An architect’s guide to Toronto
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
My family moved to Toronto from Kingston, Jamaica, when I was about eight years old. We arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. Seeing snow for the first time, making snow angels and snowmen, was just magical. Maybe that’s why I still love the winter in Canada, and getting outside in the big fluffy snow. We do a lot of cross-country skiing, which you can do an hour from the city. You need to find ways to enjoy it as opposed to hiding from it.
About 25 years ago, my husband [A Howard Sutcliffe, Shim’s partner in Shim-Sutcliffe Architects] and I found a derelict lot in a back alley, full of abandoned cars. It’s where we built a house and raised our two kids, and it’s still our home today. It’s in an emerging neighbourhood called Leslieville, to the east of the city. It has a few great bakeries, one called Bonjour Brioche, and another new one, Blackbird – its bread is remarkable. And we have the best smoked salmon in the whole of Toronto at a small store called Kristapsons. It was started by a Latvian guy who smoked everything in the back. But the best thing about the area is that it’s only a 2km walk to our work, in a former garage close to Downtown. So we feel like we live in a village in the middle of a large metropolis.
We’ve created lots of designs for the city; we’re currently working on a downtown penthouse of a historic 1960s building. The Ace Hotel, which opened last year, was a really exciting project for us, partly because of its location. It’s in the city’s west end, a more arts-focused neighbourhood now, but traditionally a garment district, with red-brick warehouses built at the turn of the century. We wanted to build a tribute to them, now that many have been demolished, and to recall their sense of robustness, using red bricks like the ones originally made at a brickworks in one of Toronto’s ravines.
One of those beautiful river valleys that make up the city’s ravine system is home to the Evergreen Brick Works, now a cultural hub where they have farmers’ markets and all kinds of activities. It’s like a negative landscape, carved out by the glaciers of the last ice age. You go down about 60 feet and are transported to another world with wildlife and plants, trails to bike and walk. And in the winter, it’s the scene of some of the best tobogganing ever.
The area around the Ace is a bustling part of the city. It’s close to Chinatown and a neighbourhood called Kensington Market, which is a sort of Caribbean-Portuguese mash-up. I recommend a place nearby called Forno Cultura, which is a great Italian bakery and café run by a former architecture student of mine, Andrea Mastrandrea. And Alder, the restaurant in the hotel, has chef Patrick Kriss, one of the best in Canada. Many of his signature dishes are cooked or smoked on a wood-burning grill; the roast chicken is superb.
One Toronto building I’ve long loved is our New City Hall, designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell in the 1950s. It was such a beacon of modernity with its two curving towers, the council chamber like an eye in the middle and a big public plaza in front. And it’s still beloved by the whole city. I also think that Frank Gehry did a great job with the Art Gallery of Ontario – a museum his mother took him to as a child, which he redesigned many years later. It has some fabulous spaces – both existing and new ones stitched together.
Another special part of the city is the Distillery District, a collection of Victorian industrial buildings that have been converted into galleries, restaurants and theatres – the Soulpepper theatre company is very innovative. A few years ago we were asked by gallerist Jane Corkin to transform part of the Pure Spirits Building. The scale and the quality of the light in the buildings there is wonderful for contemporary art.
There are lots of interesting public spaces to explore along Toronto’s Waterfront. I’m on the Design Review Panel for the area which is undergoing a real transformation, with lots of condominiums but also some fantastic parks. There’s a big esplanade by a Dutch company called West 8, and Canadian landscape architect Claude Cormier has created Sugar Beach, with pink umbrellas and lounge chairs. Nearby, one of the city’s most exciting developments is The Bentway, which is kind of wild. It’s on the underside of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, an abandoned area that now has great art installations and skating in the winter. New York has The High Line. We have the Bentway. It’s really cool.