Mirvish and Gehry Trying to ‘Raise the Game’ with Plan for Theatre District

October 1, 2012

Image by Peter Power

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Frank Gehry has returned to the city of his birth with an architectural challenge for inspired intensification, aligning with theatre impresario and art collector David Mirvish on a proposal that will require Toronto’s planners and politicians to match the team’s faith in urban ambition.

The working models displayed at a news conference on Monday are playful and surreal though my attention drills down to a trio of super-tall residential towers, each one expressing a distinct personality that could be summed up, so far, as rocky outcrop, icy shard and tree fort, all set down on a transparent six-storey art house in the heart of the city’s entertainment district.

But in conversation with the architect and his client on the night before the unveiling at a restaurant on King Street West, just a few blocks from the proposed development site, the aspirations soared even higher.

“There’s nothing in this city that brings it all together, that’s iconic – and I believe that Frank can create a destination for people in the city and around the world,” Mr. Mirvish said. “You need to raise the game.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Mr. Gehry chimed in.

Sitting quietly at the same table was the legendary American artist Frank Stella, whose murals for the Princess of Wales Theatre are to be saved when that facility is demolished to make way for the mega development along King Street West.

“There’s nothing in this city that brings it all together, that’s iconic – and I believe that Frank can create a destination for people in the city and around the world.”

Works by Mr. Stella are to join Mr. Mirvish’s collection of modern art in a vast, three-storey gallery, along with 25,000 square feet of exhibition space and a visual research centre reserved for OCAD University.

“I’m collecting three large sculptures and it happens that you can inhabit those sculptures,” Mr. Mirvish puts it, referring to the three phases of the development, which would start with a tower punching 80 storeys from that cultural and retail podium.

The thinking behind the proposal, which has yet to go through the city’s planning and approval process, is to shoot for the future of urban elegance. It would pull Toronto to the next level of urban intensity and of thinking about how super-tall towers should accommodate the exuberant flow of people on the street and the manner in which they should enhance compressed collective living downtown.

“We’ve never had a freestanding building by Frank because the community has never reached that point,” Mr. Mirvish said.

The obstacles are both commercial and political. As to the business case, Toronto’s condo marketplace is already heavily supplied, but this proposal plans to gain advantage with architectural intelligence and innovation rather than refried design.

On the political side, the visionaries will encounter Toronto’s jaundiced view of the power of great architecture. Banality in the form of hundreds of mostly forgettable condominium towers has robbed people of the ability to recognize breathtaking scenarios of urbanity. And Toronto’s antiquated public transit system – which lags decades behind cities such as London, Paris and New York – makes dreams of complex intensification a burden on an already sluggish system.

Mr. Mirvish seems clearheaded and singular about the need to move forward with his city-building task.

“I’m doing one building at a time. I’ll offer it, and see if people will share my feelings,” he said. “I don’t do anything scientific in the theatre, I do something visceral which is instinctive and hope that it is shared by other people. I don’t pick my pictures by committee and I don’t pick my architecture by committee.”

The Gehry-Mirvish team has been working together since December. Mr. Gehry explained on the night before the formal unveiling that the design of the towers is “just in the beginning stage” with refinements to come that will both challenge and try to accommodate historic textures and local tastes. “We’re exploring all of these idiosyncrasies that are Toronto,” he said.

Key to success will be Peter Kofman, president of Projectcore Inc., the lead developer who was previously responsible for the Apollo Lyric restoration on West 42nd Street in New York City, and the transformation of the historic Toronto Dominion Bank building into the 55-storey hotel-condominium at One King Street West. He is also behind the restoration of the Pantages Theatre.

“So far, he’s been pushing me,” Mr. Gehry said of Mr. Kofman. “ He is supportive of all of our weirdness. He’s totally committed to delivering something special.”