Leafing through sketches of the swank condo tower that Robert A.M. Stern is doing for Toronto's Yorkville district, I found myself wondering what's gone wrong with this celebrated New York architect.
Not that One St. Thomas, as the 29-storey project is called, is horrible. Indeed, it's neither horrible nor great nor anything else, which is the problem. If these drawings are anything to go on, the building will be a middling muddle, design-wise.
Its inspiration, we learn from sales promotions, comes from the deluxe tall buildings of America's Romantic Skyscraper Moment, around 1930. But instead of a lively reinterpretation of old-fashioned glamour, which would be welcome, the actual result just south of Bloor Street West promises to be a simplified miniature of the real thing, like a souvenir paperweight in the shape of the Empire State Building.
One St. Thomas will be, however, a souvenir with snooty attitude -- all about Park Avenue style, but lacking a streetscape to make the ensemble work (which is like wearing an expensive hat with shabby shoes). Toronto is a big, sprawling Great Lakes city, after all, without Manhattan's density, wall-to-wall concrete and stone, and urban intensity.
We're not a Park Avenue kind of place; we're our kind of place. And if nostalgia for the thirties were really wanted, the developers of One St. Thomas didn't have to go all the way to New York. Toronto, as it happens, has a small treasury of Art Deco apartment buildings -- snazzy, but not high; curvy, with plucked-eyebrow streamlining -- that suit the city we are. (Look along St. Clair Avenue west of Yonge if you want to see the kind of thing I'm thinking about.)
But the most unforgivable thing about this deeply pizazz-challenged building, surely, won't be its snobby oddity, or its mismatch with the city. It will be the tower's contribution of new mediocrity to a part of town with quite enough mediocrity already.
More than any other spot in Toronto, Yorkville is in need of a huge visual shakeup. While many of the area's delightful Victorian cottages and tall Gothic houses escaped development, most of Yorkville went dull and boringly tasteful, or just boring, 30 years ago. Big, blah office blocks hulk over the Bloor Street strip between Avenue Road and the ugly citadel of Hudson's Bay Co. at Bloor and Yonge. Tame, match-the-drapes painting clogs the art galleries. Not even the recent insertion of Bulgari, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and other toyshops for the rich has done anything to perk up the architectural slush along Bloor Street.
Were Mr. Stern still in fighting form, however, Yorkville might have gotten at least a dab of the razzle-dazzle it needs. Mr. Stern's architecture, at its most vividly typical, has always been a merry ransacking of the history of style for whatever delivers the maximum wallop. He has created ultraopulent, showoffish hotels and mansions of the sort demanded by American robber barons of the Gilded Age. He has done Mediterranean in New Jersey and Italian Renaissance in California and Georgian in Michigan. Asked by the Disney people to design an office building in Florida, Mr. Stern provided an exuberantly crass collage of imagery snipped from Mickey Mouse movies and Alice in Wonderland and other cult objects in the Disneyana heap.
Though Mr. Stern has always been ready to pastiche anything and everything, his work has consistently been for architecture what George W. Bush has become for contemporary political culture: the epitome of uncurious anti-intellectualism, user-friendly to people with pots of money and no education or taste, very American. V ulgar is the word Mr. Stern likes to see applied to what he does.
Writing in an authorized portfolio of Stern works, critic Vincent Scully describes the architect's "look" as follows: "It comes across as something foursquare, blunt, at once forthright and rather lush, not very subtle, perhaps a bit on the brutal side. There is also a kind of rich, vulgar imagery in it, or a perception of what may be done with that imagery, which may be distressing at times but is perhaps one of its greatest strengths."
If Mr. Stern had to design a building for Toronto -- and, what the heck, every other architectural star in Europe and America is doing so -- I wish it could have been something spectacularly vulgar at least, rather than the indifferent product One St. Thomas seems destined to become.