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Art & Architecture A Danish lesson: In architecture, simple (and subtle) is beautiful

Public space and simple architecture. That’s the recipe of residential projects in Toronto by Denmark’s COBE Architects.

COBE

Too many condo buildings are all flash, no substance. Conceived to be sold quickly, they’re often built around a simple silhouette or a graphic pattern. They’re either sculptural objects – built to be seen from afar at sunset – or boxes wrapped in superficial coverings. Simple to understand, easy to market, quick to go stale.

The Danish architects COBE have a very different approach. For them, beauty is not found on the skyline or in a glamour shot; it’s in the way a building fits into the city. With a couple of new projects in Toronto, they’re setting a fine example for how to weave the urban fabric.

“We feel that in order to make good architecture,” said Thomas Krarup, an architect at COBE, “you need to make good public space, and vice versa.”

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Krarup was in Toronto recently to present a new development project that will soon be submitted for city approval – a complex of three rental apartment buildings, designed together with architectsAlliance for developers Dream, Kilmer and Tricon. The buildings, on the eastern edge of downtown Toronto, combine market rental and affordable rental housing,

They will be surrounded by public plazas, designed by the maestro Claude Cormier, which will be paved with brick and lushly treed. They will encourage public life in a way COBE’s compatriot Jan Gehl would be proud of. (One false note: COBE have proposed bridges to link the three towers together, which would allow residents to walk to the pool next door while avoiding the public street.)

The buildings, on the eastern edge of downtown Toronto, combine market rental and affordable rental housing,

Each building is broken down into three components: townhouses, clad in rough red brick; then the bulk of the apartments, broken down visually into 'warehouses,' as Thomas Krarup puts it, squarish six-storey volumes of a rougher red brick; and, above, 'silos' of white concrete.

COBE

As for the architecture, the design strategy is relatively simple. Each building is broken down into three components: townhouses, clad in rough red brick; then the bulk of the apartments, broken down visually into “warehouses,” as Krarup puts it, squarish six-storey volumes of a rougher red brick; and, above, “silos” of white concrete.

There are some idiosyncratic details – the silos protrude at acute angles, the warehouses have diagonal window openings sliced out of them, and so on. But the three buildings read not as “sculptural” or “iconic.” They are essentially well-proportioned boxes. That’s no accident. “Instead of trying to overdesign,” Krarup says, “we want to simplify and let the project stand out for its elegance and simplicity.”

This three-part organization is, in this case, informed by this specific context. The site is the West Don Lands.This former industrial zone on the edge of downtown Toronto is analogous to many of the places that are getting redeveloped in major cities: It’s near an old waterfront, a bit out-of-the-way. There are grain silos on the nearby lakefront, and the Distillery District – an astonishing collection of Victorian industrial architecture turned shopping zone – is right next door. “We took our cues from the area, which has a lot of industrial heritage,” Krarup says.

COBE know this sort of area. In Copenhagen, the firm has masterplanned sections of the Nordhavn (North Harbour) redevelopment, a major city project; and as architects they completed the reconstruction of grain silos as a high-end condo apartment building with a restaurant on top.

The Silo is spectacular, as I saw during a visit last year: A new skin of perforated steel defines balconies and window openings, bending and kinking its way across the surface. And the apartments within are in demand. “A building that had been slated for demolition now has the highest sale prices in the city,” Krarup says.

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In Toronto the silos are figurative, rather than literal. “We like to work from context,” Krarup says. “We take our cues from the history.”

Much the same is true at their other Canadian project, a few kilometres uptown in the posh Rosedale neighbourhood. Working with developers DiamondCorp and Tricon (Tricon are among their clients at the West Don Lands), they have designed a 21-storey tower dubbed Scrivener Square. It picks up the red brick of an adjacent row of shops, extending the scale and materials of this century-old streetscape into a three-dimensional puzzle of homes, shops and a plaza with a glorious fountain. Soon to start construction, it will be both urban and urbane.

It will also be recognizably Danish. The particular brand of decorous-yet-playful modernism that has emerged from that small Nordic country is clear in their work. Regular urban buildings, like the ones COBE has been tasked with, should be quiet and neighbourly. COBE’s Toronto buildings seem likely to achieve that, and artfully so.

So what’s the lesson? For one thing, that contextualism – choosing to fit in – can be noble. For another, that it’s compatible with a certain degree of spatial and formal inventiveness.

This is not to say that every new building should be quiet. But the showpiece star-architect towers now popping up in Vancouver and Toronto vary in quality. I very much like BIG’s twisty Vancouver House, and don’t much like Ole Scheeren’s Jenga-licious 1500 West Georgia. Your mileage may vary. But in 20 years, or 50, I suspect we will agree that COBE’s work remains handsome and contributes, still, to the life of the city.

Editor’s note: (Feb. 20, 2019) An earlier version of this article was unclear about the developers in the consortium. This version has been updated.
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