It might be the most beautiful public washroom in Toronto.
Standing, proudly, between the whoops and hollers rising up from the vast Finch-Humberline Sportsfields and the verdant lushness of Humberwood Park, architect Kevin Weiss’s new, standalone brick building may have been built for more, well, earthly purposes, but the design is definitely divine.
The reason? The rhythmic, classic brick: “Toronto is, historically, a brick city,” Mr. Weiss says as a big jet roars overhead on its way to Pearson International, just six kilometres away, “and you start to think about brick and the history of architecture in this city, and things become articulated – it’s a bit of an essay on, in a limited way, what brick can do.”
Limited is not a word I would use. When the small staff at Weiss Architecture + Urbanism Inc. began to drum up ideas for the City of Toronto a few years ago, there was all sorts of unlimited discussion. Firstly, no matter the aesthetic design, all agreed that a city building must be tough; it has to withstand weather on all sides, graffiti and graffiti removal, and “people kicking the crap out of it,” Mr. Weiss laughs. Therefore, to be “absolutely robust,” there had to be a shell of solid concrete, thick glass block windows, steel doors, and interior walls of made of that reliable workhorse, cinderblock. And features that could easily be vandalized, such as downspouts, would have to be inserted into protected channels sitting flush against the building (these read as green stripes on the finished building).
“The idea is it’s going to be around for 50 years,” the architect says as he strokes his new salt-and-pepper beard.
And then there was the divine part. Since Mr. Weiss admits to a “fixation with brick” and laments that today’s masons too often find themselves laying boring, symmetrical stacks along the bottoms of glassy condominium towers, he wanted to do something that challenged them, and us, with wide arches over entryways, stretcher courses that undulate in and out for shadow-play, and stately soldier courses on both the top and bottom of the building. Asymmetrical placement of thin, glass block windows would also add to the visual interest.
The brick Mr. Weiss chose is notable as well. Imported from Britain, these hand-pressed beauties are a dead ringer for the stuff Toronto’s Victorian architects used on houses in Parkdale, the Annex and Cabbagetown. They’re modular, too, which means that no matter which way the mason is instructed to spin and place them – vertically, horizontally or as headers (meaning the ends are showing) – the ones that bump up against them don’t have to be cut; in fact, the only cuts that had to be done were to courses that terminated at the wide arches. This also meant that the building’s concrete shell had to conform to exact measurements.
“When you hold it in your hand, you can understand why that brick is that size … the ergonomic history …” Mr. Weiss trails off, lost in thought.
Along with all of that lovely red brick, there are other colours: Inside, each window opening has been trimmed in a cheery yellow, while outside, doors have been painted a soft peacock blue and metal walls and the building cap are in classic “park green,” since there really is a lot of nature around here: “One day, before the glass block went in, I was sitting with the contractor and there was still snow on the ground, and a big buck came up and stuck her head in,” Mr. Weiss remembers. “It was incredible!”
Mr. Weiss and his team had to contend with new city public washroom standards, which specify that each washroom be fully wheelchair accessible – so wide hallways, generous turning radii, a baby change-table that drops down at the press of a button, lowered sinks and hand-holds – and that the building also house a third, universal washroom. With an old folk’s home just down the road at 70 Humberline Dr., these features are not only welcome, they’re necessary.
To place all of this within an on-budget-yet-striking building that recalls those long ago days when the city put a great deal of thought into its public infrastructure (and, if one stretches the imagination a little, one could add that the design recalls the work of Edward Durell Stone, the American mid-century architect who successfully combined fluid Modernism with formal Classical architecture) means that this spirited little building is worth celebrating, despite its corporeal purpose.
But will our city fathers – and mothers – think enough to roll them out to every corner of the 6ix so we can all enjoy using them? “This is a physical manifestation of their standards,” Mr. Weiss says with a laugh. “If they want to build these all over the city, that would be fine with me.”
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