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Studio Gang’s new Toronto tower follows the right recipe: tall, innovative and excellent

A rendering of the development proposal for One Delisle at Yonge and St. Clair, designed by Studio Gang.

Norm Li

It could be a new architectural icon – if it doesn’t get cut down to size.

That’s the promise of a new residential tower designed by the architects Studio Gang for a site in midtown Toronto. The design, which will be unveiled at a public meeting Thursday, promises to be one of the most interesting towers in the country, and also a good neighbour.

The tower would be the first project in Canada by the renowned Chicago-based architecture firm led by Jeanne Gang. As I reported last year, Ms. Gang’s office has been working with Toronto developers Slate Asset Management for a project in the city’s Yonge and St. Clair neighbourhood.

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The proposed building has a novel and beautiful form, and a healthy relationship to the street.

The tower would be an irregular 16-sided prism, its façades defined by a complex arrangement of protruding shapes that spiral up to the sky, inspired by the growth patterns of particular plants. “It’s very carefully designed,” says Ms. Gang, “so that these eight-storey modules – which are stretched hexagons – are wrapping around the building, providing views to the residents, but also dynamic views for pedestrians walking by.”

The 48-storey building also gets slightly slimmer as it rises, minimizing the shadows it would cast on nearby businesses and homes.

Ms. Gang, who is among the world’s most prominent architects, has proven her ability to make towers that are formally interesting – the most prominent being Aqua in Chicago, whose patterned balconies make a dull tower look lively and frame different views between floors and out to the city.

The proposed One Delisle tower would be highly visible from the north along Yonge Street.

Norm Li

The Delisle Avenue proposal does something similar. Those eight-storey modules have walls that enclose some balconies, providing a degree of shelter from the wind and sun; on top of each is a sizable terrace, which will support an extensive planted garden.

This, the developers say, will help the building achieve good energy and thermal performance, meeting the city of Toronto’s ambitious Tier 2 Green Standard. Plus, it would allow the residents of these high-end apartments more generous outdoor space than high-rises typically do. And because the forms change slightly as they spiral upward, “It’s not just an endless repetition,” says Slate vice-president Brandon Donnelly. “It provides some visual interest.”

Ms. Gang is committed to making a beautiful tower. “The visual and formal manifestation of our work is still very important to our practice,” she argues. “It inspires people. And it’s a craft we value very highly, and it’s not something that’s easy to do well.”

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Yet the way the building meets the ground is arguably more important, and Studio Gang has put some serious thought into this aspect of the building. The development proposal includes the residential tower and a two-storey base to be filled with retail and restaurants; an existing 1929 art-deco façade, which has no official heritage status, will be moved slightly but retained. It would be integrated with the base of the 1960s tower next door, and a new addition by Studio Gang with a bronze cladding that would speak to – but not match – the tower above. This is solid urban design, providing a street wall and visual variety.

The tower gets slightly slimmer as it rises, minimizing the shadows it would cast on nearby businesses and homes.

Norm Li

The sidewalk on two sides will be widened. And the developers are proposing to have landscape architects Janet Rosenberg & Studio redesign the existing city parkette next door – which rests on land that they own – and expand that park onto an adjacent parking lot. In addition, they are proposing a new pedestrian passageway through the block and a public art installation.

You could argue whether this is the public benefit that the city needs most, but it’s without question substantial: It will make the block and the neighbourhood better, at considerable expense to the developers. Two factors make this possible. One, Slate owns 10 buildings in the area, and has a long-term business interest in making a better block and a better neighbourhood. And, two, the Gang tower will generate enough money to offset some of those costs.

Or will it? “There’s a lot that we’re doing for the block that, to be frank, requires new development to pay for it,” Mr. Donnelly says. There is the implication that if the tower gets cut down in height during the planning process, some of those benefits may disappear.

Along Delisle Avenue, the tower’s bronze-coloured base would house shops and restaurants.

Norm Li

That’s entirely possible. Toronto’s planning is highly ad hoc; decisions about density are generally made on a site-by-site basis. This appears to be even more true after changes to Ontario planning policy last year.

But many locals are fixated on the height of new buildings, to a degree that is both irrational and destructive. Toronto has had many high-rises since the 1960s, and this specific area has reasonably tall buildings of that vintage, with new ones recently approved. Yet, too often the politics of development come down to one question: Why does it have to be so tall?

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If 48 storeys is not the right number for this tower, what is? Is it 38? 42? 44? In a city where many neighbourhoods are losing people, why obsess over keeping new buildings short?

“Honestly, when people are walking down the street, they don’t care about how it looks above them,” Ms. Gang argues. “I wish that people will keep an open mind and try to demand better buildings. People should be expecting more from architecture, but I don’t think the height is the most important thing.”

She is right. Tall and excellent: That’s the recipe here, and it’s one cities should embrace.

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