The Toronto Telegram newspaper, once known as The “Old Lady of Melinda Street,” moved from its old, Victorian pile to a shiny, new, modernist building at 440 Front St. W. in 1963. Designed by Peter Dickinson’s successor firm, Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden, the long, sprawling, white-brick building must’ve looked as if a spaceship had landed in the old warehouse district.
After producing a million (or so) stories, the Telegram folded in 1971. For a few years, the building and equipment were leased to the Toronto Star before The Globe and Mail took ownership in 1974. From within those white-brick walls, Globe journalists would write a million more stories until 2016, when it would lock its big art deco doors (which had been relocated from the 1937 William H. Wright Building on King Street West) for the last time. In 2017, truckload after truckload of old, broken white brick would be carted away to make room for a new development while the Globe set up shop on King Street East.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Late this year, The Well finally began opening to the public. The facts and figures of this massive development, which is still under construction, are impressive. The more than three-hectare site contains 1.2 million square feet of office space, three levels of retail, including a 70,000-square-foot food hall, much public art and 1,700 residential units both for sale and rent. But it’s the look, feel and overall vibe of The Well that will have tongues wagging, selfies a-poppin’ and tourists gawking for decades to come.
Why? Because it is exactly what the future looks like in 2023. It’s a spaceship that makes other massive downtown retail developments, such as the Eaton Centre, look horribly old-fashioned (and while I am a huge fan of the work of Eberhard Zeidler, retail is a cruel, and fast-moving, mistress). The fully enclosed mall of the 1960s and 70s with its predictable, repetitive layout is passé; the public, today, craves a sense of discovery, serendipity, and architectural variety. The Well has all that, with connections to the street grid outside – what architects call “porosity” – in both expected ways, such as big glass walls, and unexpected ways, such as angled pedestrian bridges and pokey little laneways that pop out onto quirky streets such as Draper with its collection of 19th-century row cottages.
And why place retailers on a linear grid when one can build in a few curves? And why not place an enormous glass ceiling over parts of it all to create a toasty microclimate?
Despite sounding contradictory, those serendipitous things can be master planned and built-in, said Andrew Duncan of RioCan REIT, which, along with Allied Properties REIT is developing The Well. “We didn’t want it to feel programmatic, we didn’t want a lot of harsh edges. … We wanted to provide a lot of [visual] interest and have it a little bit chaotic, so it doesn’t feel like a mall.”
It also feels un-mall-like because each of the four towers along Front Street looks as if they were built at different times. As each of their bases intrudes into the retail ‘street,’ it resembles an enclosed European galleria. The building closest to Spadina Avenue, from some angles, looks a little like London’s Lloyd’s building (Richard Rogers, 1978), and the base of the third building, with its custom terra cotta tiles over arched windows and openings, looks as if it belongs next to the 1913 Wesley Building (now home to Bell Media) at 299 Queen St. W.
On the Wellington Street West side the residential buildings, while all clad in brick, sport different laying patterns, different colours and bits-n-bobs finished in metal or stone.
That’s because the architectural design was handled by the many disparate hands and minds at Adamson Associates, BDP, Giannone Petricone Associates, Hariri Pontarini, architectsAlliance, and Wallman Architects.
And then there are the ‘surprise’ encounters with public art, furniture and landscaping. Walk along Wellington, and landscape architect Claude Cormier’s low gardens and benches invite one to pause. Those drawn to see what’s under the 35,000 sq. ft. expanse of undulating German glass will likely first stop to admire Brooklyn-based artist Dustin Yellin’s 10-foot tall sculpture Emergence, which depicts “the origin of the universe, the birth of life and the creation of computing” according to the Urban Toronto website.
Poke through a laneway and encounter Vanessa Spizzirri’s whimsical paintings of dogs (where a future dog run will be located) and, when the hording is down in a few weeks, another laneway to the heritage-designated Draper Street, where walkers will be rewarded with a playful little parkette. Here, in a vacant lot between houses where neighbours once gathered in a shared garden, resident Bill Brokenshire’s cat Dizzy would regularly nap. In tribute, Mr. Cormier (who died in September) created an assemblage of stainless-steel kitchen chairs of various styles and a bronze statue of Dizzy.
Walk into the lobby of 8 Spadina Ave., and one may get dizzy admiring the curvy creations of the Brothers Dressler. Two enormous, serpentine benches, along with chunky log seating and tables, were created by the furniture-making twins at the request of Hariri Pontarini, who wanted to use some of the massive wooden beams recovered during demolition: “They came up with the concept of all the different elements and where they [would go],” says Jason Dressler, “and then, these benches, they gave us a footprint.”
The benches aren’t just benches, they’re usable sculpture, and a product of old-school woodworking and 3-D computer-aided design technology: “I actually learned a whole new program in order to design this,” says Mr. Dressler.
So, lay onto this site all of these new stories. And the ones told by the hundreds of skilled tradespeople who built the place. And don’t forget the thousands of folks who will live here or the hundreds of thousands who will celebrate in the many restaurants. Oh, and the million (or so) stories the Toronto Star will tell – they moved into 8 Spadina Ave., a year ago.
Editor’s note: (Nov. 1, 2023): In a previous version of this article, Vanessa Spizzirri’s name was misspelled. This version has been corrected.