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Kuwabara brings tall building romance to Yonge and Wellesley

Toronto has never had the parkland it deserves. That we have any sizable green spaces at all is largely because of the Victorian philanthropy of John Howard, who willed us his country estate, now High Park, and to the numerous streams and little rivers that prevent the occupation of their marshy, forested ravines.

Waterfront Toronto, the public agency charged with the revitalization of Hogtown's desolate Lake Ontario shoreline, is laying out impressive parks on the properties it oversees, but private-sector real estate interests seem as intent as ever on building out every square foot of land that's available.

Which is one thing that makes the upcoming infill of the spacious vacant lot on Wellesley Street just west of Yonge Street different, and interesting.

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In a notable exception to what usually happens, Lanterra Developments, the owner, will create a 1.6-acre public park on the site. To be crafted by Robert Ng of NAK Design Group, this park will satisfy, at least part way, the desire of politicians, city planning staff and local residents that the empty lot not be crammed with architecture. The neighbours will get the landscaped open space they want in this tight inner-city jumble of apartment blocks and the tattoo parlours and pizza joints of Yonge Street.

Lanterra has landed permission to put up a 60-storey commercial-residential tower on the northeast corner of the site. The developer will get the $300-million, profit-making building needed to suit the backers and make its fashioning of the park work financially.

On the inside, this structure will offer standard-issue condo living to the usual downtown home-hunters – singles, working couples without kids, empty-nesters, investors. Prices for the tower's 742 units start at around $200,000 for a tiny 300-square-foot studio. At 878 square feet, the largest suite available features two bedrooms and a den – perhaps enough territory for a very small family, though not really. It looks like we'll have to keep waiting for a developer to issue a serious invitation to normal-income, normal-sized families to live deep downtown.

But if the neighbours get a new park out of this arrangement, and Lanterra gets its high-rise, what will be the payoff for people who care about beauty? It could be conspicuous, if the tower lives up to its model and renderings.

Designed for Lanterra by Bruce Kuwabara, founding partner of KPMB Architects, in close co-operation with Page+Steele/IBI Group Architects, this attractive building takes its artistic cues, Mr. Kuwabara says, from landscape.

Not the stony, dramatic terrain of Ontario's cottage country, it appears, but rather the mellow, rolling farmland in the province's southern districts, and the hilly contours of the proposed park. Belts of whitened glass balcony fronts run smoothly around each level of the structure, quietly looping out at the curved corners, then tucking in, and nowhere making a sharp turn. The billowing white exterior, almost invisibly accented by shades of grey, will be subtly expressive instead of routinely right-angled.

The undulation is most pronounced at the ground level, where the terraced base flares out over the outside tables of what Mr. Kuwabara hopes will be a noodle house, a French bistro or some other casually chic, mid-market venue. His belief that a fine-dining establishment would be out of place in this zone of the city is surely right. What's wanted, instead, is a hub, a popular eatery that lends social orientation to the neighbourhood of high-rise dwellers and strollers on rough-edged Yonge Street.

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This description doesn't make this building sound very much like the KPMB structures Torontonians are used to.

For most of its 26 years, the distinguished office has seemed most comfortable doing straight-ahead, anti-historicist modernism. Neither its recent overhauls of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and the Royal Conservatory of Music nor its ground-up residential performances at the mammoth CityPlace housing complex dropped a hint that KPMB might have a place in its artistic toolkit for the tall-building romanticism embodied in the Wellesley Street project.

But this enlargement is surely welcome. Like other local designers of large condominium buildings in the Toronto market – David Pontarini and Rosario Varacalli come to mind – Mr. Kuwabara has clearly been thinking about what comes next in the art of building tall, now that every modernist box has been constructed and every application of the T-square has been explored.

Newer, taller condo stacks may loom over the Wellesley Street tower. But until that happens – which it could, since 60 storeys is no longer extraordinarily high in Toronto – Mr. Kuwabara's softly fluid tower in the park will provide an architectural as well as communal focus for its currently unfocused spot in the Yonge Street corridor.

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John More


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