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Cities are shaped by money. If you want to see this – not as a metaphor but in physical, concrete-and-brick terms – go to Toronto's club district, where low, century-old warehouses are being levelled to make room for tall slabs of condos. Each tower thrusts upward with its own equation: more height, more square feet, more revenue.

Yet one office complex, Queen Richmond Centre West, puts a wild spin on this logic. It is a new office block that's lifted six storeys in the air, floating above a pair of old brick-and-beam buildings. The glassy, 11-storey hunk of new space rests on three angular clusters of steel columns, and on the roof of the loft building at the corner. This arrangement of boxes has an almost magical simplicity: It seems to defy gravity, and the equally inevitable force of development pressure.

"The concept from the beginning was to retain a deep respect for the past," architect Dermot Sweeny says, "and to embrace an all-new future." But how do you add offices to a site while retaining much of the building stock that's already there? Sweeny&Co Architects, of which Mr. Sweeny is president, took on that challenge for its long-time client Allied Properties REIT.

The result is one of the most exciting projects of Toronto's current building boom – and a model for how heritage preservation and innovative design can support each other.

For Queen Richmond Centre West, designed by Sweeny&Co Architects for Allied Properties, a huge office is propped up with massive steel ‘jacks.’ (Photo: doublespace Photography, Courtesy of Sweeny&Co Architects)

Mr. Sweeny, partner John Gillanders and their team took a hard look at this site at the corner of Richmond and Peter streets. Allied owned a cluster of structures here, two of them loft buildings that are valued by tenants. “We realized that, to do this, we had to figure out how to put a building in the sky,” Mr. Sweeny says.

The architects’ scheme stripped back the site to the two loft structures, which sat side by side, separated by one arm of an L-shaped gap. Working with Stephenson Engineers, they figured out how to make the tower-in-the-air work. The loft building at the corner was gutted and fitted with a new concrete structure. The L became an atrium. Within the atrium sit those massive steel assemblies – “jacks” as the design team calls them. Each is a bundle of round columns that reach up from the ground, meet at a round “node” in the air, and then swerve upward to carry the loads above. Those nodes were designed and made with local fabricators Cast Connex; all the angles, as Mr. Gillanders explains, help transfer the forces that gravity and wind exert on the building above.

The structural gymnastics are in plain sight in the atrium. I stood there recently with the architects, looking up at the cleaned-up outer brick walls around us, the 75-foot-tall jacks like sculptures on display, with the warm fall sunlight flooding through six-storey-high windows. It was easy to forget that thousands of tonnes of concrete and steel were hanging above our heads.

But upstairs is where the future of the building lies. Above the 40,000 square feet of rebuilt office space in the old corner building is the 246,000 square feet in the new upper chunk. The complex is now home to the architects and to Allied’s own offices. The developers are on the top level, in an open floor filled with generously sized work stations and a few elements, such as benches made with Douglas fir recycled from the bones of the loft building below. The office, as with the rest of the new space, has a strong list of sustainable features: operable windows and a highly efficient ventilation system to ensure good air quality and energy efficiency, while mechanized “light shelves” help control light and heat gain.

The space has a list of sustainable features: operable windows, highly efficient ventilation system and energy efficiency. (Photo: doublespace Photography, Courtesy of Sweeny&Co Architects)

I met Allied chief executive officer Michael Emory there, in a boardroom with spectacular views of the 19th-century neighbourhood at Queen and Spadina. He says the Queen Richmond Centre (QRC) project had been a gamble. “It was an unknown quantity,” he says. “Preserving the heritage structure entirely, and creating a new one that interacts with it in an interesting way, clearly has value to the city. But we didn’t know whether tenants would value it.”

They did. As the building-in-the-sky went up, it began leasing to a mix of creative and media companies, including anchor tenant Entertainment One – it’s now 95-per-cent occupied. What’s more, Mr. Emory says, it helped the developer – which is publicly traded – maintain its own reputation as a careful landlord of restored brick-and-beam buildings. “This was important to us,” he says. “It’s the creation of a new format of office space that is anchored in our brand.” History is their business.

But how to relate to that history? It would have been more conventional, Mr. Emory acknowledges, to demolish the loft buildings and fill the entire site with one new tower. Allied had the legal right to do this, since neither loft building was designated historic by the city. Then, the “heritage-preservation strategy” – a loose term in that case – would have been to apply some pieces of the old building’s façades, like Frankenstein’s skin, onto the new beast.

The building is now 95-per-cent occupied, leasing to a mix of creative and media companies. (Photo: doublespace Photography, Courtesy of Sweeny&Co Architects)

This practice is known as façadism, and it has a history in Toronto. In 1988, Adele Freedman, then The Globe’s architecture critic, complained about the many such “mutations” happening during that era’s building boom. “When architects start playing around with genetics,” she wrote, “monsters are inevitable.”

That is exactly what developers of other downtown office towers have done in this current boom. The most unforgivable example is the Concourse Building, an Art Deco gem at 100 Adelaide St. W. It has been levelled: Developer Oxford Properties is now grafting bits of the historic façade onto a 40-storey tower by architects KPF that otherwise would be attractive. They are creating a monster.

Allied’s strategy at QRC suggests another, more creative way. The company’s annual return on the $110-million redevelopment project will be around 10 per cent, Mr. Emory says, similar to what it would have expected had they wiped the slate clean and erected an entirely new building. “In the short-term, there probably isn’t a big difference in the relative returns,” he adds. “Over time, however, I strongly suspect the successful integration of old and new will make for a more stable and higher return.”

This matters to Toronto, because Allied owns a substantial chunk of the historic buildings in this part of the city, including nearly an entire city block on King Street, west of Spadina, the best string of loft buildings in the city. They will make it only if architecture and money work together once again.