Fins are in.
Across Asia, Europe and the Americas, architects are using concrete or metal fins – high-Modernist details I thought had gone out with Nehru jackets – to enliven the façades of new sports arenas, festival halls and residential structures. The impact of these decorative features can be dramatic, turning the otherwise blank surfaces of a boxy building into pageants of ripples, creases, folds.
Or the effect can be more subdued and rhythmically subtle, which is how Toronto architect Heather Rolleston’s much-finned façades will likely come across at Form, the 14-storey condominium stack she has designed for the developer Tridel.
Destined to rise on north-south McCaul Street a few steps away from the shops and eateries of Queen Street West, Form will share the sidewalk with British all-star Will Alsop’s exuberant Sharp Centre for Design (part of the Ontario College of Art and Design University) and Frank Gehry’s drastically overhauled Art Gallery of Ontario. Form, like these buildings, is adjacent to Grange Park, the long-neglected green spot laid out in the Georgian era and now undergoing a high-voltage makeover by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, the celebrated Canadian urban designers and landscape architects.
Having such emphatic neighbours could tempt an architect to go easy and do something meek and understated, so as not to appear uppity. Ms. Rolleston, instead, has produced a muscular, smart residential mid-rise that will likely pull its weight, design-wise, in this interesting strip of city. The thrusting shape of the building’s south end, the architect explained, had its genesis in peculiarities of the site. Just to the west stands what is left of the Anglican Church of St. George the Martyr. The main part of this charming neo-Gothic edifice burned to the ground years ago, but the tower and the parish hall survived.
Had the lower floors of Form pushed out to the property line, the local landmark would have been obscured. So Ms. Rolleston tucked in the bottom floor to allow for a sight-line to the church from McCaul – then kept on nipping and tucking until the south end of the block became a series of massive cantilevered slabs, each two storeys thick, overhanging the entrance and sheltering a small plaza. The result is less a routine mid-rise than a work of abstract sculpture executed at a metropolitan scale.
But so much about the architectural substance of Form (which is not an immense structure) has an ambitious, big-city feel about it. When I first saw the renderings, Le Corbusier and his way with hefty Modernism came instantly to mind. Form, like the monumental projects of the Swiss original, is not pretty or whimsical or nostalgic. It is of a piece with expressways, rapid transit, skyscrapers and other expressions of broad-shouldered urban modernity.
One thing about it that carries this particular sense of Modernism, and that sets Form apart from most contemporary condo complexes, is the near-absence of balconies. (Only a handful of the 189 units have been outfitted with balconies or open-air terraces. None of these opens toward the park.)
Released from the necessity of punctuating the sides of Form with balconies, Ms. Rolleston was able to craft façades with strong horizontal sweep, and a little bounce. Each two-level volume is visually animated by a quietly varied sequence of white panels and glazed openings and metal fins. The arrays of fins attractively fuzz the interface between the condo block and the city. (While the developer has not yet specified the character of the glass, the architect said she hopes it will be lightly reflective.)
Ever since Juliet, balconies have been romantic, unbuttoned, outdoorsy fixtures, and the classical Modernists, such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, would not tolerate such “rural” interruptions of the high-rise façade’s simple, urbane purity. Of course, the skin of Form is almost balcony-free because Tridel wants it that way, not because the architect is trying to make an artistic point.
But however it has come to be the thing it is, Form is a statement of architectural Modernism as serious and inventive as anything that has recently come out of architectsAlliance, the neo-Modernist Toronto design office in which Ms. Rolleston has worked for several years.
For the record, the units in Form range in format from one to three bedroom apartments – two-level lofts are also available – and they vary in size between around 490 square feet and 1,400 square feet. Tridel vice-president Jim Ritchie says that prices start in the $300,000s and go up to $1.1-million.