A woman is walking down a street towards the bakery. To her left rise the knobbly bricks and rust-red painted railings of a tenement; another building on the right scatters the sun with white awnings. Two men sit in the shade of a ginkgo tree and talk. And as she walks past the playground, she might not notice the tall towers slanting in the distance.
This is the vision for 2150 Lake Shore Blvd. W., a 28-acre neighborhood planned in Toronto’s suburban Etobicoke neighborhood. It will house around 13,000 people; Offices and retail will employ 4,500 people and there will be new schools, parks and community centers.
But the design, led by prominent London architects Allies and Morrison, is all about the little things. It suggests that if you focus on how a downstairs location feels – and execute the design with dogged persistence, the rest will take care of itself.
The project will fill a Toronto West Coast site formerly occupied by a Mr. Christie cookie factory and now owned by developers First Capital and Pemberton. It’s surrounded by the Humber Bay Shores neighborhood — a dense, isolated cluster of high-rise condominiums that have collapsed over the past 30 years.
The architects have a specific recipe for designing their part of the quarter. Alfredo Caraballo, partner in charge at Allies and Morrison, calls it “the urban painterly”. This derives from 18th-century English aesthetics, which “is an odd place to start,” as Mr. Caraballo laughingly acknowledges. But it boils down to two simple ideas: that the visual experience of a place matters, and that irregular things are beautiful.
This new zone therefore begins with a liberal scattering of parks and plazas designed by landscape architects from Toronto’s DTAH and London’s Gross/Max. “Spaces come first, and then buildings follow,” says Mr. Caraballo. “We think if we get these places right, the neighborhood will work.”
These open spaces vary in size and shape and are scattered across the site with a studied randomness. Buildings then frame these open spaces, creating an alternating pattern of blocks and angled intersections. Some streets should be only six meters wide.
The plan’s central stroke is a U-shaped street, a “loop of stimuli,” says Caraballo, “with something interesting happening around every corner.” This connects the large park, retail, offices and apartments with a converted GO Transit station and a TTC tram terminus. At the center of the loop, a diverse cluster of buildings frames an open-air “galeria” with retail and co-working areas.
The first phase of the buildings, for which Allies and Morrison were hired as design architects, reveals the plan’s studied faux-randomness. On one block there are towers with 9, 11 and 46 floors; on the other 10, 13, 66. That’s more than 1,300 apartments – 10 percent of them below market rents -, 29,000 square meters of offices and 6,500 square meters of retail. The buildings frame two public squares.
Such construction and district decisions fall within the scope of urban planning, which is located between the professions of architecture, landscape architecture and planning.
Mr. Caraballo’s “painterly” design dates back to the British townscape movement of the 1940s. Townscape advocates were deeply angered by the broad swathes of modernist planning and car-centric suburbs. Their answer was to mimic the random, incremental nature of pre-industrial European cities. Mr. Caraballo sums up the ethos: “The block isn’t just a chart that you impose on the site,” he says. “The shape of the city is shaped by the experience of a person moving through it.”
This perspective is a far cry from the practice of North American urbanism, and certainly from Toronto. The recent condos in Humber Bay Shores reflect the kind of blocks Toronto planners generally want to see: rectilinear “pedestals” framing straight, wide streets. But the details are all wrong. The design of the landscape is haphazard. Retail and restaurant space here should breathe life into the street, but it doesn’t; The large windows facing the street are mostly obscured, and the ground-floor facades lack the detail, texture, and variety that make a good street. Both the idea and the execution are flawed.
The 2150 project will be completely different. “It breaks every rule that we created in Toronto, but in the best possible way,” says Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker, partner at urban planning and planning firm Urban Strategies, who is working on the project. “And to her credit, the town planning has been very supportive.” She points to the architecture’s high-low-big-small rhythm and the irregular street pattern.
But the architectural detail will be just as important. “There was a lot of work done on how these buildings come together on site,” says Mr. Caraballo. “How do we integrate a grocery store? How do we make the inputs readable? The architecture has diversity because this is a piece of the city. We don’t want all buildings to look the same.”
In phase one alone, the architectural materials include bricks of multiple colors; red concrete reminiscent of Victorian sandstone; a grocery store that looks like a greenhouse made of glass and steel; and an entire building clad in pistachio-green concrete. “We wanted the design to be practical,” says Caraballo, “but also to be fun.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to a project like this than just its looks. Its planning was a multi-year process by the developers, parallel to this on the part of the city. Among other things, it is about the mixture of living and other uses; public facilities; the construction and design of transit infrastructure; and the road network. A new “relief road” will direct traffic from the adjacent Gardiner Expressway around the perimeter of the site and out of the area. That “will allow Lake Shore Boulevard to become the thoroughfare it’s meant to be,” Ms. Rottenberg-Walker says, and will allow the new 2150 neighborhood to have relatively few cars in its center.
All of these infrastructure and funding issues are complex, but they are the meat of any great development. In fast-growing Toronto, the development industry – and city planners – largely know how to handle these things.
What they don’t know is creating a new neighborhood that’s a good place. That requires a variety of people and activities, yes. But it also needs carefully detailed and varied architecture; various buildings; and a public area that’s bustling with people, commerce, nooks and crannies. And surprises.
But these qualities require creativity, time and money. Sometimes developers start with a big vision and then hire ambitious local architects to water it down. In this case, the continued presence of Allies and Morrison bodes well. “We know that architecture and thoughtful urban design are fundamental to creating a thriving neighborhood,” said Jennifer Arezes, Vice President of First Capital, “and we look forward to our continued collaboration” with Allies and Morrison. We will see.
Equally important, will the city authorities accept the unusual layout of the streets and the layout of the buildings? Some streets and squares seem a bit too wide. City standards will urge them to be wider.
Toronto’s urban code generally yields poor results. With any luck, this project could help rewrite the rules. His recipe – sensitive architecture, an unyielding focus on the ground floor and just a hint of clutter – could help shape the city of the future.
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