Aldo Piccaluga knew he had seen the future.
Northern Italian by birth, the Rome University-trained architect was living in Beirut, Lebanon during the mid-1960s – his father was at the Italian embassy there – and, with his older brother, Francesco, producing work that was gaining the attention of architecture magazines, some in far-off North America.
Which, coincidentally, was where the future was.
Montreal and Expo 67, to be exact: “There was a very progressive climate, like the country is going forward,” says Mr. Piccaluga, his accent still prominent at age 85. But, unfortunately, before the brothers could pack their bags, French president Charles de Gaulle had to open his big mouth in support of Quebec liberation. “And we said ‘Ugh, political instability again.’”
So, Mr. Piccaluga dropped in on Gio Ponti (1891 – 1979), one of the masters of modern Italian architecture, to get his take on Toronto. “He said, ‘You are going to Toronto? Toronto is the ugliest city in the world, go to Australia instead,’ but I said, ‘It’s too far.’ So he gave me the names of a few people he knew.”
The older Piccaluga interjects: “Well, I think Ponti told you at the time [that Toronto also] ‘has big potential,’ and that makes a difference.”
So, at age 32, Aldo Piccaluga arrived just as Mies van der Rohe’s 56-storey TD Centre was preparing to open and a new, with-it Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was settling into 24 Sussex Drive. After making contacts and surveying the increasingly international climate, he went back to Beirut. In 1969, Piccaluga-the-younger returned to stay. His brother joined him three months later.
Full of optimism, experience, and ingrained with an impeccable work ethic and attention to detail, the pair hung their shingle and waited for the big commissions to roll in. When they didn’t, they took smaller ones, such as renovations and small retail spaces.
Their big break came when they were hired to design interiors for the CN Tower – the ground level mall as well as the Top of Toronto restaurant – which began rising in February 1973. Journalists given a sneak peek at the futuristic designs verily swooned, and, in June 1976, the average public (one of which was this eight-year-old Architourist) swooned even more. With its bright red curves and hooded light fixtures downstairs and, over 1,000 feet above, the terracotta-coloured restaurant’s space age, moulded-Fiberglas-and-Argentine-leather chairs (designed by the Piccalugas), fabric panels (fireproof and in use by Air France at the time), chrome trim, and 360 stripes on both the ceiling and the floor, it was all very European. “Very comfortable. Very chic,” wrote Judylaine Fine in the Toronto Star. If this art piece were still intact today heritage advocates would argue for its preservation.
And while important interiors followed, such as De Berardinis at the Eaton Centre – another space age interior that shoehorned the hair salon around parking infrastructure – and Le Gavroche Gourmand at Hazelton Lanes, a standalone building still eluded them. “We basically lived on doing interiors,” says Francesco Piccaluga. Saying they were pigeonholed, Mr. Piccaluga laments that clients didn’t realize that “we can jump from one thing to another, that our job is exactly to explore, and solve the problems.”
In the early 1980s, the duo stitched together heritage houses at the northeast corner of John Street and Adelaide Street West for the “Little Square” residential complex, giving occupants the delight of passing underneath a bright red, gridded glass façade to get to their units. In the decades since, that splash of colour has been removed.
Finally, in the mid-1980s, the brothers were awarded their first house commission in, fittingly, the Corso Italia neighbourhood. Completed in 1987, 148 Greenlaw Ave. was a striking composition of squares and triangles – in the form of window-columns and pediments – on a field of pinkish-red with accents of ruby-red and battleship-grey. Inside: nooks, crannies, cubbies-with-seating (and a fireplace), and an overall visual joy that had hints of the Memphis Group, albeit a less cartoon-y version. Today, most of the façade has been obliterated with stacked stone and the open pediment has been filled.
While they would lovingly craft some interiors during these years – La Fenice restaurant at 319 King St. W. and their first of many boutiques for Karir Fashion Eyewear – the late-80s and early-1990s would see the shift to non-profit housing.
Four projects in Toronto’s east end showed that the brothers could build sophistication into buildings that cost $80- to $90- per sq. ft. The “Pink Building” at 970 Eastern Ave. (no longer pink) was a stripped-down version of the Greenlaw house, with tiny square windows and, inventively, the downspout creating a graphic line down the façade. Its “greenhouse foyer engages the street and makes a nice entry,” wrote the The Globe and Mail’s Adele Freedman at the time.
Further west on Eastern Avenue, No. 502 shared many characteristics, but added multiple colours to the façade (now erased) and, more importantly, housed the apartments in four independent buildings tied together with a stair tower in the middle to bring as much light as possible into windows (a Google satellite view reveals this inventive scheme).
At 126 Coxwell Ave., drama was created via a suspended room over the front door.
“These are actually good examples of that missing middle,” says Francesco Piccaluga’s daughter, Fran Piccaluga, who followed in her father and uncle’s footsteps and became an architect. “All of these were that scale, they don’t disrupt the neighbourhood.”
Perhaps the most interesting building of this period is Maddy Harper Lodge at 86 Jones Ave. Here, the brothers created three distinct buildings linked by a red metal trellis (an abstracted eagle) while still providing a private, sunny courtyard for residents with children. Natural brick, bright red metalwork (such as the abstracted dormers over the skylights), a pyramidal skylight, and yellow-painted stucco add joy to the streetscape.
“As you can see we had a tendency to break up [massing] to bring it back to the scale of houses, instead of having a block,” says Francesco Piccaluga, “and, at the same time you maximize the air flow and the light.”
The well-heeled were serviced during this period also. In 1997, a turreted home at the corner of Governors Road and Douglas Crescent incorporated two front façades (as it faced a small park), and provided room access via a formal colonnade. “It’s a like a street, you go to the living room, you go to the stairs,” says the older Mr. Piccaluga. Bright red stucco enlivened the west face along with a triangular “eye” inset into a concrete panel and, inside the house, a lap pool added luxury. This house, while under construction, was welcomed to the neighbourhood with a shower of eggs, say the brothers.
At 21 Oxbow Rd., no expense was spared: templates for an elliptical staircase were drawn in 1:1 scale and stonecutters in Italy manufactured it. “This house in particular, almost everything was imported; we received eight big containers,” says the younger Mr. Piccaluga.
Of course, all along, the duo designed small chairs, big chairs, tables, modular furniture in spun steel, light fixtures, and bookshelves. Some made it into limited runs by companies such as Group Four in Oakville, while others were for clients only, such as at La Fenice. And much of it, wrote Adele Freedman, was “as good as anything imported from Italy.”
Seen as an oeuvre – the brothers retired around 2010 – the work shows consistency, creativity, a relentless attention to detail, and a flair for colour and shape. That Francesco Piccaluga cites Carlo Scarpa (1906 – 1978) as an influence is telling, as Scarpa also had a talent for creating both intimate nooks and big moments in the same space. The Piccaluga brothers could transform tiny rooms into spacious jewel boxes, and break up enormous floor plans into distinct, sheltering areas.
Yet, today, much of the Piccaluga’s colourful contribution to Toronto has been painted over. Most of the interiors are long gone. Why? Were they too European for a city just being to call itself “world class”? Would their designs fare better in 40 years if they were built today? Does it break those big Italian hearts to see so much of it gone?
“Yes…” says Francesco Piccaluga, followed by a long pause. “That’s why I don’t like to look at my projects. We prefer to remember it.”
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.