A modern break in the Victorian skyline
Only the most adventurous souls in Toronto are ready to embrace modernist alternatives
John Bentley Mays – Globe and Mail
As the housing market consistently shows us, Toronto home buyers like steeply pitched roofs, gable ends and brick façades, and only the more adventurous souls are ready to embrace modernist alternatives.
This preference baffles me. It would seem that a modern city such as Toronto would long ago have developed a popular market for more contemporary residential design. It hasn’t happened, as the pseudo-Victorian subdivisions sprawling across suburbia make clear.
Even downtown, where a presumably more sophisticated housing clientele lives and works, it’s hard to convince developers to build modernist dwellings (apart from condominium towers), and it’s hard to get buyers to move into them once they are built. Perhaps architects just aren’t creating modern homes that are fully convincing to the broad middle of the housing market. There could also be deeper forces at work – an indelible idea, for example, of what says “home,” formed in childhood by storybooks and carried along, unchanged, into adulthood.
Be that as it may, every now and then I come across a low-rise residential complex that makes an effective case for modernist infill in Toronto’s largely Victorian and Edwardian fabric – that says “home,” in other words, with a modern accent. The one I have in mind is called Richmond Town Manors, now under construction just off Queen Street West, south of Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Designed by Charles Gane, one three principals at Core Architects Inc., this deluxe and compact development is composed of nine two-bedroom units between 1,714 and 1,820 square feet in area. These town homes aren’t cheap: Prices start at $839,000 and go up to $899,000. But then, they aren’t small either, compared with the usual size of downtown Toronto condo apartments.
The square footage in each suite is arrayed vertically on four levels. The private garage, accessible through a rear laneway, and a fully equipped washroom and entry hall are on the first level. The second storey offers an open-plan arrangement, just over 12 feet wide, for kitchen, dining room and living room, with an ample deck that covers the laneway below.
Bedrooms and two more bathrooms, one off the master bedroom, are on the third level, overlooking the terrace, and the fourth (and smallest) level, for the furnace and such, opens out onto a comfortable rooftop terrace – a valuable amenity for urban living that a pitched roof, of course, makes impossible. A large skylight over the fourth level projects light into the interior of the suite. The space in each unit is open and gracious, uncomplicated by internal divisions, and conducive to informal but active modern living. I imagine that the happiest residents of these suites will be childless couples, perhaps young professionals or retirees, though there is surely quite enough room for one child in each unit.
Mr. Gane has carried through the modernism of the inner parts of these town homes to the exterior. The hefty chunk of architecture enclosing the suites is articulated by spacious expanses of glass that rise two storeys over each entrance level. These large windows, which welcome sunshine into the living room and bedroom levels, have frames of dark brown Brazilian hardwood. The wood, in turn, provides a good colour match with the dark brick that runs along the bottom of the façade. This exterior treatment is bold and unfussy, and it generates a streetscape that has the rhythm and swing many people admire in Victorian housing and find sadly missing in modernist compositions that are more timid than this one.
Heading into architecture school a generation ago, Mr. Gane told me, he tried to avoid at all costs the postmodernism then fashionable. This was an architectural movement, many readers will recall, that sought to reinstate everything avant-garde modernism had tried to erase from the design vocabulary: not only pitched roofs and stately pediments, but also arches and columns, ornamentation and the various “revival” styles that littered the 19th-century landscape.
Postmodernism’s apostles felt people would live better and more amiably in cities and suburbs that looked like the small towns of great-grandmother’s day. Reduced to a commercial formula and applied without the sensitivity required of all gestures toward “history,” this impulse now drives the neo-traditional designs common in contemporary suburbia and in many downtown developments.
But Richmond Town Manors, and a few other schemes I’ve seen around town, show that handsomeness in a commercial residential complex cast in a modern idiom is not only possible, but also attainable. I hope more developers figure this out, before Toronto’s new-home building lots are filled with houses that are stylistically obsolete before they are even finished.
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