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A Toronto condo hemmed in by heritage

John Bent­ley Mays – Globe and Mail

Long-time read­ers of this col­umn know how I think down­town Toronto’s new con­do­minium projects should look (and too sel­dom do): sleek (but not entirely glassy), urbane and for­mally imag­i­na­tive, and free of allu­sions to comfy, antique high styles.

In fact, they are best with­out ref­er­ences to any kind of pre-modernist styling, includ­ing that of the Vic­to­rian and Edwar­dian fac­to­ries and ware­houses stand­ing thick on the ground in the core’s for­mer blue-collar districts.

I don’t hate Toronto’s pro­le­tar­ian archi­tec­ture, by the way, or the rugged old low-rise and mid-rise indus­trial build­ings that have sur­vived from the past into the present – even if few are as inter­est­ing as those in, let’s say, the Dis­tillery Dis­trict. It’s good that devel­op­ers have saved many of these elderly struc­tures – or at least some of the bet­ter ones – from destruc­tion by trans­form­ing them into hand­some apart­ment and office blocks. And it’s surely not entirely bad that the city’s plan­ning and urban design bureau­cracy, by its insis­tence on “con­tex­tu­al­ism,” is con­tin­u­ing to remind local devel­op­ers and archi­tects of what their fore­run­ners got right a hun­dred years ago.

My prob­lem with con­tex­tu­al­ism comes out of a belief that con­tem­po­rary Toronto archi­tects, while they ought to be good stu­dents of the things that have his­tor­i­cally made cities work well, should be able to design mid-rises and high-rises with­out hav­ing to worry about forc­ing their new build­ings to curt­sey to old ones. Under the city’s cur­rent plan­ning regime (and also, of course, due to the con­ser­vatism of many Toronto devel­op­ers), that’s exactly what the archi­tects of down­town res­i­den­tial stacks do worry about. The designs that result are some­times sober and seri­ous, but even the good ones usu­ally lack the high visual volt­age our inner-city neigh­bour­hoods need badly.

For an exam­ple of the phe­nom­e­non I’m talk­ing about, take the new res­i­den­tial project known as Fab­rik Con­dos.

Fash­ioned for Menkes Devel­op­ments by archi­tect Ralph Gian­none, a found­ing part­ner in the Toronto firm of Gian­none Pet­ri­cone Asso­ciates, in asso­ci­a­tion with Gio­vanni A. Tas­sone Archi­tects, this 16-storey, 169-unit build­ing is slated to rise near the garment-district inter­sec­tion of Spad­ina Avenue and Rich­mond Street West. The avail­able suites range in area from 424 square feet (for a stu­dio) up to 1,388 square feet (for three bed­rooms). Prices start at under $300,000.

The Fab­rik site is located in a gritty, for­mer work­shop and ware­hous­ing patch of cen­tral Toronto that the city has tar­geted for rede­vel­op­ment since the 1990s. This encour­age­ment of property-owners to gen­trify, how­ever, has come with a pro­viso: that new con­struc­tion in the dis­trict sing in har­mony with the old brick-and-beam struc­tures round about. (It hasn’t always done so, by the way: Res­i­den­tial devel­op­ers have recently got­ten away with multi-unit designs vary­ing across the styl­is­tic spec­trum from a kind of awful baroque to Art Deco and some quite decent modernism.)

Menkes Devel­op­ments, at least in the case of Fab­rik, has tried to hon­our the city’s archi­tec­tural inten­tions for the zone, and Mr. Gian­none has designed accord­ingly. The grid-like face of the building’s 11-storey podium, which is framed with embossed pre­cast con­crete, is a respect­ful nod to all the century-old ware­house façades in the neighbourhood.

The futur­is­tic five-storey glass box Mr. Gian­none has dropped atop this podium might mit­i­gate the factory-like plain­ness of the base it rests on, if it were larger or the whole build­ing were taller. (The box, the archi­tect told me, is meant to ter­mi­nate the view from west­bound cars com­ing along Rich­mond Street.) And the polka-dot pat­tern­ing of the con­crete, an inter­est­ing touch that cre­ates an appear­ance of what the archi­tect calls “tough lace,” might off­set the machine-age solem­nity of the podium, if its improb­a­ble del­i­cacy and play­ful­ness were allowed to infect the form.

As we have it, how­ever, Fab­rik is a stu­dious, unsmil­ing work that bows in all the right direc­tions, doesn’t get above itself, and cer­tainly doesn’t shout. It promises to stay nes­tled down well among the older items of garment-district archi­tec­ture that it imitates.

I can appre­ci­ate Mr. Giannone’s ener­getic effort to bring Fab­rik into line with the his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter of the area. It’s harder for me to appre­ci­ate the polite­ness of the outcome.

Not every new res­i­den­tial build­ing has to make a great fuss about itself, of course. But just because Toronto’s main streets are dowdy and tired, and the downtown’s for­mer indus­trial strips are dull, devel­op­ers should take every new condo–block com­mis­sion as a fresh oppor­tu­nity to make some­thing ter­rific and freely con­tem­po­rary. I am under no illu­sion that the devel­op­ment com­mu­nity will take my sug­ges­tion seri­ously. But even now, some mem­bers of it appear to have arrived at the same con­clu­sion I’ve come to: that, in a city where the his­tor­i­cal con­text is so pedes­trian, con­tex­tu­al­ism really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

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Con­tact Lau­rin Jef­frey for more infor­ma­tion – 416−388−1960

Lau­rin Jef­frey is a Toronto Real­tor with Cen­tury 21 Regal Realty. He did not
write these arti­cles, he just repro­duces them here for peo­ple who are
inter­ested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.

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