Simpson's Tower - Urban Toronto
09 . 07 . 2018

A blue-glass attack is eroding Toronto’s highrise style

AUTHOR Shawn Macallef

Are you feeling blue?

Blue, it seems, is the new black. Blue glass, that is.

Right now you can go down to the Richmond Adelaide Centre and watch as two rather handsome mid-century black skyscrapers are reclad in boring blue glass.

As they were, the buildings at 120 and 130 Adelaide St. W. were not lead-actor, movie-star handsome, but were character-actor handsome: always there, in the background, playing an important role but never taking the spotlight. Toronto needs buildings like this.

Black is a somewhat unusual colour for a skyscraper, so even in the background, they stood out and added variety to the cityscape. The downtown core does have some other black towers, the most prominent being the four buildings that make up the TD Centre, the Mies van der Rohe-designedcomplex that just celebrated its 50th birthday last year.

Both Richmond Adelaide towers were not continuous glass, as each floor of windows was separated by black panels, and in between each window was a narrower black panel, reminiscent of the I-beams Mies prominently used on the TD Centre and its predecessor, the Seagram Building in New York. After recladding, both towers will be reflective blue glass boxes from top to bottom, with little to break up their facades.

Reflective glass, often blue but not always, was popular in the late 1970s and 1980s and was part of the Late Modernist architecture style. They reflected the city and the sky and, it was thought, might just disappear. Pity the birds, certainly, that fly head first into the reflective walls, thinking the sky might go on forever.

Recladding can be an interesting business. Sometimes it’s done out of necessity, as with First Canadian Place, Toronto’s tallest office tower, nearly a decade ago. As some of its marble slabs began to fall off, it was retrofitted with white glass panels that kept the look of the building intact, although it now appears sleeker than it did when covered in stone.

Other recladding jobs are part of plans that convert or expand a building. The former Sutton Place hotel at Bay and Wellesley Sts. was another handsome mid-century building, although built in the brutalist style. Completed in 1967, its elegant ribbed concrete facade has been removed over the last few years and what remains is being converted into “The Britt” residences, adding nine storeys to the top and a new chunky podium.

Not far away is 488 University Ave., at Dundas St. W., where 37 storeys of residential floors were added on top of an existing 18-storey office building. An engineering feat to be sure, a new structural steel skeleton was created over the existing facade to support the new floors above. Points to both of these projects for not tearing down the existing buildings, as “the greenest building is the one already built,” but both will simply add more glass boxes to the city’s skyline, albeit with balconies.

The trouble here is many recladdings, like Richmond Adelaide, are following fashion, and all-glass facades are fashionable again. Fashion is fickle though and chasing it can be exhausting. Fashion makes us change and update our wardrobes constantly, causing us to feel bad if we’re not quite up to date, and because fashion changes so quickly, it’s a constant feeling. Real estate companies, wanting their buildings to remain prime locations for high rent office tenants, chase after the same trends.

It’s better for buildings and people alike to stay true to their own styles, rather than to the whims of fashion. Richmond Adelaide had a distinct style that could have used a gentle update — even people with very defined and individual styles will add new items to their wardrobe that complement their style — but the wholesale transformation of the facade erases the sense of history the building had. It was from a particular era, something that should be honoured, not hidden.

Similarly, the Simpson Tower at Queen and Bay Sts., designed by the legendary modernist Toronto firm John B. Parkin in 1968, is being reclad in yet more boring glass.

Even new buildings, like 65 King St. E., next door to the King Edward Hotel, are going with reflective blue glass, here adding a number of storeys on and above a row of historic buildings. It’s ironic that the marketing for 65 King suggests we “think outside the box.”Can you create the box and then think outside of it?

There’s a thirst for buildings with true style in Toronto. Look at how beloved the OCAD University “tabletop” has become. Elsewhere, buildings with solid walls, visible concrete, bricks and splashes of colour stand out today. Our historic styles, even fairly recent ones, embraced all of this and are all things we’re beginning to lose as building owners and their architects follow fashion rather than style.

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