Nostalgia for the eighties is nostalgia of the most complicated kind. Nostalgia for the sixties is comparatively simple: we like the fashion and music and design trends of the Mad Men decade because they seem tasteful to us. But the eighties brought a rejection of the previous generation’s very conception of taste. Synth pop was a rebuttal to boomer rock. Studio blockbusters were slick alternatives to the gritty, morally complicated films of the previous era, the so-called New Hollywood. And eighties architecture was a refutation of pretty much all the conventions of elite postwar design.
To their credit, the postwar modernists made beautiful buildings. But they were a dogmatic bunch. “Don’t be glitzy,” the modernists said. “Also don’t be affected. Or winsome. Or playful.” To this, a new generation of postmodern architects responded, “Why not?” And they went on, in true eighties fashion, to break all the rules.
The 1980s was a reactive decade, which perhaps explains why we’re so ambivalent about it. At times, eighties designers seemed eager to pass tastelessness off as a form of taste. And yet, eighties aesthetics have a kind of swagger that we haven’t seen before or since. Even if you don’t love the decade of big hair and Lucite furniture, you cannot gainsay its appeal. So, when called upon to retrofit eighties buildings, architects face a dilemma. Do they embrace eighties excess? Or downplay it? Perhaps, the right answer is both, and the trick is to somehow establish a balance.
Lisa Rapoport, a founding partner of the Toronto firm Plant Architect Inc., came to this exact conclusion when she was hired to redesign a flat in the King’s Landing complex, a 1984 lakeside building by Arthur Erickson, the revered Canadian architect. Mr. Erickson helped bring about the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Like his postwar peers, he loved austere shapes and industrial materials, but his work eschewed modernist rigour in favour of irreverence and visual diversity. His most iconic projects – the Embassy of Canada to the United States, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash., and the Toronto concert venue Roy Thomson Hall, along with its surrounding landscape – have the structural eclecticism of a Wassily Kandinsky painting: odd shapes cluster together or crash into one another.
The King’s Landing complex is more restrained than Mr. Erickson’s most experimental work, but among Toronto condo buildings it nevertheless stands out. In the city today, architects design condos like they’re solving a sudoku. The entire exercise is a game of numbers and logistics. You build as high as you can go, and then you divide each floorplate into as many units as you can fit in the space.
But Mr. Erickson prioritized style and quality instead. At King’s Landing, each successive floorplate is smaller than the one below. The result is a tiered structure, like an artificial beach, that steps down to the lake. Tens of thousands of square feet are “sacrificed” – or if you’re a profit-hungry developer, “wasted” – to craft units more light-filled than virtually anything on the Toronto market. The building lobby has all the trappings of eighties luxury – glass tabletops, marble floors, panelled walls, and coffered ceilings.
The film and television producer Martin Katz remembers when the King’s Landing complex went up, and he remembers thinking, at the time, that if he ever bought a condo he’d buy it there. In the summer of 2020, he and his wife, Laura, a labour lawyer, opted out of curiosity to visit a 1,750-square-foot flat in the building. “We weren’t thinking of leaving our home,” Mr. Katz says. “We just went to look at the unit. Six days later, we’d bought it.” They paid $1.5-million and hired Ms. Rapoport, who’d previously designed their Summerville house, to redo the interiors
Ms. Rapoport brought a sense of humour and warmth. In the kitchen, she removed a wall to open the space up, installed dark-blue cabinetry with asymmetrical pulls and hung six ovoid pendant lamps from Urban Mode, which are differently sized but otherwise similar, like members of an extended family. In the main space, she painted the walls various shades of off-white, creating a sense of variation, like the effect of sunlight on water. And in the 180-square-foot entranceway – yes, the condo has one of those – she set bookshelves, which get wider then narrower then wider again, imbuing the space with visual dynamism.
When it comes to finishes, Ms. Rapoport thought carefully about what to throw away and what to keep. “We asked, what things have stood the test of time,” she says, “even if they aren’t what you would do if you were starting from scratch today?” The earth-toned marble in the entranceway was a tad ostentatious but attractive nevertheless. What was she going to do? Rip it out? As for the dark wood floors in the rest of the home or the ornate glass doorknobs and chunky brass faucets – those really had to go. (The new floors are white oak.) The principal bathroom – a realm of yellow travertine with a sunken tub suitable for Tony Montana – seemed destined for demolition. But when Ms. Rapoport removed the large incandescent lights and replaced them with softer LEDs, the space instantly improved. It’s now agreeably quirky but no longer garish.
While the aesthetic leaders of the eighties enacted a wholesale rebellion against the previous generation, our cohort is seeking a kind of truce with the past. This tendency is most obvious in pop music, thanks to acts such as Bruno Mars and the Weeknd who embrace what’s best about the eighties – the energy, the boldness, the synthetics textures – while avoiding its tackiest excesses. International design firms like Herzog and Meuron are doing this too. We can’t obliterate the eighties from our cultural landscape – nor, in fairness, would we want to – so we must make peace with it instead.
In the King’s Landing apartment, the ceiling above the entranceway has large coffers, two of them lined with mirrors. Look up at the ceiling, and you see the surrounding book cases reflected back at you, to surreal effect. “It’s an original accent,” Mr. Katz says. “We liked the idea of maintaining the architect’s vision.” Ms. Rapoport concurs. “It’s not what I would do today,” she says of the coffers. “But it’s pretty cool all the same.”
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