Walking, or sitting, in the clouds

Sitting on top of an underground parking lot just off the corner of Yonge and Temperance Streets, the Cloud Garden Parkette is a refuge, oasis, and an architectural gem. It was built as part of the Bay-Adelaide Centre development in 1993. The centre never materialized, but the park, thankfully, remains.

Walking around the park on an early spring day, I spot office workers on break, the park undoubtedly a welcome respite from cubicles, recycled air, and the glare of computer monitors. A five-storey waterfall, which runs throughout the year, drowns out most of the traffic, with only the occasional car horn and siren disturbing the peace. The park is a refuge for more than just office workers. Looking at one of the still-bare trees, I notice a couple of bird's nests and realize that this is probably one of the few places where trees grow right in the heart of downtown Toronto.

The parkette gets its name from a small greenhouse mimicking high-altitude rainforests, or cloud forests as they are also known. A hydration system and fans maintain the humidity at 85% and the temperature somewhere in the mid-20s. It's like a little piece of Costa Rica right here in Toronto, even in the middle of winter. Vines wrap themselves around ramps and scale walls; on one side a gorgeous stilt-like bamboo plant with delicate yellow stripes shoots upwards. Many of the other trees look like they're ready to burst through the glass confines, an attempted invasion of tropical vegetation right into the cold concrete heart of Toronto.

Step out of the conservatory and you come face to face with the architectural linchpin of the parkette, Margaret Priest's monument to Toronto's construction workers. Over a dozen unions contributed to the monument, a "quilt" whose squares are made of bronze pipes, concrete, stucco, and steel truss works, some of the many materials that make up the hundreds of buildings in this city. It's a conceptually effective monument that eloquently speaks to the ingenuity and teamwork that has gone into building the city.

The architects, like the men and women who built it, have also been recognized, winning a Governor General's Award in 1994, a Canadian Architect Award for Excellence, and praise internationally. And the praise is well deserved. The parkette is a unique balancing act between its three disparate parts. The monument to those who erected skyscrapers, the little taste of a tropical paradise, and the sorely needed patch of greenery don't just co-exist, they complement and enhance each other. Placing any one of these in the downtown core would have been a treat: weaving three of them together so flawlessly just reminds us that there are simply too few places like this, and the ones that exist must be cherished.