Over the next three years, the eastern Toronto waterfront will be destroyed: bridges added, roads moved, an elevated highway span demolished but reborn. But a piece of the future has already arrived. Along with the construction chaos of Cherry Street, a crystalline concrete monolith landed in the mud, like a stray package from an alien civilization.
In fact, it’s not the Outer Centauri. However, it is a beautiful public works project in Canada, and nowadays it is almost as strange. He points out that public works are important and that their design must take this into account.
The GH3 architectural firm designed this rainwater treatment facility for the Waterfront Toronto agency; it contains the tanks and pumps that will clean the water from the neighborhood sewers.
I arrived there recently with Pat Hanson from GH3, the lead architect. Mrs. Hanson, dapper in her black-on-black-on-white sneaker architect’s uniform, led me through the mud of the adjacent construction site to a shiny concrete wall and through a matte black door.
Inside, we left the field of art to enter the field of weighted flocculation. Here, runoff from adjacent new neighborhoods is filtered and mixed with a harmless chemical that adheres to floating particles and pulls them down – flocculation. From there, it is hit by UV rays and released, safely, into Lake Ontario. It’s a utilitarian space of tanks, pumps, and walkways, with only a trapezoidal skylight and window to add architectural drama.
âWe knew it would be a monolithic building, almost without windows,â Ms. Hanson explained. Starting with a box shape, she and her colleagues pushed her top corners up and down until all four walls were trapezoids, then divided the roof surface into two triangles tilted in directions. opposites. âThere is a kind of voluntarism,â she admitted. The goal: “How to take a simple volume and make it more evocative?
Ms. Hanson and her small firm are Canada’s foremost high profile architects. She is an unreconstructed modernist, in love with pure geometric shapes and precise details. And they built a water supply facility in the enlightened city of Edmonton. They are perfect for this job.
How did they understand it? At Waterfront Toronto, âwe wanted something that was part of the tradition of great civic architecture,â said Christopher Glaisek, director of planning and design for the agency. Mr. Glaisek cited the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant, the âpurification palaceâ that Toronto built during the Great Depression. âWe wanted a modern interpretation of this,â Glaisek explains, âcontemporary architecture that would celebrate infrastructureâ.
The project is part of the redevelopment of hundreds of acres around the old port of Toronto. Waterfront Toronto was created by three levels of government to do this work. They are best known for their alliance with Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs, but the agency has mostly built housing, offices, parks and infrastructure. They do these things well – and most importantly, they have their own buying and hiring processes. In addition, their mandate is to provide “design excellence”.
The agency hired the large engineering firm RV Anderson to design the stormwater system, but asked them to hire one of three architectural firms to turn the outer “shell” into something handsome. GH3 received the call.
Collaboration was tricky at times, says Hanson, and it’s clear that there were compromises. The architects originally envisioned the building to be clad in limestone, with a matching plinth around it. In the drawings of GH3, this design looks like a Greek ruin with a mysterious purpose. But limestone is not cheap, so the exterior of the building is concrete. (Ultimately, it will match the nearby Gardiner Expressway, the rebuilding of which will waste the GH3 design costs a thousand times over.)
Outside the factory, Ms. Hanson and I walked through two triangles that point to a circle in the ground. The circle marks the two underground wells which collect water at the entrance and exit of the installation; the triangles will carry rainwater out of the building itself and into the system of which it is a part.
In a few years, citizens will be driving and cycling right past this location on a reconstructed Lake Shore Boulevard. Will they see a work of Land Art and a work of sculpture? Or will they see quality public works working? Either way, they’ll be right.
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