544 King Street W Toronto, ON M5V 1M3, Canada.
When our partner Michael Emory at Allied reached out and asked us to look at the nearly 600 feet of frontage he had assembled over 10 years on King Street W in Toronto, it immediately struck us that this site deserved something extraordinary. To design the project, Bjarke Ingels and his team at BIG came first to mind, as we had been looking for an opportunity to work together in Toronto for some time. Allied was equally enthusiastic about that starting point.
I always had a fascination with Habitat 67, well before I was actually able to see it in person. I think it began with my interest in the ideals behind the kibbutz and building a community. We thought of this project as a way to demonstrate how architecture can meet this challenge and, hopefully, on completion, that will be its test: can architecture bring people together? In many respects, I think the project has the potential to be more successful than Habitat 67, which after all, was an experiment built on an island in the middle of a river. Here, we have the opportunity to infill within an already vibrant, successful neighbourhood. King West is one of Canada’s truly great neighbourhoods. Walkable, interspersed with parks and amenities, enjoying access to transit and a unique character made up of an eclectic mix of heritage and a fine-grain typology. At a different scale, using a variety of ways to extend nature, we have managed to create a village green at the heart of our project and in the surrounding landscape.
The other interesting aspect of this project is the inspiration from Maison de Verre, in Paris, which led us to explore the use of glass block both on the building façade and within the project, playing with reflectivity, translucency and transparency to create a luminescent project that changes with the light. Building upon the success of Vancouver House and our adoption of the principal of Gesamtkunstwerk, we have once again taken up the challenge of creating the total work of art. It was through Vancouver House, our first project with Bjarke Ingels, that I first discovered the word and philosophy behind Gesamtkunstwerk, and embraced it as a guiding philosophy for all of our projects, current and future. We realized that, above all, our work expresses the integration of art and architecture, which we hope will elevate our projects to become living sculptures and total works of art. Today, this concept continues to manifest itself in our projects in new and interesting ways, no better than here with what we are calling KING Toronto.
We are also really excited about the chance to work with Public Work, the young, talented landscape architect who has stepped up to meet the challenge of bringing nature into the urban environment. I think the landscape design on this project may be the best in the country. Finally, KING Toronto is also a project that is resonating strongly within the public discourse. We will be putting on our next exhibition onsite in Toronto, within our BIG-designed 2016 Serpentine Pavilion called Unzipped. This project and this conversation are among the ways we are helping contribute to a dialogue around urbanism and the opportunities of using architecture to create community in Toronto, a wonderful city that is considered amongst the most vibrant in the world today.
— Ian Gillespie Founder, Westbank
Urban development is an ongoing conversation across time and place. In our time, and in King West, our team at BIG engaged with Westbank and Allied on three questions, and our ultimate design was informed by three observations.
The questions first: What kind of a neighbourhood was this before? What has it become now? And where is it going in the future? The observations — and the resulting design — were rooted in the understanding that we gleaned from this inquiry.
The first observation was that King West is a unique space in the Toronto context, characterized by an informal urban network of alleys, back lots and secret gardens. The neighbourhood’s historic and gradual transformation from urban manufacturing into a vibrant creative neighbourhood had generated a stark variation in scale and activity. We wanted to enhance and expand that architectural diversity, imagining a city block that would expand and contract, ascend and descend. We wanted to honour the neighbourhood context by maintaining and creating alleys, short cuts and underpasses gaps and cracks for all kinds of urban life.
Second, new urban development seems to tirelessly repeat the same limited range of typologies. In Toronto of late, the tower-on-a-podium seems to be the one size that fits all. Yet Canada has a rich and previously untapped history of urban innovation. Specifically, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal exploded the monolithic box to create a porous landscape of houses with gardens.
We asked ourselves if we could imagine an urban-integrated equivalent of Safdie’s Habitat, half a century later. In this revision, the streetwall is broken and rotated. The monolithic volume of the tower-on-podium is chipped away to create an undulating landscape of terraces. The urban silhouette rises towards the sky or dips down to touch the ground. And at every shift, an urban garden is created, allowing residents access to fresh air and greenery. Each terrace has a tree, so you have both an alpine skyline of individual urban ledges and a forest, rooted in a courtyard that connects the street to a lush, green park.
The third observation, and our third response, was to recognize and acknowledge the dominant materiality of the neighbourhood’s red and yellow brick warehouses. We tried a red brick. A yellow brick. A cement brick. And finally, we rediscovered the glass brick. The glass brick can be transparent, translucent and opaque. It can admit light while protecting privacy. It can sparkle and refract in the daylight and glow from within at night. The lightness and luminosity of the glass brick provides the urban mountain range with the glacial lightness of an iceberg.
The result is the new architectural character of KING Toronto - inspired by the past, informed by the present and aspiring towards the future.
— Bjarke Ingels Founder, BIG
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