So boring we don't even get Trumped? Donald, where's the garish? Where's the glitz? Oh please, not more green glass...


LISA ROCHON Saturday, January 10, 2009

Donald Trump knows a thing or two about architecture as violence. The Trump Tower in New York cuts a massive saw-tooth profile of bronze glass over Fifth Avenue and hurls the name "TRUMP" at passersby from a garish front entrance that seems evil and bizarre, like a mouth stuffed with golden teeth.

More than 25 years after its glitzy opening, the tower still rules as the heart of darkness of the second gilded age. Enter the carnival inside - the atrium is a six-storey extravaganza of darkened mirrors and apricot marble - and you, too, will be seduced by the delirium of a colonized, born-again shopping mall. Yes, it's vulgar, but with Trump there's always the thrill of an invitation to a circus.

It's all smoke and mirrors, of course. The architecture of bombast and illusion was used, as it was at Trump's Taj Mahal Atlantic City - part of the Trump hotels and casino resorts dynasty that went belly up in 2005 - which was built as a replica of India's Taj Mahal, minus the site, religious and cultural context. A grand show of Western envy, I suppose, and so much fun, though the elderly folks staring dumbly at slot machines while dragging on their cigarettes look less than exhilarated by their reflections in the ceiling. Here's looking at ya, kid.

North of the border, despite numerous fits and starts, and despite having had 10 storeys lopped off, the $500-million Trump International Hotel & Tower at Bay and Adelaide in downtown Toronto is now, categorically, going ahead. (Although nobody would be called a fool for doubting the survivability in these times of a building that is part five-star hotel (256 suites), part condominium tower (118 units).

The building has seen no lack of controversy - its troubled past includes unpaid bills for marketing and design services, a backer who turned out to have skipped out on a fraud conviction in the United States and slow sales. But Zeidler Partnership Architects, the tower's design architects since 2001, are now approving shop drawings for the subcontractors on the exterior skin. Within the next month, construction will speed up once it's time to pour the concrete slabs above ground.

The Russian-born Canadian billionaire Alex Shnaider, who made his fortune primarily in Ukrainian steel, is the chair of Talon Developments, the building's developer along with key player, Talon CEO Val Levitan. Trump owns a minority share and will serve as the hotel operator. Trump's 26-year-old daughter Ivanka has been managing the project, according to Zeidler principal in charge Lyndon Devaney, with tons of smarts and design acumen. The opening isn't expected until the end of 2010, but already, given Trump's love of excess, there might be anticipation building for architecture delivering hot, carnal delights.

Unfortunately, although we were primed to expect something deliciously gaudy, buttoned down is what Toronto is going to get. Polished and sophisticated, to be sure, but hardly the fractured, disorienting spaces that sophisticates loved to hate and hated to love during the heyday of America's postmodern era.

Apparently, what's best for Toronto's elites are interiors about as wild as something you might find in Sleep Country Canada. Trump's spin doctors might like us to imagine "caviar and champagne," but what I see are visions of white, black and grey, all beautifully harmonized and pleasantly appointed, with the operatic refrains of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale gently freezing our brains in the background. Did the real-estate agents in Forest Hill dictate, once again, the neutral palate?

Thankfully, some of the gritty aesthetic of II BY IV Design Associates - the talented Toronto studio responsible for the tower's interiors and many of the city's more interesting clubs and restaurants, such as the Royal Ontario Museum's C5 - is released in the main hotel lobby where there are ebony granite floors and elevator doors in etched bronze. Good. Something dark and enticing to chew on during the long winter months.

The building itself nods politely to its neighbours - the Scotia Plaza to the east, and the Bay-Adelaide Centre to the north. Essentially, the Trump Tower is a concrete structure clad in aluminum and, to my horror, two tones of green-glass curtain wall. This city is already drowning in green glass and our eyes have been permanently damaged by it. (The curtain wall is provided by Far East Aluminum Co. of China, the company providing the curtain wall for the world's tallest tower, the Burj Dubai.) There's no room at the granite base for anything but a building pulled down hard to the edge of its site and a polite canopy on the second storey pretending to shield people from the snow. Inside, there's the lobby and martini bar but, sorry, no retail.

That's because the tight 15,000-square-foot site - a logistical challenge for construction - means that a large chunk of the ground floor must be given over to loading and services. Where's the fun in that ?

There is one concession to Trump's maverick style and his penchant for bad hair (the infamous comb-over) and building bad, historic pastiche. The saving grace for his tower in Toronto has to do with the head of a python. Years ago, architect Eberhard Zeidler placed it on the top of his BNI City Tower in Jakarta, as, perhaps, a symbol of puffed-out, chest-beating testosterone. That flourish of memories from exotic, warmer climes has been carefully subdued for the Toronto market so that it now communicates less as a python and more as a peacock feather or, since this is Ontario, as a long, skinny garter snake.

It climbs the full height of the 280-metre Bay Street corner of the Trump Tower and then peeks its head out at the top of the city. It's the only curved item on the otherwise orthogonal massing of the tower. Set apart from the straight angles of the rest of the building, it's a curiosity plucked from another place and told to behave in a foreign city. The curved glass "snake" will be lit by the team of Scottish lighting designer Jonathan Speirs - his company lit the Madrid airport designed by British architect Richard Rogers - and Toronto artist Michael Snow. Against all odds, given the good manners of the rest of the tower and the fact that Toronto is apparently too boring to be Trumped, it could become the curiosity that compels us to visit.