Partisans on a Mission to Shape Toronto’s Future

Toronto architecture firm known for modestly sized projects like Bar Raval (pictured) take on Union Station

There’s a restaurant and bar in Toronto’s Little Italy that looks like nothing else in the city. Bar Raval’s Spanish-inspired menu of tapas and pintxos is arresting enough, but it’s the interior, with its swooping stalactites and webs of mahogany, that strike the eye. It’s as if the architects had found a way to make the wood malleable, like clay or putty, and sculpted it into fluid, almost loopy shapes. It’s a twist on reality worthy of the Spanish artists Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudi, making Raval one of the most imaginatively designed bars in the world.

“Our goal is to make the impossible probable,” says Alex Josephson, who cofounded Partisans with Pooya Baktash and was soon after joined by a third partner, Jonathan Friedman. The Toronto architecture and design studio designed Bar Raval and won last year’s Ontario Association of Architects’ award for best emerging practice.

Beautiful as it may be, the tapas bar is a mere appetizer for a larger destiny. Partisans has quickly built a reputation for imaginative feats on a relatively small, independent scale. Now the young firm is scaling up its ambitions and operations as one of the companies working, in collaboration with NORR Architects, on the $640-million revitalization of Toronto’s Union Station, one of the biggest civic renovation projects underway in the city in some years.

If the sheer size and scope of the Union Station project seems ambitious for a studio that’s been in business for only about five years and employs just 15 people, Partisans got its foot in the door precisely because the developer, Osmington Inc., wanted designers who think in grand gestures.

“Osmington wanted to push the project forward and create something that would make it a major cultural destination, not just a transit hub,” Josephson says. “They could have gone the standard route and picked a ‘starchitect,’ but they wanted something much more innovative, something that would really represent the city.”

For all its imposing, Edwardian-era architectural dignity, Union Station, Toronto’s main rail hub, has always been a place you go through on your way from one place to another, rather than a place you go to for its own sake. Given the influx of residents into downtown over the last few years, and the ongoing overall revitalization of the station’s facilities, the opportunity is there to make the centre much more: not just a literal platform, but a cultural one, with retail, dining and arts-related spaces for a wide cross-section of tastes. The project is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Josephson says Partisans represents an idea as much as a company that designs buildings. Its three principals – co-founders Josephson and Pooya Baktash, with partner Jonathan Friedman – have strong ideas about the role of architecture in our lives, and in the role that a city plays in the lives of its citizens.

From Partisans’ point of view, for example, the Union Station project needed to capture what makes Toronto great: namely the vibrancy of its small entrepreneurs. “We started with the idea that Toronto’s soul is in its small, local, independent purveyors of food and fashion. One of the things that makes our city so livable is its small, innovative restaurants and shops,” Josephson says.

“The big retail establishments” – which have, in his opinion, really blighted many urban areas – “demonstrate a very particular design ethos that doesn’t represent Toronto at all. There are independents that value the design experience, and we believe the people of Toronto do as well. We’re not saying there’s no place for the chains, but you have to have a mix. You can line up for Tim Hortons, or you can go down the way to an independent purveyor and have something unique. And the architecture plays off those differences.”

There are a number of ways to do this, Josephson explains. The most important is just to encourage passersby to stop and take in the variety of choice, by creating open space – something that Union Station has in abundance. But it’s not merely a vast echoing cavern; human scale is returned through what Josephson calls a more granular approach, where instead of rows of large-scale stores and other establishments, there’s a mix of venues of different sizes and shapes, independents and familiar names alike.

Also, he continues, the station is being transformed with bars and restos that reflect its heritage character. Healthier choices in fare will compete with hamburger places, along with more sophisticated restaurants and champagne bars. “So it will attract every type of taste and every socioeconomic class as well,” he believes.

The Partisans partners are on home turf in Southern Ontario: All three are University of Waterloo graduates. Josephson has also worked with Barton Myers in Los Angeles and Jack Diamond in Toronto, and studied and worked in Rome with the internationally renowned Italian architect Massimo Fuksas. He met Baktash while doing graduate work at Waterloo; they opened their partnership in 2011. Friedman, whom Josephson had known in his undergraduate days, joined them about a year later.

Asked about the firm’s influences, Josephson says, “It’s kind of a dance between art and architecture.” He mentions artists James Turrell, known for his experimental work in light and space, Anish Kapoor (of the Mountain, in Simcoe Park, and the Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park), and experimental architects such as Lebbeus Woods and Gordon Matta-Clark.

Other projects for Partisans’ Ontario backyard include a tiny sauna on the shore of Georgian Bay named the Grotto. It’s a smoked-cedar-clad box nestled into the side of a cliff that encloses an interior of pillowy-looking, undulating cedar benches and eccentric ovoid windows. The design represents the architects’ response to the rugged land and waterscape surrounding the sauna, with its undulating waves and wild, 12,000-year-old glacial sculpting. The tiny residential project earned an Ontario Architects’ Award earlier this year.


The Grotto. Courtesy Partisans

Eat your heart out, Hugh Hefner: No one’s ever had a “grotto” quite like this

The firm is also designing the interior layout of another large-scale Toronto landmark: the Hearn Generating Station, a decommissioned power plant, which the Luminato festival is using as a temporary art and performance-space installation. The Hearn hosted music events at last year’s Luminato (an annual, city-wide 10-day arts festival). This year, the Hearn’s role as a festival venue has expanded to include art, musical and theatrical performance spaces, small eateries and a beer garden, all set within one of the city’s most beautiful (and underappreciated) architectural gems. “It’s a way of allowing people to not only enjoy this building but to experience the art in a great way; it’s a lifeline between arts, culture, and the civic infrastructure.”

Which brings us back to Union, by far the largest and perhaps most challenging assignment the firm has taken on. Josephson and his partners also see it as an incredible opportunity to express ideas about what Toronto has become now: no longer aspirant or self-consciously sophisticated (or a stand-in, cinema-style, for other big cities), but identifiably itself.

“Architecture is about a lot more than building buildings; it’s about how we live and interact with the world. I’m elated that the city has come on board with this idea,” says Josephson. “Our commitment is total. In a way, it’s humbling to be a part of all this.”

Partisans on a Mission to Shape Toronto’s Future
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