Wild Archictectural Plans for Toronto’s King West

Bjarke Ingels Group suggests bold, boxy echo of Montreal’s Habitat for a busy downtown block


In recent years, you may have noticed that condo builders are slowly venturing beyond the standard-issue glass-tower-over-podium condo design, and showing a little personality in the silhouettes of their towers. One building might have a bas-relief pattern of symmetrically jutting balconies; another, a tapering elevation or patterned metalwork across its expanse. Manhattan has Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue building, with its radius-cornered central bend and intricate, abstract window arrangement; in Chicago, there’s Aqua (designed by Jeanne Gang), an 82-storey hotel/apartment/condo complex whose elevation  undulates and curves like a billowing sail, thanks to individually computer-designed floor plates. And Mississauga, Ontario, has its sensuous “Marilyn Monroe” twin towers, a joint project by Burka and MAD Architects (properly, and much less vividly, called the Absolute World Towers).

But until now, no one really thought of pushing a condo over onto its side, breaking it into individual cubes turned 45 degrees, spreading them over the better part of a downtown block, and piling the whole thing into a shining, jagged jumble. For that, you need the imagination of Bjarke Ingels, the Copenhagen-born, New York-based architect and head of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Ingels’ fascinating design for an as-yet-unnamed downtown condo complex for Westbank/Allied REIT could change the way we think about condo design, downtown neighbourhoods, and how the two ideas intersect.

Ingels, known for his unorthodox but creative ideas and engaging manner, was in town in late February to give a lecture at Koerner Hall addressing the question, “How can architecture create communities?”, during which he took the audience through some of the ground-breaking projects his firm has created all over the world. Ingels is interested in the interface between our spaces and ourselves, and how architecture can enrich the way we use both public and private space.

Over the course of his one-hour talk, he took listeners through such disparate projects as a modern art gallery carved out of a heritage dry canal sunk into the courtyard of the medieval Elsinore Castle in Denmark; and The Dryline, a plan to protect Manhattan’s waterfront from future devastating hurricanes by incorporating seawalls and barriers into active community spaces, “protective parks,” raised bike paths, resilient hardscaping, berms, and natural landscapes.


Bjarke Ingels Group

Eventually, Ingels brought the conversation around to the proposed complex, at King West and Brant. The developers, Westbank and Allied REIT, have developed infill properties throughout the downtown core, many of them heritage properties sensitively adapted for modern residential and commercial enterprises. The as-yet unnamed property, if it’s built as designed, could feature as many as 500 units and a projected 725,000 square feet of habitable space, making it potentially the highest-profile enterprise in this neighbourhood of converted warehouses and bustling restos and shops.


Bjarke Ingels Group

Wait, do people ever actually build snowmen on King Street?

The complex, which will take over King Street south almost to Wellington, consists of a ring of units connected vertically and horizontally in a pleasing jumble around a central courtyard, lifting up off the ground at intervals to allow public pedestrian access underneath, through and into the complex, and with a jagged skyline of five peaks of 15 to 17 storeys maximum, like a mountaintop. (The mountain idea would be reinforced by planted areas on the vertical elevations, both in private terraces and public landscaping, along with parklike seating and strolling areas at ground level.) Ground-level units would include retail and office space, melding into residential as the floors ascend.

Part of the research, Ingels explained, included examining a landmark in modern Canadian architecture: Habitat at Expo 67 in Montreal, by the young Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, whose “modular” design of units stacked at random planes created units with varying and bright, often multiple exposures in a compact and versatile footprint, became a starting point for the design.

“In general, at the beginning of each project, we start by educating ourselves in the particular site,” Ingalls explained. “[We look for] the biggest problem, the biggest need…then we use architecture to solve those problems in creative ways.” In this case, the problem was how to increase density in this neighbourhood – located in one of the oldest areas of the city – which has become highly desirable for residential living, without sacrificing its walkability, vibrancy and character.

This part of King Street West was first developed in the early nineteenth century, as a military reserve on the city’s outskirts, then as a residential area, complete with parks. With the arrival of the railroad in the mid-1800s, it gradually became an industrial district of (now much revered) brick warehouse buildings, crisscrossed by laneways and passages. Those walking areas are preserved today, with stores and restos facing onto cobbled lanes, giving the area its unique character.

There may even be artificial mist machines on the interior courtyard, for adding fog at will

In such a lively setting, the basic high-rise tower model, even if it managed to incorporate the heritage warehouses and other buildings, would be a missed opportunity. Furthermore, Allied had been quietly buying up pieces of the block as they became available and now had a fairly sizable plot to work with. “Instead of being defined by main streets, there are lots of small alleyways with restaurants, offices and other spaces, so we wanted to create something that would befit this area,” Ingels said.

“We considered taking the laneway idea, preserving the heritage buildings on the site, creating a combination plaza and forest, adding the development on top of that and creating ‘caverns’ into this secret oasis in the centre,” he explained. “Then, we would rotate the units on a 45-degree angle to create views; then vary the heights, create many balconies and roof gardens and terraces, big enough for gardens and full trees. So this would create a hybrid of gardens on the roof and street-level parks.” As a nod to Canadians’ obsession with the weather, he added with a smile, there may even be artificial mist machines on the interior courtyard, for adding fog at will.


Bjarke Ingels Group

Whether the complex will be built over the next two or three years exactly as Ingels and his team envision it is open to speculation; there are a number of hurdles, ranging from density to height and heritage restrictions, for the plans to go through, and it won’t be the first time a BIG project underwent serious modifications on the way to becoming an actual real-life building. But by its very scope, the complex will inevitably change the character of the neighbourhood. But at the same time, it could retain and even enhance much of what makes it attractive, including the heritage buildings, walkable areas and mixed-use character of the area, along with the vibrant street life that makes it a safe and attractive place to live. The design also expresses some fresh ideas about how best to meet a growing need for increasing densities in downtown neighbourhoods, while creating and preserving spaces that are full of life and light.

“Canada started something 50 years ago,” with the Habitat complex, Ingels concluded. “So with this, we are picking up where Habitat left off: in a way, we are creating a new movement.”

Wild Archictectural Plans for Toronto’s King West
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