In the real estate world, marketing people and proud architects occasionally insist that a building is a work of art. That is sometimes true, but architecture is not sculpture: Making a good building demands all kinds of good urban wisdom, technical skills, good money and a good piece of land.
Likewise, if you start with an interesting site, you will likely get an interesting building. A case in point is the property at 138 St. Helen's Ave., near Bloor and Lansdowne. It is a rough beauty: a former cold-storage warehouse, with contaminated soil, hard against a rail corridor, jammed in by houses and a plumbers' garage.
But it also borders on a park. And that made it attractive to Vancouver developers Aragon Properties, who are about to market a building with 90 condo units and 20,000 square feet of office space. The design, by RAW Design with ongoing work by Quadrangle Architects, is a three-dimensional pile of blocks that will look different from every corner. It reflects some smart city-building and also a mad spirit of invention.
Yes, things are getting interesting.
"Toronto developers have never had to work that hard for their sites," says Quadrangle's Richard Witt, the architect who is leading the project. "And now, suddenly, they're going to." For Mr. Witt, a talented and ambitious architect who's now a principal at Quadrangle, this call from the West Coast represents a challenge on several levels.
He describes the building as "a kinked tower," but in fact it's more like three buildings: two L-shaped blocks, each four storeys tall, arranged to frame a courtyard, and a five-storey bridge across the middle from one to the other. The forces shaping those forms are many: rail lines, zoning rules, views and, yes, a fair bit of artistry.
Point number one: zoning. "The site," Mr. Witt, explains, "is actually designated employment use." That is to say, commercial or industrial, the type of areas that city hall is fighting to preserve in the downtown from the march of more profitable condos. "But it has an exemption in the official plan which allows for a combination of residential and employment. And the thing that dovetails nicely with that is the rail tracks." To wit: You can't put apartments too close to railroad tracks, but you can put office and commercial space. One problem solved.
Point number two: the neighbours. Just to the south is a small green space, called MacGregor Park, and then a high school; to the north is a dense block of houses, light industry, and then Bloor Street and the Lansdowne subway station. The mixed industrial-residential character that has always existed here invites a bold architectural response.
The carving of the building into three parts is bold. Facing the park, to the south, one L will contain townhouses and apartments; to the west and north, the design puts office space against the tracks and its industrial neighbours. It will not overwhelm the couple of houses that sit on its northeast corner. And the tall part of the building will be in the middle of the site – five thin slabs, spreading out slightly at their edges like a hand of cards being shuffled. This is complex, as is the neighbourhood.
The exterior of the building may take things a step further with an unorthodox façade treatment. "The building is flat, but I didn't want it to be flat," says Mr. Witt. "We wanted it to move." So Quadrangle is designing it with a bold decorative pattern of chevrons, made from high-quality Austrian fiber cement panels. It is gutsy and its success will lie in the detailing, but in concept it looks ravishing.
Then there is the big picture: Why do buildings on this scale? Mr. Witt, a native Ontarian who's worked in several European cities and for the world-leading Foster and Partners in London, has lived with such moderate and adaptable buildings. He sees mid-rise as an inevitable next step for Toronto's urban form. He is now working with various developers on proposals to intensify the city's major streets. "There's a maturing of the city," Mr. Witt says. "There is a growing number of people who want to live in the city in multi-unit buildings, but not necessarily in a 40-storey tower. So how do we create a variety of options for them all?"
This coincides with a new push from Toronto's chief planner, Jen Keesmaat, to reinforce a decade-old policy in favour of mid-size buildings. Given the intense population growth that Toronto is expecting – half a million people in the next quarter-century – and the equally intense political pushback to large buildings in low-rise neighbourhoods, it is a given.
So the project, christened Enigma Lofts and set to launch July 6, is in a sense a lab for the future of Toronto housing. That makes sense, for it is a neighbourhood on the cusp; long poor, relatively dangerous and resistant to gentrification, it is now facing rapid hipsterification.
"Since we started the project, suddenly the whole area has gotten more exciting," Mr. Witt explains. Daniel Faria, one of the city's leading young art dealers, now has his gallery up the block, and Scrap Metal, a private gallery that is now on the city's short list of contemporary art destinations, has slid into an industrial unit around the corner. All this makes the block more attractive to condo-buying residents, and also for a variety of office uses.
This block is still, make no mistake, messy: marble and granite workshops, fishmongers, all kinds of light industry, a loft converted to condos, a few dozen modest houses. A decade ago it would never have been the site for a new, high-end, slightly artsy building. But this is Toronto in 2013, and things are certainly not boring.
Editor's note: The original print and online version of this story incorrectly stated that the designer of the project was Quadrangle Architects. In fact, it was RAW Design that drew up the original plans, though Quadrangle has now taken over design duties. This version has been corrected.