Do all those condo towers look a little bland to you, or is it just me?
I ask some version of this question every time I meet an architect. I can’t help myself. Our skyline is being comprehensively remodeled and I’m a little worried that were going from Toronto the Good to Toronto the Glass.
After a recent panel discussion at the Design Exchange, sponsored by an accounting firm that specializes in architects, which convened to discuss how design can be disported for social good, I asked panelist Michael McClelland of ERA Architects
what he thought, as an architect, about all these ticky-tacky towers as the legacy his generation is leaving the city.
After making it clear that architects play at least as big a role as they ever have in the way a building comes out, he told me they weren’t the only ones responsible and that, as a result, "We may have a lot of ordinary buildings being built."
"In the 19-teens or 20s, think of New York when they were building the Chrysler Building, there were very spirited entrepreneurs [saying] ‘Let’s do the best thing ever.' We now deal with,…" he paused, thinking of how to put it politely. "It’s very rare to find those people. We’re often dealing with pension funds and boards who are looking for the safest expenditure and the biggest return."
But he says it’s the architect’s job to do a little of what he calls "client judo," taking the momentum of a developer’s (or pension fund’s) idea and flipping it into something that might make a good building.
The degree of judo required varies by client. "There are extremely knowledgeable clients out there, and very naïve ones," McClelland says.
The worst of the lot of them, in my very humble opinion, is the wholly inappropriate new Four Seasons, a pile of glass that both lacks distinction and makes a back alleyway out of Bay Street to boot. It was designed by Peter Clewes
in a style that seems to be running wild across our cityscape.
But according to McClelland, I shouldn’t be too hard on the dwarf-starchitect. One of the reasons I think it looks so plain, he says, is that Clewes is one of the originators of a style that’s been copied to distraction.
It’s happened before.
, the architect behind Wychwood Park, built a few Arts and Crafts houses on Indian Road for some William Morris-loving clients. They were so successful, that developers started copying them, plopping them down all over High Park.
"Smith and his friends were horrified," says McClelland, one of whose specialties is architectural history. They wanted the houses in pastoral settings redolent of the English countryside, but now they were being wedged in everywhere in distinctly urban style.
"These Arts and Crafts houses, which we now totally love, were taking over and killing their bucolic environments,” McClelland says. “You can look at that in every wave of development of every boom period, where there might be some initially very interesting things and, if it’s successful, there’ll be a whole wash of it. Then critiques of it being ‘inappropriate’ and ‘running wild’."
So, Clewes does something new, other developers and boards like it, and as their architects to do that same. That’s where the judo is meant to come in but, as we are seeing, many of our architects seem to be of the white- and yellow-belt variety.
But the boom ain’t over yet – in fact, McClelland thinks we may now be in the same boom that began in the 80s, and then just experienced a lull before roaring back to life -- and he is quite chuffed about what David Pontarini
is doing with more fluid buildings like 1 Bloor East and the Massey Tower.
So, before we get a bunch of mini-Pontarinis, it may be time to break out the black belts.
Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Michael McClelland