of seeing his art collection on display; on Mr. Gehry's childhood roots in Toronto; and the prospect that this globally famous designer – the one contemporary architect that most people have actually heard of – would build here, and big.
It also helped obscure the truth: That three-tower "work of art" was, really, a starting point for negotiations. The scale of the development was enormous, with a profit-making piece of 2,600 condos plus a shopping mall; its construction would have been highly complex and financially risky.
It also would've broken planning rules, many of them, setting negative precedents along the way. The height and size of the towers, and their arrangement quite close to each other, were only part of the problem. The destruction of four designated heritage buildings was unnecessary and inexcusable, and made the project less interesting. Other issues (like a lack of amenity space for residents) were prosaic but serious. Most importantly, to my mind, was the scale of the shopping mall/gallery complex on the west end of the site. It would have loomed over the block like a bespoke battleship.
When the new proposal emerged after a special planning process – according to Mr. Gehry's staff, ostensibly this version was just designed over the past few weeks – it marked a dramatic improvement.
As Mr. Mirvish knows, any tall building stirs up two strong reactions in today's Toronto. On one hand, resentment: There are those who imagine an older, quieter, less populous city being overshadowed by a forest of condos, and they are peeved. (Never mind that Toronto has had high-rise buildings, by the hundreds, for longer than most of us have lived here.) On the other hand are the cheerleaders for a bigger, shinier, more ambitious city; for some people, no tower is tall enough. Each new spire is a sign of our metropolitan future.
Those emotions are inevitable, after two decades of sustained population growth and the large-scale redevelopment of downtown. But the emergence of this new proposal – which will likely get built – is a sign of a city that is working. Back in 1973, Toronto's city council was worried about a wave of new development, so they temporarily capped new downtown buildings at 45 feet. This summer, council will likely approve a tower that reaches, artfully, 92 floors into the sky.