Ubiquity and Uniformity: Why Toronto’s Condominiums All Look the Same

Interview by Randy Gladman
Originally published on ArchDaily
January 7, 2017

In June last year, PARTISANS published Rise and Sprawl: The Condominiumization of Toronto with architecture historian and critic Hans Ibelings. An effort to contextualize the role of the condo in Toronto’s unprecedented and intense growth over the past ten years, this thoughtful, if provocative, work offers a scathing criticism of the architecture (or lack thereof) deployed in much of the recent residential constructions in the city. It is a formal demand that the city be built more thoughtfully.

Alex Josephson is a founding partner of PARTISANS, one of Toronto’s youngest and more innovative architecture practices. Only in its fifth year, PARTISANS has already earned accolades and awards from the American Institute of Architecture, the Ontario Association of Architects, Architect MagazineInterior Design Magazine, and the World Architecture Festival (WAF).

Randy Gladman, Vice President of Development at Toronto-based Triovest Realty Advisors, sat down with Alex in his Yorkville apartment, which overlooks some of Toronto’s architectural masterpieces—Hariri Pontarini’s McKinsey & Company Headquarters, Robert Stern’s One St. Thomas, Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre, and the University of Toronto’s MacDonald Block—to probe some of the criticisms offered in Rise and Sprawl and explore why PARTISANS felt the need to publish a work sure to infuriate precisely the developers they desire as clients and the city planners they need for project approvals.

This interview with Alex Josephson has been conducted by Randy Gladman. It has been edited by Nicola Spunt and abridged for publication by ArchDaily.

Randy Gladman: Rise and Sprawl bills itself as “a call to action for how we can become better city builders.” Generally speaking, I agree with the underlying thesis, namely that condo tower development in Toronto can, should, and must be done better than it has been until now. The book criticizes the “sheer ubiquity and relative uniformity of towers—from their glass facades and anemic colour schemes, dominated by grays, greens and beiges, to their rectangular volumetrics and rigid floor plans.” But is this unique to Toronto?

Alex Josephson: You’re right, it’s not unique to Toronto. Similar condominiumization crazes have struck other cities, like Vancouver and Hong Kong. The tower shaped in the form of a question mark on the cover of the book is something we call the “WTF Tower.” It’s a rhetorical gesture: What the fuck are we doing to our skylines? It absolutely applies to other cities; we just happened to be getting PARTISANS off the ground during a moment in history when it was happening to Toronto, so it made sense to adopt our city as a lens through which to explore the phenomenon. The main difference is that the quality of the condos we’re building here is inferior, from an aesthetic and performance perspective, compared to those being built elsewhere. Take SHoP’s proposed design for Brooklyn’s first supertall skyscraper. It’s gorgeous. Nothing we’ve done here even comes close to that kind of beauty and rigor.

RG: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “performance”?

AJ: We have to stop building towers that are the equivalent of radiators in the sky. We do not create proper thermal breaks between our balconies and the actual floor plates of buildings, so our condos gush heat. We’re using window wall systems that have an 18-year shelf life—less than the average lifespan of a condo’s mortgage amortization—after which they will start to fail. Even the buildings that are being marketed to the one-percenters—ostensibly the developments that could afford to set a higher bar—aren’t well-proportioned or made from durable materials. Why aren’t we demanding better? I always think of the Athenian Oath. If you were a citizen of Athens 2000 years ago, you had to pledge to leave the city more beautiful than when you arrived. The city came first. The collective good came first. This ethos drives the work we try to do at PARTISANS.

RG: I’m still trying to understand if this is a Canadian phenomenon, though. The book describes Canadians as people who like to play it safe, which “stym[ies] our appetite for innovation.” Is a desire for safety and safe thinking necessarily at odds with forward-thinking design? Aren’t the Nordic European countries, which are known for their more ambitious architectural thinking and design, also known for their risk aversion?

AJ: This idea of risk management and safety as distinctly part of the Canadian brand isn’t entirely new, but I think it’s become more prominent since 2008. After the global economy collapsed, we patted ourselves on the back and said, “Ha, look at us, we didn’t allow subprime.” The rest of the world thought our rules were the epitome of conservative stability. When it comes to the Scandinavian countries, the main difference is that they have design economies. Look at Denmark, Holland, Norway, Japan… not only do they value design, they export their talent. Denmark has a significant design GDP and takes its design history very seriously.

We absolutely don’t see that in Canada. Case in point: The Province of Ontario recently released a new Culture Strategy that initially didn’t even mention architecture and design whatsoever. When enough people made a fuss, they were finally included at the eleventh hour. It’s sad because when it comes to architecture, you’re fundamentally talking about real estate, one of the most important enablers of growth. As a country, we simply have not yet embraced architecture or design as important drivers of culture and economy.

RG: The book describes condo towers as “spreadsheets in the sky,” the “material manifestation of the developer’s profit margin.” But surely this is not just a Toronto phenomenon. Aren’t the majority of cities developed with a close eye on profit?

AJ: It isn’t just a Toronto phenomenon, agreed. Again, we’re using the city as a lens because we’re seeing firsthand the extent to which we’re abusing the sky and the streets here at home. But the answer comes back to density. The cost of building increases with every storey you don’t give to a developer. Anything above twenty stories is inconsequential from street level. So whether it’s twenty or a hundred storeys, I’m mostly indifferent. We are so obsessed in Toronto with height. But height equals money. If we can figure out a way to allow for more height in exchange for better design, we’ll end up with better buildings. But that kind of logic is just not embraced by the city planning culture here.

RG: So you’re suggesting that the City should allow developers to go nuts on height as long as they use the extra revenue from that height to improve the design? Isn’t the city already doing that through 1% for Art and Section 37, which allow developers to negotiate extra height in exchange for paying back into infrastructure, public art, parks, and affordable housing to improve urban culture?

AJ: I would ask this: Why are the projects themselves not the site of culture? Architecture itself should perform as public art. These municipal strategies have become an apology for offensive architecture that doesn’t give back, for podiums that don’t provide a fine-grain pedestrian experience. Everyone—the City officials, the developers, and the community members—should be thinking more dynamically. We can’t just use one speed. We need more subtlety, more thoughtfulness.

RG: But apart from the rare vanity project or institutional edifice, how are these things to be funded if not by some form of profit motive?

AJ: The profit motive will always drive the project, there’s no question. But let’s be honest here for a second. It’s a known fact that Canadian architects get paid less than anywhere else. A respected architect just told me that after Mexico City, Toronto pays its architects less than any other OECD country in the world. It’s not a joke. We’re in a race to the bottom of the fee barrel here in Ontario. To make architecture fees as much as 25% higher would amount to a rounding error on the proforma of most of these bigger condo projects. Buildings don’t get better because of a huge increase in capital expenditure. They get better because an architect has time to work the design out and is paid properly to do so. I mean what do you think? Do architects get paid enough to do what they do?

RG: As a developer managing large and small projects, that’s tough for me to answer because I only see the landlord side of the equation. We are incentivised to build high-quality products on a reasonable, market-driven budget. So yes, on the one hand, part of me feels that architects are paid enough to do what they do because their rates are determined by market forces and I believe in market efficiency. When proposals and invoices come in from the architects on our projects sometimes we’re surprised at how high they are. For example, my team may request what would seem to be a pretty simple change order and the next thing we know we’re being billed for 40 hours of design time. Did someone really spend an entire week making this change? But on the other hand, as someone who pours a lot of professional and personal time into trying to make Toronto a better city, I do wonder if buildings could be better if architects had more time and resources to think through their designs. But that’s a tough sell for developers.

AJ: One of the arguments we make in the book is that it’s a mistake to believe beauty and profit are mutually exclusive. What do you think about that proposition? How can we work out the math so that it supports more beautiful, higher performing condo design?

RG: I think it’s up to the architect to delineate the value proposition. I interpreted Rise and Sprawl as your attempt to educate developers (and others) about how our buildings are failing in comparison to the achievements seen internationally. So maybe it’s not a math issue but rather a requirement to clarify the value of the design ethos to which you refer. But I don’t think it’s entirely fair to lay it all at the heels of developers. You write about how the “[d]evelopers, architects, city officials, and community groups alike are engaged in a broken process that simply isn’t promoting innovative or notable urban design.” Can you talk about how you see the process as broken?

AJ: One of the big problems in Toronto, among other things, is that we have architecture without architects. The difference between a mediocre building and a great one is not as stark as some believe it to be. It’s about thoughtfulness. Fundamentally, the reason these buildings look the same is because they’re being repeated and recycled. The same window wall systems, the same curtain wall manufacturers, the same balcony designs. It’s also partly due to a kind of stalemate among the key players. The perception is that the city planners are overwhelmed, the developers want height, height, height, but don’t really care about design, and the communities are angry and always poised to say no. So you have this general misalignment even though we are all fundamentally trying to build a city together. The problem is we’re doing it on a site-by-site basis. What’s the bigger vision for the city? Rise and Sprawl puts all these projects side by side, including their marketing slogans and elevation designs; it is quite fascinating what results. They are practically identical! Things need to change.

RG: “The advent—and virulence—of the condo tower has enabled the vertical urbanization, and arguably, suburbanization, of city centres.” As a native Torontonian, I see a direct correspondence between what you guys call “condominiumization” and major improvements to the city’s urban and cultural fabric. How is intensification “suburban”? Does culture not follow from density?

AJ: There’s a subtle but critical distinction I think some people are missing about the book: We are not criticizing condominiumization; we are criticizing condo architecture. We support density and we support condos. Toronto has become a much more vibrant city as a result of the condo boom. But the values that are driving the designs are suburban. The virulent spread of homogeneous design? That’s practically the definition of suburban. The radiator balconies I mentioned? They’re the result of a hard-wired fantasy that, as Canadians, we all have some kind of God-given right to an outdoor space, namely a back or front yard. And parking lots. Why do we still own and drive cars in the downtown core? This is a serious problem totally born out of a suburban driving mentality.

Then there are the pools, which, in our climate, are barely open four months out of the year. Pools are a suburban luxury. It also bears remembering that between the passing of the Greenbelt legislation and changes to planning laws, which started to encourage taller buildings, developers who once made their fortunes on low-density suburban tract housing rebranded and became players in the downtown core. But they’re essentially doing the same thing they did before: producing low-quality, fast and dirty extrusions that obey the same logic as a horizontal series of streets that sprawl. But like we say in the book, they’ve turned the sprawl on its side and shot it vertically into the air. The retailing logic is also similar to the ways they negotiate leases and designs for suburban shopping malls. They make covenants with anchor retailers like Shoppers Drug Mart or Loblaw, and we end up with curtain or window walls that bear no resemblance to the rest of facades and fine-grain retail on the rest of the street. All of this is what we mean by suburbanization.

RG: “The proliferation of insipid towers is essentially the mass production of vertical housing that, with the help of patent brand strategies and faux fancy amenities, masquerades as an aspirational lifestyle choice. Marketing materials target and then attempt to seduce very specific demographics. Ultimately, condos are like any other commodity—mass produced, financially ratified products that preempt choice and manufacture desire in the same turn.” I find some of the language you guys use sometimes borders on snobbish elitism. Many of the amenities actually are “fancy.” Contemporary art in the hallways, heated indoor pools, well-appointed skydecks—these are luxury amenities that many Canadians aspire to have. I grew up with and work with many people who are very proud of living or owning in these kinds of buildings. They feel like they own a piece of the Canadian dream. Are you sure these buildings are masquerading or are they truly aspirational?

AJ: From a Canadian perspective, yes, some of these buildings might be wonderful. But we have to judge ourselves by the standards of great architecture in the rest of the world. I have to go back to performance. If you are driving a 1975 Volvo because you’ve never seen a 2016 Audi A6, and then you learn about the Audi and discover you’ve paid the same amount, how would you feel? You’d be pissed. I can understand that our perspective may come across as snobbish, but the conclusions are informed by experience and research from around the world. We are trying to tell Canadians they are not living the dream. It’s bullshit. The finishes are cheap and the buildings are not going to last; the architecture isn’t going to prove to be timeless. We are not assailing the Canadian dream. We are just trying to encourage everyone to look around! In Scandinavian countries they are already building 20-storey towers made of wood. We can’t build that in Canada. There’s a 17-storey condo being constructed of wood in lower Manhattan right now. In Norway and Denmark there are 20-storey wood towers going up. We are one of the most prosperous forest-based economies in the world and what are we allowed to build out of wood? Six storeys. It makes no sense. We’re not living in high-performance buildings on ANY level. It may seem like we are, but that’s only because we’re not used to seeing the alternatives here. You’re buying a 1975 Volvo for the price of a new Audi A6 when you could have had a fucking A6. I guess, at least, a 1975 Volvo is cool.

RG: Beyond a brief list of 11 recommendations, the book doesn’t really offer a sustained discussion about how things can be done better. “Building density is critical, but doing so in responsible, diverse, and beautiful ways using sustainable materials needs to be the rule, not the exception.” Great! What are those ways? What are the long-term cultural and economic benefits of design and how should they be implemented into high-density residential development going forward?  

AJ: There was a big internal debate at PARTISANS about how the book should be structured. We were faced with a conundrum: either we could make distilled, point-form recommendations, as we did, or we could go long-form and really dive deep into the details. Ultimately, we decided that the latter would have made for a more boring book, and we wanted Rise and Sprawl to spur a conversation. The eleven points at the end have clear ramifications; they don’t pull any punches. They may seem cute, but if you think about them deeply, we believe they are hugely meaningful.

RG: My larger critique of the book is that it seems like it’s really just the first chapter of a much larger investigation that you need to write.

AJ: Yes, agreed. The whole point was to write something that would get people talking. I mean look, you and I are discussing it right now! Books are incredibly important, but they can become static and irrelevant unless you continue to find ways to keep the story alive. This is precisely the way we see the conversation continuing to unfold—through dialogues with different people in different formats. Maybe it’s super idealistic but, hopefully, some real change can come out of that. We’ve already started working on another book on the relationships between architecture, time, culture, and politics. It will take another couple of years before that’s complete. But Rise and Sprawl is part of a much bigger project that our studio will remain interested in: how we can build better cities and culture through better architecture and design.

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