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A bright 'gateway' to Kensington Market

Behind the tarpaulin and the scaffolding, the colours take shape on the east wall of the Kensington Market Lofts.

Architects recladding an older condo complex turn to local artist who in turn finds inspiration from vivid hues of the world's flags

What do you get when you mix the following? An architect with a particular interest in "tower renewal" – the science of reskinning 1950s-1970s buildings to be more energy efficient – who also works at one of the city's top heritage firms; a world-class sculptor who has had solo exhibitions in Berlin, Shanghai, Los Angeles and New York; a condominium board filled with artists, educators, architects, engineers, writers and other creative types; and a wall that didn't exactly look good after some much-needed structural repairs.

You get a new gateway to Kensington Market on the east wall of the Kensington Market Lofts at 160 Baldwin St.

"This will be his biggest public piece," says tower-renewal expert/heritage architect Graeme Stewart of artist An Te Liu's work as he spins the dial on the back of his hard hat to tighten it. Parting the blue tarpaulin to expose the intricate tower of scaffolding, Mr. Liu comments that his recently injured ankle might mean he can't inspect the work on the upper floors. No matter: In a few weeks, the scaffolding will be gone and the entire neighbourhood will be able to enjoy it. Already having a look are Max Berg, project manager for ERA Architects (where Mr. Stewart is a principal), Greg Doyle, project manager at Historic Restoration and his colleague, Richard Bull.

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"We've been working on this building for about five years now," explains Mr. Stewart as he grips the first iron rung, "and it's just a condo at that age." He goes on to recount how the wall in question, as with the rest of the 1952 building, had been constructed using block-like, glazed-terracotta bricks (the complex also includes a regular brick building from 1923 on Nassau Street). But they had to be removed to "expose every beam, take out the rust, put on rust inhibitor [and] make a mess of the wall."

But after being newly insulated and structurally re-equipped for wind loads, the question was: What to install as final cladding? Initial talk was to celebrate the existing terracotta by creating a new terracotta work, but that would have proved extremely heavy and, perhaps, prohibitively expensive. Since the condo board was keen on creating a "gateway" to Kensington Market, murals and graphics were discussed.

Finally, Mr. Berg stumbled upon a photograph of Mr. Liu's No Molestar, a work shown in Rotterdam in 2006 that consisted of precisely stacked piles of folded T-shirts in various colours that formed a soft, low barrier. Mr. Berg "threw it on the condo wall in Photoshop for fun." The board liked it and so, since Mr. Liu also happened to live in the building, it was decided to hire him.

Artist An Te Liu once painted a postwar bungalow ‘Monopoly green’ as part of the ‘Leona Drive Project’ in Willowdale, Ont.

Of course, any artist worth his or her salt won't reproduce a work for a new client. So, taking No Molestar as inspiration only, Mr. Liu decided to figure out, scientifically, which colours appeared most often on the flags of every country on Earth. Obviously, there would be a lot of reds and blues, but there were variations to consider: "So there's the American red, which is really close to the French red, which is different from the Canadian red," explains Mr. Liu, who then corrects himself: "Actually, the French red is lighter, more orangey, the American red is more close to the Chinese red."

That meant various shades would also be considered in this giant cladding puzzle. Working for four months in his studio, An Te Liu, who once painted an entire postwar bungalow "Monopoly green" as part of the "Leona Drive Project" in Willowdale, found that there were more greens and yellows than expected. And, when the numbers were crunched, only three panels ended up in orange. Perhaps not as surprising was the absence of purples and pinks.

Since Kensington Market was, historically, ground zero for new Toronto immigrants to live and to start small businesses (and still is, to a degree), this approach seemed far more "inclusive" than taking a poll of current residents, since "that would always be rendered obsolete within a couple of years because it's always changing."

The scaffolded building, seen from Spadina Avenue and Baldwin Street.

The board and building residents loved the idea. Says architect Cathy Nasmith: "I am very excited about this project, and can't wait to see it finished; it seems a perfect banner for Kensington Market."

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The next step was to marry Mr. Liu's vision with an appropriate cladding material as chosen by ERA, make certain the manufacturer could reproduce the settled-upon 19 unique colours – "If the economics were that we could only have six or seven colours it would not have worked," declares Mr. Liu – and then, says Mr. Berg, figure out a "construction logic" to make it all happen (there are dryer vents, window flashings and a lot of other, non-artistic, things to consider).

Luckily, says Mr. Stewart, the "enlightened" board decided to replace all windows on Mr. Liu's art-wall – which remains untitled for now – in order to allow the new metal siding to come right into the units. There was also one resident, he says with a laugh, who "took one for the team" by allowing a number of "mock-ups" to be tested inside his unit.

"There are lot of ways you could've done this in a cheaper way that was the wrong way," says Mr. Stewart. "This is a really solid construction … the architectural thing, boring as it sounds, is keeping the beams dry so they don't rust."

But in Kensington Market, "boring" is never an option.

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