Toronto intersections, especially major ones, have personalities. Think about it: King and Bay is confident, yet slightly aloof; Yonge and Dundas is glib, scattered, and show-bizzy; suburban Kennedy and Lawrence is a smooth-talking salesperson wearing off-the-rack clothing; and Yonge and Eglinton – at least how I remember it – is a young, single professional that reeks, slightly, of ale and onion rings.
And then there’s Yonge and St. Clair, an intersection where I spent 17 years of my life – when not writing my Globe column – working at CFRB radio (my other profession is radio producer). As much as I loved that chunk of midtown, it was, in a word, sleepy. In fact, the engineers at the station christened the hardware store down the street “Old Lady Hardware” since when they’d visit for solder or electrical tape, the only other customers inside were elderly widows purchasing birdseed or light bulbs.
But things have changed a great deal since I left in 2014.
In 2016, Slate Asset Management added three more buildings to their Yonge/St.Clair portfolio, which brought the total to eight – including each of the four buildings on each corner of the intersection – and began revitalization in earnest. The next year they announced they’d partnered with Chicago’s award-winning Studio Gang, led by Jeanne Gang, to build a tower that would not be a “typical all-glass” affair.
And when Ms. Gang unveiled One Delisle, a tapering, artichoke-like, 47-storey tower with wide balconies and a sensitive treatment of the pedestrian realm for Yonge Street and Delisle Avenue – which includes retention of a non-designated 1928 heritage façade – Toronto took notice.
Since shovels will be in the ground soon, I caught up with Ms. Gang over Zoom.
ARCHITOURIST: Even before you received the commission, did Toronto appear on your radar?
JEANNE GANG: Yeah, the two cities, Chicago and Toronto, are pretty close together, like siblings I guess. When I first visited it, though, my first impression was that it maybe feels a little more international than Chicago, not just because it’s not U.S., it felt slightly more European. I love the parts of downtown that are really pedestrian-friendly and interesting … but the difference is the landscape most of all, the beautiful ravines and the topography that we just don’t have [since] Chicago is very flat.
AT: And what about Yonge and St. Clair specifically?
JG: The dimension of the blocks, there’s something about it, it doesn’t feel activated to its maximum potential, and that’s one reason why we’re focusing on giving a little bit more space on the one side for pedestrians and, on the other, activating the park side [there was a house-turned-office on Delisle that will be removed to link the project to an existing parkette]. We got to conceive of it as a complete block with every side activated, and that’s going to really improve the walkability of the neighbourhood.
AT: Did Slate ask for a bold design?
JG: I think they were attracted to our work because of the way that it embraces the tower as a place for social interaction as opposed to isolation; I know the conversation going on in Toronto about balconies and how they are wasted space or not good for the environment. … I never bought into that, they’re really important for people … [to] have more connection to the environment, to neighbours. I really like seeing the life on the building, when people put their own stuff out on the balcony, that makes it look, to me, more engaging
[Ms. Gang goes on to explain how One Delisle’s balconies will be sheltered for use during shoulder months, and how inspiration came from a type of beach chair with a high back that allows users to face the sun but avoid wind].
AT: The shape – artichoke or pine cone?
JG: Well, I’m a huge fan of the patterns you can find in nature and there’s always a logic to it. Both an artichoke and a pine cone – and a sunflower for that matter – there’s a spiraling organization of the seeds, the petals … it’s nature solving a packing problem.
Ms. Gang has spoken publicly on how even very tall towers can encourage friendly communities beyond elevator small talk. At Studio Gang’s 82-storey Aqua in Chicago, for example, rippling balconies create sightlines that allow folks to chat with neighbours above and below. At One Delisle, large balconies and smaller ones will create a similar effect, as will the expansive “Ravine Terrace.”
JG: Those are the types of things that can encourage more social space within the tower itself. Some of them are organized in these stems, and then on top of each one there’s a more open balcony, so there’s a variety [and] people can choose what kind of outdoor space they like … two neighbours can see each other but not uncomfortably so like peeking into their living room.
In the U.S., Studio Gang does a lot of “urban activation” work, Ms. Gang says, which helps struggling, vacant, or violent (or all three) neighbourhoods by helping them identify and develop existing assets to in order to thrive.
AT: Would you be interested in doing urban activation work in Toronto?
JG: I would love to; it’s a city that is really exciting, and I like how [the] urban planning [department] is very engaged in thinking about the different parts of the city.
While I’ll always want the lion’s share of work to go to local firms, I do enjoy it when outsiders are invited to rethink parts of our city, whether it’s One Delisle, at Yonge and Bloor for Sir Norman Foster’s “The One,” or on King Street West with Bjarke Ingels Group’s “King Toronto” project. With these, the city’s personality can only get more interesting, international, and complex.
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