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the perfect house

The coveted Toronto Urban Design Awards, dispensed by the city every two years, are usually all about celebrating what Hogtown has got in the way of metropolitan beauty and imagination. But when the 2009 prizes were handed out recently, the jury decided to take the opportunity to give us a mild scolding along with a pat on the back.

We deserve both. (The awards jury, by the way, was especially impressive this year: architect, urban designer and editor of Canadian Architect Ian Chodikoff; prominent Toronto architect A. J. Diamond, and landscape architects Eha Naylor and Michael Van Valkenburgh.)

The jury didn't see fit to name a winner, for example, in the important category of large public spaces, and it didn't like much of what it saw in the student category. (The latter verdict is ominous: If the kids in architecture schools aren't learning how to do effective urban design, then what good can we expect from the next generation of architects?)

While acknowledging that "significant progress" has been made over the past few years in the quality of Toronto's public realm, the jury added that "many projects contained an unevenness in their approach to urban design, especially as it pertained to … landscape architecture and the buildings' treatment at the ground or street level."

Despite these and other criticisms, jurors saw a number of Toronto projects they thought strong enough to merit Awards of Excellence, the top prizes. Here are some of the winners, with jury comments.

Laneway House, 40R Shaftesbury Ave.

Margaret Graham and Andre D'Elia architects, superkül inc.

This little residence "debunks the myth that you cannot provide a single-family home in a dense urban space. … Clad with rusted metal panels, the exterior of the building was clearly designed to exude a rough aesthetic befitting a laneway residence of this kind."

When I reviewed the handsome, 900-square-foot structure in this column last year, the architects were calling their work "the making of living space in zero-tolerance conditions." And, indeed, the property lines and the footprint of the Victorian blacksmith's shed at the heart of the project are almost identical.

Superkül's solution to the squeeze was to build upward, and carefully fit the interior elements together into a tight, unified whole. Natural light, falling from high skylights at the top of light wells, illuminates almost every cranny of the interior. Though densely composed, superkül's building is a delightfully porous fabric of light and shadow, openings and closings, that works beautifully in its laneway setting.

Spire, 33 Lombard St.

Peter Clewes architect, architectsAlliance

This tall, modernist condominium building, clad entirely in glass, "simply understands where it is located and its purpose in the city."

It also met the jury's rigorous expectations about how a tower is supposed to behave at street level. "The north-facing grasses are healthy - except in the areas of the deepest shade - and appropriate for a reduced-light landscape design. Perhaps the designers initially wanted a single species of very hardy grass. Nonetheless, the final material palette used for the plantings remains restrained and is growing better than any other landscape the jury had visited."

But the jury did have one criticism that interestingly expressed its concerns: "There could have been some form of canopy incorporated into the project's design - the ground-floor retailers must pull down their blinds throughout most of the day to protect themselves and their goods from extreme sun, glare and solar gain."

Designers of the buildings that line our streets should take this caveat to heart, and make sure that architectural modernism works for the well-being of residents and commercial tenants alike.

Mayor's Tower Renewal Opportunities Book: 1,000 sites throughout the City of Toronto

E.R.A. Architects and the University of Toronto John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design

This Award of Excellence, in the Vision and Masterplan category, went to a scheme that has evolved from a master's thesis by former U of T student Graeme Stewart into a powerful plan for reviving the residential towers put up in Toronto some 50 years ago. Here, as elsewhere in its deliberations, the jury paid special attention to what happens at grade. Mr. Stewart and his team at E.R.A. have envisioned public markets and agricultural plots, among other uses, on the currently bleak expanses around and between buildings.

"To produce a document that makes better use of the ground plane in Toronto's inner suburbs represents a timely, responsible and strategic response to many challenges associated with the public realm," the jury said.

"Potential scenarios that include urban agriculture or public markets may not be entirely feasible as illustrated. However, to envision such positive changes for the lives of so many Torontonians is certainly deserving of an award."

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