Cross-posted from No Mean City, Alex’s personal blog on architecture
This is a building that works.
Yes, it looks sexy and impractical: a cascading Jenga stack of glass, cement board and steel, punctured by bright shots of colour, hanging gardens and an atrium, heavy blocks of apartments hanging in the air.
But this new co-op residence by Teeple Architects has substance, too. It has the gutsy but practical spirit of Toronto’s best architecture: It’s green, hardy, and very inexpensive, and provides 85 large and comfortable apartments for Toronto Community Housing tenants.
The concept is almost as elegant as the building’s form. Toronto Community Housing has had to find room for people displaced by the redevelopment of Regent Park, and it’s developed a few well-designed buildings on the east side of downtown; for this one, they joined forces with a local of the hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE. The building is filling up now with local UNITE HERE members; many are former Regent Park residents and most can walk to work at downtown hotels and restaurants. As of this fall, the main floor retail space is going to house a restaurant and teaching kitchen, staffed by residents, and drawing produce from the terrace gardens and “hanging gardens” in the atrium.
Those outdoor spaces help make the building look so unusual.
From the street, it’s got a fairly solid face, which helps restore the edges of a block that was decimated years ago. “Our intent was to have the building contribute to the city beyond itself,” says Stephen Teeple of Teeple Architects. “It lines up with the street and defines the corner.” That is conservative urban design. But, Teeple says, “Our point as architects was to show that you don’t have to be a banal building to do that.”
Which is where the gardens come in. instead of gathering the building’s open space around its edges and creating gardens on the ground, “We carved the gardens into the building; it’s a Moebius pattern that connects the courtyards.”
One courtyard on the second floor sits next to the building’s meeting rooms. From there, the atrium cascades up to the top of the 11-story tower – lined with trellises that will eventually be filled with climbing vines.
Halfway up there’s a bridge across the abyss; there, on the sixth floor, are two courtyards, also with gardens, and incredible views to the growing skyline of St. Lawrence Market area and the heart of downtown.
But within the building, that odd, towering shaft creates surprisingly bright and pleasant spaces: even the hallways have windows and views. “You get natural light and natural ventilation through all corridors,” Teeple says, “and it creates a sense of connectivity between neighbours.” As the residents look out on the terraces and hang out there – which is happening already – “you get a sense of community that you would never get otherwise, in a slab building,” Teeple says.
I believe it. Though it’s early to tell for sure – the building is new, and the official planting hasn’t been finished yet – somebody’s already filled in the planters with flowers and herbs.
As for the apartments themselves, they’re big and bright enough, but not too bright. Going against the fashion in commercial condos for all-glass facades – which always look much worse in real life, with curtains and TV units, than they do in the glossy promotional images – 60 Richmond has walls that are 60% solid, only 40% glass. “That’s all you need,” Teeple says. “You get big expanses of glass in the living rooms, and reasonable windows in the bedrooms.”
The limited windows also make the building more energy-efficient. Combined with some other features – like an unusual ventilation system that transfers air from the hot to the cool side of the building, and a green roof across the top of the building – they should add up to a Gold rating under the LEED sustainability rating system. That costs money, and yet Teeple and TCHC built this highly unusual building for a bargain-basement price. ($185 per square foot, lower than the average for ordinary, boxy midrise condos.)
How is that possible? “TCHC has a strong interest in getting good design, and the other focus they have is sustainability,” Teeple says. “Some private developers have an interest in [sustainability], but they can’t afford to really pursue it.” TCHC, because they’re a property owner, they directly benefit from energy savings.” In other words, they’ve stretched their budget to account for long-term operating costs and the savings that come with greener building.
Also, there’s nothing fancy in the building’s materials: no expensive wood veneers or carpeting in the halls, just bare, handsome concrete (and rough wood around the elevators in the main lobby). But the tenants get real hardwood floors which can be resanded and should last decades.
At a glance, the blocky, fanciful, seemingly precarious form of 60 Richmond looks like it came from contemporary Dutch designers – like MVRDV – who specialize in using “rational” criteria to create buildings in wild configurations. But at 60 Richmond, truly almost nothing is there without a practical purpose. Teeple – whose firm has established itself as one of the best in the city and the country – shares the commitment of other top Toronto designers to create buildings that function well, that relate to what’s around them and that will stand up over time.
And if they look incredible, too, then that’s cool.
“When you’re designing an urban building, it can be sculpturally interesting, but you don’t have to dismantle the city to do that,” Teeple says. And you don’t have to spend much money, either. Private developers: Take notes.
Teeple Architects project team led by Stephen Teeple, Chris Radigan, Richard Lai, William Elsworthy.
Photos by Shai Gil.