They're coming for you. Block by block, condo developers are expanding beyond the downtown core to bring high-rise living to the masses. This March Of The Condos is a lot less cute than the Morgan Freeman-narrated film about penguins, but it's not without some aesthetic hope.
Condo developers (the better ones anyway) have come around to the idea that their giant masses of concrete and glass needn't be eyesores and can even contribute to a community's appeal. Concord Park Place on Sheppard East in North York is one development that took advantage of the city's Percent For Public Art Program, which recommends a minimum of 1 per cent of large projects' gross construction costs be alloated to public art that adds something special to the neighbourhood.
Concord commissioned local artist James Lahey (jameslahey.com) to create a glazing installation that functions as the tower's "spine," running from the first to the 36th floors on the north and south sides of the building, visible from inside and out.
"I wanted to make a secular cathedral," Lahey says over the phone, bubbling with passion and a seemingly uncontrollable wish to share his ideas. He tells me the project's success was the result of some nifty technical manoeuvring.
"The problem with stained glass is that if you're inside a cathedral on a beautiful sunny day the colours just pour in through the windows and it's awe-inspiring, but from the outside they just look like black windows," he says. "At night, if you're inside and the lights are on you don't see any of the window colours, but from the outside they're glowing. So I wanted to mitigate that discrepancy as much as possible without compromising what could be inherently beautiful about the day or nighttime experience from inside or outside."
To achieve this, Lahey and his team produced large transparencies that had to be printed in California and were mounted between the building's layers of thermopane glass.
"People say, 'It's just stickers on glass,' but it's not that simple. It's a very complex printing process because you can't encumber the gas that's inside the thermopane glass," he says. "Have you seen a new window fogged up? That's because there's a leak somewhere and the gas has been compromised."
The project also includes artistic windbreaks for an area that's prone to wind tunnels, and innovative cladding to cover the mechanical room at the top of the building. Instead of looking like a big grey box, the room is now covered by an abstract representation of blossoms that can be seen from miles above in the sky.
Lahey was inspired by the flowers and trees that grow in Toronto, to him a symbol of renewal: "I've always loved that feeling come spring when everything blooms, and I used it for Concord because they were renewing a site. I mean, it was pretty grim up there. It's a part of Toronto that's been let go for a long time, right next to the 401. F**ck that, who wants to live there? But Concord has built an entire community - schools, community centres and public pools, not just high-rises."
We can only hope other developers will be similarly inspired to engage with those they house in more meaningful ways.
"Density can be dehumanizing, or we can connect it to the cultural life of the city in some small way," says Lahey. "Public art is a noble idea. That doesn't mean every result is wonderful, but it remains a noble idea we should insist on."