The taller, the duller. It’s a strange paradox in North American architecture that high-rise towers – a building type historically full of innovation and braggadocio – tend to be boring.
Not at 55 Yonge St. A new proposal for this site in downtown Toronto’s financial district would create a new 66-storey tower that combines office, retail and apartments into a single, skinny package. And the wrapper is no less interesting: The upstart architects Partisans, along with BDP Quadrangle, have developed an irregular grid of ovals-in-rectangles that stretches up the tower like a sophisticated bubble wrap.
“It’s a lattice that sinuously joins the residential space to the office space,” Alex Josephson of Partisans said. That firm, who are too young to be conventional choices for a high-rise building, have collaborated on the design with the more experienced BDP Quadrangle. “And it shifts along the way; it responds to the different needs of people on different levels.”
Under the wrapping is a rare mixture of uses in a single tower. The planned building would have 14 floors of office, topped by 42 storeys of apartments – and, in between, an event space and amenities shared by tenants from above and below.
This sounds simple; it is not. Commercial, technical and regulatory forces tend to push office space and housing into separate projects or at least separate towers. In Toronto, a more typical mix is “99-per-cent condos, and retail on the ground floor,” as Mr. Josephson said half-jokingly. The 55 Yonge proposal, he argued, “is true community-building in a vertical context.”
The architectural expression brings this together. That bubble wrap – or lattice – would hang on the outside of the building’s floors, continuing from bottom to top with slight variations. This sort of rectangular-ish grid recalls the precast-concrete facades of the 1960s and 1970s, balancing visual variety and consistency. And, unlike some contemporary buildings that use a similar device, the rectangles stretch vertically instead of horizontally, cutting across the floor plates of the building. “There was a moment in the design process that we turned the pattern sideways, and everything clicked,” Mr. Josephson said.
Functionally, the wrapping provide shading from above and from the sides, keeping glare and summer high sun off the mostly-glass facades within, making the building bright but comfortable. “It also disguises the difference between office and residential,” adds architect Les Klein of BDP Quadrangle. “Offices want to be big, and residential wants to be thin.” At the top of the office floors, the building cinches in, and its wrapper comes along with it.
The developers, real estate investment trust H&R, see good business in the unorthodox mix of spaces, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. H&R executive Matthew Kingston said shared amenity spaces – such as kitchens and terraces – are crucial in offices as well as homes. “We’ve heard increasingly from office tenants that they would like to have access to outdoor space,” Kingston said. “Before the pandemic, that seemed like a good idea; now it’s becoming mandatory.”
Will office workers run into the upstairs neighbours on the terrace, or hang out with them in the lobby? This idea harks back to the idea of the “social condenser,” which was developed by modern architects in the Soviet Union a century ago and which popped up often in 20th-century European architecture – Le Corbusier’s Unite D’Habitation, for instance. Here, in Toronto a version of the “social condenser” is coming together through a mix of capitalism and land-use planning that favours a mixed-up and denser city.
Here it’s stripped of its radical politics, but it is still a good idea. In terms of energy use, residences tend to be busy at night, offices during the day. Adding more people to the financial district also seems to make good sense.
And yet there’s one perverse aspect to the project. It would replace two buildings, a 12-storey office block from the 1950s and a five-storey commercial building originally built in 1914
Six hundred metres to the east, the City of Toronto is banning tall buildings in order to protect the character of its Old Town neighbourhood. Even 12 storeys is pushing it, under much of the city’s plan.
Here in the core, a 12-storey office building is treated as a teardown. (Across the street, I.M. Pei buildings are similarly doomed.)
Aside from its embodied energy, the 55 Yonge building has some cultural value: It was designed by the firm Page & Steele under the architect Peter Dickinson. The heritage architects ERA argue that this particular building is not an important Dickinson building, and it’s not spectacular. This is reasonable.
And the good news is that the new tower would be spectacular. The design language that Mr. Josephson, Mr. Klein and their colleagues have developed is simple enough to make economic sense, yet novel. By the standards of contemporary Canadian residential buildings, it’s downright radical. In an ideal world it would be going somewhere else. In this world and this Toronto, such a work of architecture – commercially, spatially and visually innovative – is something to cheer for. And it sure isn’t boring.
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