Simpson's Tower - Urban Toronto
02 . 24 . 2016

401 Bay—aka the Simpsons Tower—to Receive a New Skin

AUTHOR evan Manning

The skin of a building is, by its very nature temporary. The desire for its permanence an unrealistic expectation of materials that were often novel in their application and untested in their durability. As a result of this experimentation, modern works of architecture often have a hastened rate of deterioration compared to their pre-modern counterparts. Changing functional expectations, too, factor into the lifespan of a building’s façade as environmental concerns and the need for improved energy conservation spur building rehabilitation. The question, then, is not whether façade replacement represents an inherent injury to the architectural expression of a structure but rather how can the insertion of contemporary materials and technologies respect the original intent of the architect. Practitioners of modernism, although often not acknowledged, understood that the concept behind a design, an adherence to a functionalism that derived meaning from the needs of its users, was of paramount importance rather than the structure’s material composition. As such, authenticity of design is a more appropriate metric for assessing the success of building rehabilitation rather than strict material continuity.

A relevant test case for this principle is the recladding of 401 Bay Street. Built as the headquarters for the Simpsons Department store, the crumbling masonry of the 33-storey tower has necessitated an overhaul of its façade. The work, as proposed, highlights the disputed value of modern work and challenges the notion of what constitutes “heritage” to those outside architecture and its allied professions. Too new to be viewed as worthy of conservation but sufficiently old to be threatened by significant alteration, mid-century projects suffer from a poor public perception that leave them exposed to demolition or careless alteration. Part of an unprecedented reconsideration of city structure, the scale of the period’s interventions and disruptions of traditional architecture and urban form has left a lingering and sometimes justified distaste for modern works. Aggravated by half-hearted facsimiles that failed to balance technical efficiency with the assiduous attention to detail of earlier work, later projects lapsed into a mediocrity that is readily apparent in many of the tower communities of the inner suburbs. The difficulty in separating the two within the public imagination has complicated preservation work and eroded the quality of our built heritage.

It is through this lens that 401 Bay should be evaluated, recognizing its lineage among Toronto’s significant mid-century projects.  Designed by John B. Parkin Associates and Bregman & Hamann, the building is among a series of fine projects designed by the Parkin firm, among them the headquarters of the Ontario Association of Architects, the Celestica West Building, the original Terminal One at Pearson International Airport, the Henry Moore Gallery at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Yorkdale Simpson’s Store (now used by Hudson’s Bay). Despite the significance of the firm’s work in defining the character of modernism in Toronto it is troubling that a project as significant as this one, both in scale and location, is without protection despite the tools available to the city under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (the adjoining department store was designated in 1976). It is particularly concerning that a project as highly visible from Nathan Phillips Square as 401 Bay is without oversight by the City’s Urban Design Division. This lack of protection exposes the building to the type of insensitive adaptive reuse under way here. It is important to note that in January 2014, HBC announced it would sell the tower and adjacent store to Cadillac Fairview and lease the site for 25 years. Although ownership of the tower is now with Cadillac Fairview, HBC, who have dealt with alterations to the building for years, continue to oversee work here. While HBC retained heritage specialists Goldsmith Borgal & Company Ltd. Architects (GBCA) to evaluate the compatibility of the tower redesign with the heritage elements that make up the remainder of the city block—a review that was encouraged by the City but not required by the planning department—the refurbishment of the tower itself, also under the direction of HBC, was not given to GBCA to consider in terms of its heritage value.

The renderings indicate a substantial deviation from the tower’s existing material palette as well as alterations to its overall structure. The culmination of the changes as designed by pellow/WZMH, should they be fully implemented, will improve building performance but also fundamentally alter the character of the structure, disrupting the rhythm of the façade through an odd call-out on the northwest corner of the tower while adding what appears to be new office space into a portion of the mechanical penthouse. In an attempt to contemporize the building, the qualities which differentiate it from the bulk of new construction, namely the bold articulation of its concrete frame and the warmth offered by the bronze tinted glass, will be obscured by gestures that interfere with its original architectural expression.

A permissive culture toward the expedient refurbishment of mid-century work and an absence of enabling legislation to direct project approval through the planning department are the principle culprits behind this type of change. Without a proposal for additional density or change of usage, no zoning amendment was required and as such the planning department was bypassed in the approval process. In the absence of these triggers, conformity with the Building Code was the only criteria on which the proposal was evaluated and subsequently found to be in compliance. With the issuance of the building permit, there was no incentive or mechanism to bring the project before the Design Review Panel (DRP). This is not to say, however, that voluntary review by the DRP is not possible. Brookfield, for example, brought the plans for the recladding of First Canadian Place before the panel for review. It is on this point that fostering a culture of design within the private sector becomes essential. It is incumbent not only on government to incentivize design excellence and a respect for built heritage but also on the private sector to take its role as a city builder seriously, augmenting the calculus of a pro forma with the desire to improve the calibre of design within the city. As the systems of other mid-century buildings approach the end of their lifecycle, it is hoped that future refurbishments reinforce rather than weaken their fundamental character, respecting the original intent of the architect and helping to safeguard valuable cultural artifacts.

It should be noted that HBC was offered the opportunity to comment on this story but has declined. 

Interested in joining the discussion? A link to the Urban Toronto forum thread can be found here.

Image Source:  Urban Toronto

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