It’s interesting to see how cities evolve, what elements they retain over time and which ones they erase. Torontonians in particular feel they’re special in having razed many historical structures in favor of bland modernity and in having a dozen or more failed plans for every one that sees fruition.
And yet, that’s got to be just about every city everywhere. Some years back on a trip to Seattle, tour guides cheerfully mentioned their city’s history as pretty much one bad idea after another, years of political wrangling for every inch of progress made… sound familiar, Toronto? Company may not make us any less pathetic, but it does mitigate our civic misery.
Developers are quick to point out the various reasons why condos are they way they are. Local by-laws are partially to blame; as much as the city professes to desire mid-rise buildings, the zoning rules actually make it much easier to build tall ones. Developers swear that they build what the market wants and will bear. The people want floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize natural light, so they get glass boxes in the sky.
And yet there is variation. The plain glass box has given way to slightly different glass boxes. Hardly a massive leap in architecture, but still, an indication that nothing is stagnant. For a great example, look at the Distillery District, where the Pure Spirits development went up in the early 2000s:
The tower is your basic glass box; at the time, the promotional literature described the podium as paying homage to the historic district, while the use of glass on the tower was a deliberate attempt make it transparent and unobtrusive. The point of the Distillery District is the history in its bricks, not the towers above. Let’s not kid ourselves though; glass box fever was all over Toronto at that point and it’s not like the developer was about to try and build anything else.
The two towers going up on the Distillery’s east end are also made of glass, but the design now includes glass fritting and articulated balconies that add some visual punch:
One aspect of condo design getting a lot of attention these days is how they “meet the street.” Will it have a deadening effect, built as close to the edge of the sidewalk as possible? Will there be stores or walk-up townhouses, or some visual appeal? Will it draw in pedestrian traffic? Many critics correctly point out the fact that developers will always seek out the most staid, boring and reliable retail tenants, such as banks and dental offices.
My main criticism is that no condo retail space offers the kind of personality that more interesting stores would want to occupy anyway.
Let’s talk streetscapes.
Jane Jacobs was a big fan of old buildings. They are flexible, varied spaces, inclined to host any number of enterprises over their lifetime. They also make for a street that is, well, interesting. The signs are different heights and colours. Some storefronts protrude into the sidewalk, others recede. Some spaces have high ceilings, others are cramped. Every city block offers a different mix.
That’s where I live, and I’ll be the first to say that the retail at the bottom is boring as all get out, and I’m more than prepared to say that the reason is uniformity. The signage is the same colour and the same height. The doorways are all the same design. The entrances are all at the same depth. The only personalization permitted is on the interior of each space.
Why can’t the same go for townhouse developments? The above rendering is for a development going up near me, and while I personally feel that these townhomes actually look quite pleasant, I wonder if there’s a specific need for them to be so uniform. Obviously it saves on construction and design cost, but at the same time, imagine the premium a developer could charge for unique units, each with its own personality built in. Not unlike boutique hotels with each room assembled by a different designer, a single development could lend vitality and value to an entire block.
My hope and prediction is that the next evolution of condominium design will be to break up the street-level engagement with pedestrians. Treat the lower portion of each building as a block plan, with varied height and depth to add some visual punch. This would certainly make for an uneven floor inside the building, but that could easily be worked into an asset. A multi-level party room perhaps. This is not to say that every condo has to do this (mandated differentiation can be as tacky and overdone as anything else), but it would be nice if a few did. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
There’s a world of possibility out there, and design can welcome it with open arms or send it running for the hills. Condos, it’s time to think about your next leap forward.