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the architourist

In 1951, the IBM plant and head office opened its doors just north of the fourth concession, the future Eglinton.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Before Eglinton Avenue was completed. Before Macklin (Mack) Hancock delivered the modernist “New Town” of Don Mills to the city on behalf of Edward Plunket Taylor. And three full decades before the world’s first personal computer was released. That’s how long IBM has stood at the corner of Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue East.

In 1951, to be exact, the sprawling plant and head office opened its doors onto (mostly) dirt roads just north of the fourth concession (the future Eglinton) and waited for the city to catch up. The handsome, art deco/stripped classical, stone-clad building by Grimsby, Ont.-born Clare G. MacLean (1903-1973) was added to in 1954 – to stretch the façade to 365 metres – and then, in 1967, a completely new, brick complex to the west welcomed even more high-tech employees.

A product of the golden age of the office campus, the 1967 John B. Parkin Associates buildings hugged the ground as they zigged and zagged joyfully in response to their site, yet, at only three and four storeys, were also able to command a presence since they were perched upon a natural crest. While it might be crass to call them “car-chitecture,” their 500-metre length and in-and-out rhythm allowed fast-moving drivers on Eglinton Avenue East to take in the composition without taking too much attention off the road. To provide further interest, faces of warm, iron spot, brown brick – from Belden Brick in Canton, Ohio – were broken by asymmetrically placed sets of slim, vertical windows separated by slim piers. A City of Toronto heritage report dated September, 2016 suggests the complex “may be seen to represent a subtler, more confident approach for IBM and a shift on the part of Parkin Associates to … a second wave of modernism that was more organic” that related to the “late work of Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto.”

While some portions of the 1967 complex will be saved in full, in other areas only a percentage of the original complex will remain to allow for three elegant, black towers to co-exist onsite.CORE/Aspen Ridge

Today, while the MacLean building awaits reassembly at the north end of the site, the 1967 complex (with additions in 1970-71) is being readied, in situ, to become part of a massive residential, office and retail complex by Aspen Ridge Homes called “Crosstown.” While some portions will be saved in full – and luxury suites will be inserted inside – in other areas only a percentage of the original complex will remain to allow for three elegant, black towers to co-exist onsite. In a few key areas, only a freestanding wall will stand as a sort of “screen” that will both shield public space and allow for continuity of the façade. This, says CORE principal Babak Eslahjou, is “a romantic interpretation of remnants of the past.”

Touring the site on an unseasonably warm November morning with CORE’s Kevin Saunders and Aspen Ridge site clerks Matthew Di Nicola and Zaharko Hrushewsky, this unique retention strategy is breathtaking to witness. One minute, our little group is inside a building gazing at its exposed steel skeleton, while the next we emerge into sunshine to view a lone wall that is now held aloft by a massive, bridge-like structure.

Back inside another part of the complex, we climb an original staircase to check what resident’s views will be like on the third floor. And, to be expected, they are quite something. With the downtown skyscrapers clearly visible through the currently-unglazed openings, Mr. Saunders explains that the unique window-shapes influenced those designed for the new towers: “We looked at replicating that on the south and the north faces; it’s a defining characteristic of the [Parkin] building that we wanted to pay homage to [but] not copy.” And when the new double-glazed units by State Windows are placed into the heritage buildings, they will be as accurate as possible … right down to the black steel spandrel panels.

“It’s been an incredible team effort,” Mr. Saunders says with a tip of the hat to engineers Jablonsky Ast & Partners and heritage consultants GBCA. “With everything going on and so many different outside influences, trying to resolve everything, it really has been an incredible process.”

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The process, from what I can tell, is like an industrial ballet, as the delicate work of (heritage) retention can be seen happening just metres away from where enormous augers probe the ground in anticipation of new, deep foundations. In another area, enormous piles of concrete block (former wall-structures) have been set aside for recycling: “They’ve set up a crushing pad elsewhere on site. … They can use it as loose coarse granular elsewhere, because the whole site is 64 acres, there’re 14 buildings going in, so everything’s being reused where we can,” Mr. Saunders says.

And all of it, as we walk, is set to the music of jackhammering, warning beeps, the clack-clack-clack of winches, and the thrumming of diesel engines.

Despite the racket, I can’t help but slip into a sort of reverie as I walk: if this project would’ve began, say, 15 or 20 years ago, would the Parkin buildings have been viewed as heritage? Remember, that’s when Toronto lost John C. Parkin’s Bata World Headquarters just down the road, and Peter Dickinson’s Inn on the Park. Is this city finally warming to the idea that heritage can be 1965 as well as 1865?

“I don’t give ‘heritage’ an age,” CORE’s Babak Eslahjou says. “I think the buildings need to be of significant importance in order to be preserved. … Preservation has become much stronger now and I like to see this strength used for quality architectural pieces.”

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