CITYSPACE: Toronto's Waterfront

A Dutch treat at water's edge West 8's winning design is a marvel of clarity and credibility, writes LISA ROCHON. But is the city prepared to pay for it?

LISA ROCHON Saturday, June 8, 2003

Cities are giant receptacles for the inexplicable. War, floods, wildcat strikes -- there are unpredictable events that regularly hurl themselves at a city until the unfathomable is over and people return to smaller incidents of mortification.

It is inexplicable that the Toronto waterfront began as a gentle harbour -- a clearing in the oak forest -- and has ended up as a tortured, fractured settlement of industry and brutish residential towers on asphalt. It is inexplicable that while politicians have been mouthing the words "waterfront revitalization" over the last century, permits have been given to developers to plunk down their buildings next to the water's edge. Premium views for a minuscule fraction of the population have been achieved. Public space arranged between the cracks of the sidewalk is what the rest of the city gets.

But something wonderful and explicable has occurred. An international design competition organized to provide a seamless experience of pedestrian pleasures along Toronto's central waterfront has been run without a hitch. A winning team from Rotterdam and Toronto that thinks both poetically and practically has been selected. It is unfathomable to think optimistically about the water's edge, but this time, we must.

West 8, an urban-design and landscape-architecture firm based in Rotterdam, in joint venture with the Toronto firm of du Toit Allsopp Hillier Architects, has designed the winning scheme. As a way of stitching together the central waterfront of Toronto, the West 8 scheme is a marvel of clarity and credibility. Four elements distinguish the proposal: a wide granite boardwalk that runs along the quays from the foot of Bathurst Street to the southern edge of Jarvis Street; a Douglas-fir boardwalk cantilevered from the sides of the quays; undulating pedestrian bridges that return a sense of rough-hewn romance to the waterfront and, finally, a humanized Queens Quay Boulevard, intelligently reconfigured so that people figure as much as cars. The Queens Quay move is an attempt to connect Toronto to an international trend of widening sidewalks and providing streets for people to walk, bike or rollerblade along. The scheme proposes reducing the four traffic lanes of Queens Quay to a two-way road located north of the streetcar tracks. There would be allées of maple trees used to separate the Martin Goodman bike trail and a pedestrian path in granite. Decent, uncorrupted public space -- it's taken decades to get to these uncomplicated truths.

West 8 shot to fame with its crisply detailed design of the Schouwburgplein (1996), a raised, animated plaza with long wooden benches that is surrounded by shops and cinemas in Rotterdam. West 8 principal Adriaan Geuze is currently working on a master plan for London's Olympic Village. In Madrid, his firm is designing a six-kilometre linear park along the riverbank.In Toronto to be presented with the commission, Geuze asks a simple, uncomplicated question: "How can the Toronto waterfront be so tiny, so small in scale?" With Geuze comes a childlike determination to get on with the project -- "whereas, in Toronto," says his joint-venture partner John Hillier, "we see a forest of problems that aren't solvable. That's the perspective the Dutch team has brought to this. They just don't see the difficulty of doing it."

The scheme, to borrow from poet John Keats, gives us light on the shores of darkness.

The problem is that the $20-million budget is not enough to build all four of West 8's significant ideas.

This may come as a surprise to Mayor David Miller, but Bill Boyle, Harbourfront Centre's CEO, speaks from reality. He says his 2003 initiative to upgrade the pedestrian walkways extending out from Harbourfront has cost $18.6-million; the money covered the costs of repaving the walkways stretching from the Power Plant over to York Quay -- in concrete, not granite. Hillier, principal of du Toit Allsopp Hillier charged with the waterfront project, estimates that about $15-million is required to cover just the redesign of a short section of the Queens Quay esplanade from the Toronto Music Garden near the foot of Bathurst to York Quay.

The five timber bridges that would allow visitors to travel uninterrupted along the water's edge rather than having to double back along the quays, would also cost about $1-million each, says ARUP engineer David Pratt, the team's cost analyst. But they are an important design feature: Besides providing a seamless continuum, they offer the only vertical animation in the scheme in the way they undulate over the water.

Still, although more dollars will have to be found, there should never be enough to finance the startling kitsch elements that found their way into the West 8 scheme -- the notion of temporary bio-remediation reefs (made of plant materials that clean water) carved in the shape of the maple leaf, the brass-balls building conceived of as handy new digs for UNESCO, the floating Chinese pagoda restaurant at the foot of Spadina. Let these ideas be returned to the Dutch -- in the shape of a tulip.

From the start, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp. (TWRC) competition emphasized the need for simple, elegant solutions. The rich lake life of the Toronto waterfront must be supported, said jury chair Brigitte Shim during the press conference at the foot of York Quay. "Any permanent intrusions into the harbour were seen to be problematic." That eliminated the scheme of New York's esteemed Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who recommended a gigantic new island off the edge of the mainland.

What's missing from the West 8 scheme is a strong vertical gesture to counter the heavy grey fog imposed by the unremarkable group of condominiums now crowding the waterfront. London's renowned firm, Foster and Partners, another short-listed competitor, was onto something with its white water-droplet monuments designed to float slightly offshore on extended piers. They were elegant, but laboured under their own stylized self-importance -- and obviously expensive to build. The scheme from PORT, a collective of architects from around the world, offered an ambitious and enchanting smorgasbord, and the sweeping ice rink thrust out into the lake still stands as one of the competition's most remarkable ideas.

But, too much of a good thing is not what the waterfront needs now. It's time for action. Mayor Miller wants the shovels in the ground to prove his mettle, pre-election, as a defender of the waterfront. A genuine enthusiasm for the project can be detected from both the province and Ottawa. A fresh breeze has blown in from the lake. Build immediately, while the faith holds.

This was originally the first of two parts. We hope to have the second article available online soon.