THE PERFECT HOUSE: ARCHITECTURE
Neighbourly modernism on Jarvis St.
A gleaming tower will sit on the dividing line of suburbia and metropolitan life
By JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
Friday, June 17, 2005 Page G2
No grand 19th-century avenue in downtown Toronto was more injured by 20th-century neglect and mindless development than Jarvis Street. But before Toronto's current boom in residential construction is done, old Jarvis could get back some of the dignity and high style that distinguished it in Victorian times.
Among the latest moves afoot to do just that is the soaring condominium block that Great Gulf Group intends to put up at 590 Jarvis, the address of the old Metropolitan Toronto police headquarters.
Designed by Peter Clewes and Adrian di Castri, principals in the Toronto firm architectsAlliance, and currently winding its way through the city's approvals process, the 45-storey tower will stand at one of the few spots along the street where such monumental height makes sense.
Nowadays, the end of Mount Pleasant Road, just opposite 590 Jarvis, is one of those important, unusual urban intersections that nobody has ever seen fit to celebrate with an appropriately dramatic gesture. (Unless you count the outlandish Rogers Media Inc. headquarters sprawling down the east side of Jarvis -- which I don't.) In Toronto and elsewhere in North America, the city's edges and centre almost always meet fuzzily, with slow, predictable shifts of scale.
Motorists rushing south on Mount Pleasant through heavily forested Rosedale dive under Bloor Street East and hit the hard city centre at Jarvis abruptly. Nothing, at present, marks this uncommonly sudden, exciting transition from suburbia to metropolitan life. That will all change, sharply and for the better, when the gleaming, strong tower envisioned by Mr. Clewes and Mr. di Castri becomes the first piece of big-city architecture that southbound suburbanites see.
Part of what's good about this project is its proposed height and graceful proportions, which are wholly appropriate for a building at a key gateway. But its more conspicuous feature -- and the one likely to become the most controversial thing about it, at least among architecture fans -- is its historical styling.
Style is an odd word to use about a work by architectsAlliance, where urbane simplicity, clarity and lack of style are almost moral values. The tower at 590 Jarvis, however, will pay explicit homage to the great German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and to the mid-20th-century, high-capitalist aesthetic of glass, steel and clear space embodied, for example, in Mies's magnificent Toronto-Dominion Centre (1963-1969).
The architects' admiration for Miesian modernism is evident everywhere in their design, from the strict, open weave of steel on all four elevations, to the stone plaza defining the site at grade, and the bright, transparent lobby (set well inside the line of the curtain wall) over which the darker mass of the building seems to float. (Another, less satisfactory ground-floor scheme under consideration by the architects would have a horizontal glass slab slide under the main body of the structure.)
But while both men are baptized members of the church of high modernism, Mr. Clewes and Mr. di Castri are hardly hide-bound fundamentalists. Nor, rightly, would anybody in contemporary Toronto put up with them if they were.
In an interview, the architects said their work, in the end, is all about "doing a residential tower in the reality of Toronto." Mies would probably have demanded that the whole city block be razed to the ground -- including venerable St. Paul's Anglican Church -- before he would even think about designing something for it.
In contrast to such take-no-prisoners modernism, the attitude of the tower toward its neighbours is, well, neighbourly. If built as the architects intend, the structure will cast no shadows unacceptable to the worshippers at St. Paul's. To the west of the tower and the Gerstein Centre (which the building site wraps around), a new mid-block pedestrian laneway will be opened between little Hayden Street and Charles Street East.
The things in Miesian modernism that architectsAlliance respect include its gravity and steadiness, and Mies's excellence at good place-making in jumbled urban situations. What's mercifully missing from the modernism of the firm is a liking for bulldozers as tools of social change and good city-building.
In any case, Jarvis Street has been bulldozed, mutilated, allowed to go to wrack and ruin, and otherwise degraded quite enough over the past hundred years.
We should be glad that new urban fabric (of varying quality and inspiration) is cropping up all along Jarvis. But it's surely time to do more than that -- to distinguish this once-majestic residential street with at least some buildings as assertive and ambitious as architects can make them