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the architourist

The River City project in Toronto.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

I don’t often do double takes when I look at a building; as much as I love Mies van der Rohe’s TD Centre, it presents itself in much the same way from multiple vantage points and, really, only a change in light and shadow will reveal new details to savour.

But, with Phase 3 of River City – completed in Toronto two years ago by Urban Capital with a design by the talented Montreal firm of Saucier + Perrotte (with ZAS Architects) – I find myself jogging from north to east to south to west to see what form the 29-storey tower will take. From the lush green of the new urban park Corktown Common, its craggy shape seems to rise from the bulrushes and swampy waters as if thrust from the rocky strata below; from the Adelaide St. E. ramp, its cantilevered, white-clad balconies look like a filing cabinet with drawers askew; from the top of the River City development at King St. E. and Lower River St., the building becomes deferential and blends into the hulking black mass of Phase 1.

However, no matter where I stand, Phase 3 stays open to the city in much the same way a good actor stays open to the audience while performing.

“That explains why the tower is turned on the specific angle that goes back to what represents the most ‘Toronto,’ like [the] CN Tower and the downtown area,” confirms Gilles Saucier from his office during a Zoom call. “When you walk on the street, you look up and you see the tower looking at something; very often … we think of an individual view and we forget about the presence of a building – it’s big, it’s strong, and it’s saying something about its natural link to downtown Toronto.”

A view of the Phase 3 building from the Corktown Common wetland.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

And that link, and the newly christened Phase 4 building beside it, was created on a triangular piece of land hemmed in not only by expressway off ramps, but Bayview Ave. and the Don River to the east, and the massive floodplain work going on all around. Plus, the land itself, formerly filled with everything from auto body shops to tanneries, was extremely contaminated.

“It’s like having access to a white canvas,” says Mr. Saucier with a smile. “There was nothing there except little pipes to extract methane from the ground … but in fact it’s more exciting because you have to create from scratch.”

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In a short film produced by developer Urban Capital to celebrate the project’s completion, Waterfront Toronto chief development officer Meg Davis spoke to the soil remediation, but also to the “rigorous” selection process to find just the right developer: “We are trying to build complete communities that have schools, daycares, beautiful architecture was very important to us, also sustainability, so we expect very high design standards in the buildings.” The Urban Capital bid, she continued, “stood out” for their “commitment to creating communities and not just building one-off buildings.”

A walk around the site on a sunny Saturday bears this out. Dog-walkers and hand-holding couples are in evidence everywhere, benches at Lawren Harris Square are filled, bicycles ting-a-ling their presence to slow-moving automobiles, and the usual clickety-clack and laughter of skateboarders rings off the massive concrete walls of Underpass Park, a project made possible by this development.

Underpass Park, a project made possible by this development.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

As Ms. Davis explains in the film, with a development site bisected by the Adelaide St. and Eastern Ave. ramps, something had to be done with the shadowy, unsafe areas between the first and second phases of the project. When Urban Capital co-founder David Wex came up with the idea of a rough-around-the-edges, hardscaped park, Waterfront Toronto made it happen. Today, this riot of graffiti art, overhead mirrors, playground equipment, and basketball courts is “such a well-used and engaging space; we wouldn’t have thought about that if David hadn’t actually brought it up.”

In a way, this roughness is fitting, as Saucier + Perrotte’s four sets of buildings, some black, some white, some a hybrid, are meant to represent a “change in material,” says Mr. Saucier, who went so far as to put a blowtorch to his wooden architectural model to “represent the idea of erosion,” which he then finished with resin.

“For example, Phase 1 is black; it’s in the shape of a mineral on the site. Phase 2 is pure white. Phase 3 is a bit of a transformation between rough material, like rock in Phase 1, into something very pure. So this whole idea of minerality, and creating what I would call a new archeology or a new geologic landscape on the site, was the key idea of the project.”

The phases of the River City project in Toronto. Left to right, Phase 4, Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

For CBC podcast co-ordinator Jason Paris, the key reason to buy into Phase 2 a few years back was the feel-good aspect: “I’m a pretty big defender of Toronto’s condo boom, but sometimes it comes with a sense of dread in also having to defend the design, sustainability and tactics of the industry,” he writes in an email. “Well, there’s no guilt here. This is truly a project that enhances more than it takes from the city.”

Architect Bruce Kurabarwa agrees. In the film, he says that River City has “managed to relate to the speed and flow and intensity of the [off ramps] in a way that, it just doesn’t tame it, but it draws it into a conversation with the landscape itself; it’s a very tricky thing to do.”

What’s not tricky is how to enjoy River City. Hop on the Queen streetcar or your bicycle, get yourself to Queen St. E. and River St., and head south to this walker’s paradise.

The 20-minute film Making River City is up on YouTube; go to YouTube and type “Making River City” in the search box.

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