Had it been built as proposed back in 2008, architect Stephen Teeple's Gansevoort boutique hotel and condominium complex would perhaps now be the artistic stand-out among downtown Toronto's recent residential high-rises.
Everything about the building on Richmond Street West pushed back against the routine. The façade of this imaginative 36-storey tower was to be jauntily syncopated, with suites dodging out and tucking in as the stack rose. The terraces created every couple of floors by this rhythmic pulse were to be planted with trees, generating a kind of urban forest in the sky. In sharp contrast to the usual all-glazed condo surface, Gansevoort would have been clad in glistening European cement-based panels punctuated by window openings.
Four years ago, Toronto was briefly on track to get this remarkable and highly innovative big new chunk of residential architecture. Then Mr. Teeple's urbane scheme died on the drawing board, when the site of the project was sold before the ground was broken. But the architect's involvement didn't end there.
Though in no way obliged to do so, the new owners of the property, The Goldman Group and Monarch Group, invited Mr. Teeple to craft a new design for the Gansevoort location. His assignment this time around: a straightforward condominium tower standing atop a podium, without the hotel and without most of the bold formal flourishes that made the original, abandoned proposal so interesting.
The result, called Picasso on Richmond and due to start its 39-storey climb into the sky this autumn, is not as unusual and striking as Gansevoort surely would have been. But while they have required their architect to tailor his building to a quite conventional pattern, the developers have fortunately let Mr. Teeple give his project an exterior sculptural treatment that will definitely lift it out of the ordinary.
Instead of being yet another cascade of floor-to-ceiling glass, for example, Picasso on Richmond will face the city with a skin composed of sharply defined opaque boxes, each standing several storeys tall and pushing out horizontally from the core. These large extruded oblongs, like the smaller ones in Gansevoort, will be fashioned from white panels of concrete fabric punctuated by window openings.
The thrust of the white boxes will be visually reinforced by the black concrete panelling of the more retiring surfaces, and by the bright red slots and edges that separate box from box. Though less numerous than they would have been on the Gansevoort tower, Picasso's terraces, with full-sized trees, will strongly accent the upward surge of the composition. These design moves will give the exterior an attractive solidity, but will also lend it jump and big-city swing that sets it firmly apart from the more staid high-rises going up downtown.
From an environmental standpoint, as well as from an aesthetic one, the relative opacity of this building makes good sense.
True, there have been recent advances in glazing technology, but the energy efficiency of a transparent glass wall still can't top that of a solid wall system. It will be interesting to see if the successful deployment of such construction strategies in Picasso and other new buildings will sell developers on the idea of making their new towers less transparent, hence more sustainable. Don't get me wrong: I like glassy towers a lot, and I believe that tall curtain walls are often things of beauty. But Mr. Teeple's shaping and handling of Picasso's volumes with cement panels shows that opacity, too, can be as beautiful and exciting as it was in the good Art Deco edifices of yore.
When I spoke to the architect last week, he was quick to point out that Picasso is meant to be more than an isolated expression of a rugged, forceful urban aesthetic. It's also supposed to do good things for the urban design of its deep-downtown Queen West neighbourhood. I think it could achieve this higher ambition if the project lives up to its renderings.
Here's the problem. If you were to stand in the middle of Beverley Street north of Queen Street West (where Beverley ends) and shoot off an arrow straight south, the missile would hit one of the low-rise retail outlets that line the south side of Queen. Beverley is not, of course, a very important thoroughfare. But just because it's in the heart of Queen Street's popular youth-culture emporium district, it deserves a firmer termination than that long, low mumble of shops.
With Picasso, Beverley will get a sharp, forceful conclusion. Looking south toward Queen, the walker on Beverley will first see the low-rise shops. But her eye will be swept immediately upward by the exclamation point of Mr. Teeple's lively, sophisticated Richmond Street building, rearing up behind and above the line of stores.
Not every big condo structure, alas! does its bit to help pull together the urban fabric. Picasso promises to do exactly that, however, while also bringing Toronto a new, fine example of the art of building tall.