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the architourist

The decommissioned Postal Station C at 1117 Queen St. West, Toronto.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Imagine you come from a distant land. France, perhaps, or Spain, where old and new architecture coexist and commingle, and cultural institutions are plentiful.

You journey across the ocean to a strange place called Toronto. Your quest: To learn what makes Torontonians tick, to view what they hold dear, and to understand them through their art. So, it’s off to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Gardiner Museum, the Textile Museum of Canada and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

But you thirst for more. A friendly local points to the small galleries along Queen St. West, so you stagger along, barely sipping enough at each to sustain your soul.

And then you see it. Shimmering, glassy and ghost-like, it’s a fantastical, upside-down building floating above its solid, red brick twin. A phantasmagoria that must be a fake projection – a Fata Morgana – since a conservative city such as this would never create such a wonder.

Move closer … and it’s real. An art gallery. A creation space. A fashion showplace. A bandshell facing a park. An oasis to feed even the most culture-savvy tourist.

But not yet.

Today, the red brick, 11,000 sq. ft. decommissioned Postal Station C at 1117 Queen St. West sits empty. Colliers International, on behalf of the Crown Corporation, has accepted bids and removed the listing. And, sadly, the group that wants to turn this beautiful, 1902 Beaux-Arts building by Port Hope, Ont.-born Samuel George Curry (1854 – 1942) into an arts and culture centre did not make the short list.

Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Above: 1117 Queen St. West, Toronto. Rendering by Paul Raff Studio for a proposal to redesign the decommissioned Postal Station C.Paul Raff Studio

“They don’t have an obligation to pick any of the submissions,” begins Aya Kitchens and Baths CEO Dave Marcus, who led the charge. “But they did go to a short list and so, on a simple level, maybe the deal is dead, but we’re hoping that … through government will, there might be a way to revisit [our bid].”

The government should. Award-winning architect Paul Raff, known for his bold, challenging designs – his stacked vertical glass window at Cascade House and Limelight Bandshell at Lee Lifeson Art Park come to mind – has created a visionary complex that could only exist as a Queen West art space, and only across from the highly successful (and hipster headquarters) Drake Hotel.

“A city like Toronto needs these spaces to be relevant globally … and why can’t these spaces be right in the hub of things?” asks Mr. Marcus.

“So that was our approach to it, and so the people that we pulled together were, yes, people that have strong business backgrounds, but also have a real philanthropic interest in the project, and that’s why I don’t see this as having condos on top.”

Mr. Raff adds that the old postal building sits isolated on its own little parcel of land, an art object that can be appreciated on all sides already, so to perform a facadectomy and attach a glass condominium on top would be an injustice.

But more bulk would be required, he admits: “We know that to make an arts facility that’s going to have the vibrancy, and gravity, and excitement to make it work, it’s going to have to be bigger than it is, so we could put a glass box on top – which we kind of did – but even the most beautifully crafted glass boxes in the world are all generic and have been done before.”

So, taking cues from both the heritage of the street and the forest of new condo towers (which, ironically, in this very neighbourhood drove artists out from affordable loft buildings), the architect created something that “works with both” but is “Other … very Other … and really celebrates the heritage architecture.”

Not only would a two-storey building become five-storey – the space between the 1902 building and its glassy mirage would rise a full storey and house a purpose-built ‘black box’ exhibition space – there would be a basement venue/exhibition space and, thanks to a curving spine climbing the south façade (which faces Lisgar Park), another half-storey on the roof. Here, a bar with incredible views could operate. In addition to housing practical things such as modern HVAC systems, data cable, fire stairs and a fly tower, this spine would extend floor plates and allow for a cavernous stage for musical or dramatic performances in the park.

The plan would allow for a stage for musical or dramatic performances in the park.Paul Raff Studio

“It’s a kind of trio,” says Mr. Raff. “It’s the Beaux-Arts building, its reflection, and it’s this curvaceous thing that comes up the back and over it … it makes it eight times the facility.”

Too good to be true? Too strange for politicians to climb on board? Acknowledging there is a “crisis” in the arts and culture community, Davenport MP Julie Dzerowicz recently called for a halt to the sale of 1117 Queen W. to “consider the best interest of the local community.”

Local councillor and Toronto Deputy Mayor Ana Bailao has also called for a halt, and has further requested that Canada Post leave the building in public hands “for the purpose of establishing a cultural and arts hub.” As of this writing, an online petition at Change.org has almost hit 1,800 signatures.

But will Mr. Raff’s architectural mirage actually shimmer to life?

“This isn’t something we’re doing because it’s a vanity project or we’re specifically trying to get something out of it,” finishes Mr. Marcus. “We’re trying to help make a community centre, an arts and cultural organization, become manifest.

“At the end of the day, one part of it is the architectural vision, the other part is just the vision, what could this be, and who would use it and how, and I think that part of it has to be an open discussion.”

Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

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