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The Perfect House

A high rise for high society Add to ...

Toronto will have to wait until the Ritz-Carlton building opens on Wellington Street West next year to see whether the accommodations in this hotel and condominium tower live up to the chain's famous luxury brand. It seems likely: The 156 ample residential suites, ranging in size from 1,100 square feet to 10,000 square feet, are selling at around $1,000 a foot. And the ratio of staff to guests in the hotel component, about two to one, will be high enough to insure that everyone who stays at the hotel will be pampered to the max.

But it's not too early to speculate about the contribution this tall building will make to Toronto's skyline and the city's treasury of new skyscrapers.

In my view, that contribution probably won't amount to very much at all.

Designed by the New York firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox, and now under construction by Graywood Developments Ltd., the Ritz-Carlton tower does, however, sport a couple of features worth noting.

One is the massive glass-enclosed podium, which rises above Wellington Street to the height of a ten-storey building. Daringly cantilevered to create an open, support-free porte-cochere at street level, this floating volume will contain the ballroom, spa and other amenities. The comings and goings of people outside the ballroom will be visible through the transparent glass walls of the structure, activating the building from the points of view offered by the sidewalk below.

(This pushing of interior pedestrian movement toward glass-fronted façades appears to be a popular move among designers of large Toronto buildings. Other recent examples include Frank Gehry's renovated Art Gallery of Ontario, with its Galleria Italia sweeping along Dundas Street West; A. J. Diamond's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on University Avenue; and Peter Clewes' Four Seasons hotel and condominium complex, now under construction in Yorkville.)

Another thing of middling interest about the Ritz-Carlton is the flare its designers have built into the top-most levels. Seen from the streets nearby, the highest 28 storeys of the residential section gradually lean up to six degrees out of the perpendicular, making the building seem to nod slightly toward Front Street West, the CN Tower, and Lake Ontario beyond.

But neither this architectural gesture, nor the huge glass podium pressing toward the street, lift this building above the very ordinary. And whatever its designers and engineers decide to do at the summit - a gleaming light-box is planned, though details have not been made final - it probably won't help to relieve the overall tedium of the project. The tower is a grey, shiny slab that could have been put up in the dull 1970s. The podium, despite its cantilevering, hits the ground with a mighty thud. And the rear façade, for all its slight canting outward at the top, is basically a routine expanse of glass.

When I talked to him last week, Richard Tucker, Graywood's director of construction for the Ritz-Carlton, explained how much easier advanced computer modelling had made the task of calculating such things as the cantilever's mass and support structure. The new approaches to design opened up by digital technology enable engineers and architects to generate novel forms that can nevertheless be made to stand up.

So, with all the computer toys now available to designers and their helpers, why aren't we seeing more evidence of formal innovation in the tall buildings going up all around us?

The main reason usually given, of course, is the cost. It's a lot cheaper to build straight up-and-down buildings (or almost straight up-and-down towers like the Ritz-Carlton), therefore that's what Toronto gets, one after another, with few variations.

Toronto needs a new generation of developers who don't have their heads stuck in the box and who glimpse the imaginative possibilities of investing in contemporary design.

The architects who can provide such technologically advanced designs are with us today. And developers with wide mental horizons definitely exist elsewhere, as evinced by the variously curved, folded, twisted, stacked and otherwise non-orthogonal towers that have risen or will soon be rising in London, Paris, Barcelona, New York and elsewhere.

The Ritz-Carlton tower is one member of a new family of five-star hotels already open or soon to open in Toronto. The Four Seasons, the Hazelton, Shangri-La and others belong in this exclusive company. Toronto should have such deluxe digs available to its visitors and citizens, and we should be glad to be getting them. What the city needs now is more five-star design in our tall buildings.

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