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New condo tests the height of fashion on Toronto’s Golden Mile

Strike out in any direction from the Toronto intersection of Yonge and Bloor streets and you find yourself in a little world unto itself. A little way north and east is quiet and respectable Rosedale. Immediately west of the crossroads, along Bloor West, is touristy Yorkville and the crowded "Mink Mile" of sleek upmarket shops. And just to the south lies an elderly, low-rise strip of gadget stores, pizzerias and such that has managed to stay seedy despite the best efforts of the gentrifiers.

A spot at the centre of such urban variety (and the site of a key nexus in the subway system) should have architecture brim-full of sophisticated energy and visual imagination. Yonge and Bloor, however, has not been lucky in the artistic department. The office blocks on the northwest and northeast corners are desperately dull, and the looming concrete carcass of the Bay department store is an aesthetic calamity that should never have been allowed to happen.

But potentially significant things are afoot. There's the tall mixed-use building, called One Bloor East, now under construction on the southeast corner, for instance. If it lives up to its renderings, this graceful tower by Toronto architect David Pontarini will have a romantically sculpted glass skin that sets it apart sharply from the city's more usual, sober-sided modernist condo stacks. Mr. Pontarini's dramatic work could be just the kind of architectural exclamation point the place has long needed.

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Then there's the 83-storey skyscraper that Morguard Investments Ltd. would like to raise over the deluxe Holt Renfrew clothing emporium, a few steps west of Yonge and Bloor.

If the scheme gets the green light from the city and is built out as proposed, this very tall structure will feature 600 residential units in the tower and 620 parking spaces below grade. Just because it's so big, the building will join One Bloor East (and a few other towers nearby) in telling the world just how important the intersection is in Toronto's imagination of itself.

But will it be an architecturally exciting addition to downtown Toronto's inventory of residential towers? Going just by the drawings and the descriptions that accompanied the application to the city, I'd say it won't.

Before getting into the question of aesthetic merit, however, here is a sketch of what the project will look like. The great chunk of architecture has been designed by the local firm of Pellow & Associates, who have strongly articulated its bulk into a few main components. At the sidewalk level is a wide, glassy pavilion that will contain the Holt Renfrew flagship store and other retail outlets and a tucked-in arrangement of columns and floating glass volumes that indicates the entrance to the tower. In an interesting gesture, the architects have made this portal open, not grandly onto Bloor Street West, but modestly toward a little laneway on the east side of the rectangular site. Giving over the first several levels of the eight-storey platform to shopping, and only hinting at the presence of a looming residential tower, means that this stretch of Bloor will have a mid-rise character at grade, and, probably, a comfortable sense of walkability.

The top of the platform's west end will be landscaped. The residential shaft is scheduled to rise from its east end. In its upward reach, this tower is divided into low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise sections. Each one is distinguished from the others by small façade moves – down below, a light exterior frame that looks like a cage; farther up, a play with jutting and angled volumes, and so forth. The whole composition is to be capped by a sloping skyline feature that resembles a playground slide.

In a report accompanying the proposal, consultants for Morguard make a painstaking case for the conformity of the design to every rule laid down by the province and the city. These requirements are detailed and legion, by the way. They spring from recent official concerns with matters ranging from height and shadows to "greenness" and traffic and view corridors. (For anyone interested in better understanding the hurdles high-rise developers have to vault across, this rationale, available on line at the city's Web site, makes useful reading.)

I leave it up to the experts at city hall to decide if the scheme satisfies the elaborate official expectations. But, for what it's worth, I am impressed by how carefully Morguard and their consultants argue for this proposal. The skyscraper seems to fit the bill perfectly. And that, to my mind, is a dispiriting thought. For despite its apparent compliance with the regulations, this building is far too artistically ordinary. It is a responsible, respectable and very tall lump of architecture – not the daring and stunning landmark that Bloor and Yonge cries out for. Toronto will have to wait a little longer, it appears, before the creative levels of our highest structures, and not merely their steel frames, touch the sky.

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John More


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