“Toronto high-rises are thin,” says architect Brigitte Shim, surveying the skyline from the rooftop terrace of the new Ace Hotel Toronto. She means that they are schematically thin — tall and narrow, like pencils — and also materially thin, made of reedlike steel and cheap glass. But she’s also referring to a kind of conceptual thinness. In Toronto, most condo buildings — the city’s dominant architectural form — aspire to little beyond their utilitarian purpose. Their slightness suggests self-awareness, as if they know they don’t deserve the space they take up. When Shim and her husband Howard Sutcliffe, founding principals of the firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, got hired to design the Ace Hotel Toronto — 14 storeys in a dense downtown environment — they opted for an aesthetic of urban chunkiness, a style that evokes an older era in regional design.
The building, which Shim-Sutcliffe was brought on to design in 2015, is one of the first Ace Hotels to be constructed from the ground up rather than retrofitted from a pre-existing structure, yet it almost seems to be part of the heritage fabric. It is clad in ruddy precast brick, reminiscent of the classic red brick from which the old city was built, especially the historical warehouses of the Garment District in which it resides.
Unlike its neighbourhood peers, it has a stage-like entrance thanks to a swooped, almost calligraphic canopy lined in Douglas fir. In these ways, the building reconciles boldness with subtlety; it imposes itself on the streetscape but doesn’t clash with it.
The coming together of Shim-Sutcliffe and the Ace Hotel Group is a marriage of two beloved brands. Since its founding in Seattle in 1999, the Ace has acquired a reputation for quirkiness and swagger. To understand the quirkiness, listen to the song “33 ‘GOD,’ ” by Midwestern freak-folk band Bon Iver, which reimagines the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles as a haunted memory palace: “When we leave this room, it’s gone.” To understand the swagger, listen to “Ace” by Chicago rapper Noname, wherein guest vocalist Smino brags about his one-night stands at the Ace Hotel Shoreditch in London.
The brand has even been parodied on the sketch-comedy series Portlandia as the Deuce Hotel, a hipster funhouse where the sinks lack faucets and the receptionists hand out record players and typewriters at the concierge desk.
The Ace does indeed aspire to distinctiveness. The Ace Hotel Palm Springs epitomizes the louche mid-century style known as desert modernism. The New Orleans property is a study in Jazz Age opulence. And the Los Angeles outpost includes a restored silent-era movie palace with soaring arches and Gothic tracery reminiscent of the Segovia Cathedral; it’s ersatz and weird, much like L.A. itself.
They share a kind of high–low aesthetic where state-of-the-art amenities sit side by side with vintage furnishings. While the suites may be expensive (with the exception of relatively affordable bunker rooms), the lounge and restaurant spaces are available to anybody for the price of a coffee. “The ace is both the highest and lowest card in the deck,” says Ace Hotel Group CEO Brad Wilson.
Even though Shim-Sutcliffe had never done a hotel before, it was an obvious pick for the Toronto commission. For decades, the firm has brought elegance and eclecticism to Canadian architecture, with designs that test the limits of both regional vernacular and basic building science. Its Muskoka Boathouse in cottage-country Ontario reconciles wood-boat construction with Victorian-style ceilings. Its Wong Dai Sin Temple, a Taoist spiritual centre in a Toronto suburb, features a platform that cantilevers dramatically from a central podium, like an architectural representation of a tai chi pose. (The cantilever is also a shelter under which tai chi practitioners can gather.)
And its Integral House — an ark-like assemblage of louvres and curved glass — ranks among the most inspired residences in the country. (The house’s peers are Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects’ Two Hulls, and not much else, really.) What their projects have in common, beyond their meticulously executed details, is that they are as much about the spirit of a place as they are about the design of a building.
Like the firm’s best work, the Ace Hotel Toronto marries ambition with a sense of play. The triple-height lobby sits beneath a row of hefty poured-in-place and steel-edged concrete arches, which bear the weight of the entire structure; massive “knuckles” resembling links in a zipper chain connect the concrete arches to the pillars beneath them and transfer their load to the foundation walls. In the centre of this majestic space, a capacious oak-lined mezzanine bar is suspended like a giant serving platter via steel rods affixed to the beams.
This grand gesture adds a layered aesthetic — an awareness of spaces within spaces — that’s best appreciated from the glassed-in meeting rooms overlooking the lobby. Because it floats, the mezzanine also seems as if it has been inserted, deftly, into the gloriously light-filled cathedral-like atrium, reinforcing one’s sense that the hotel might be a renovation of a pre-existing building. (“You can find yourself thinking, ‘Was this an old power plant or something?’ ” says Shim.) The rods are slender, while the beams evoke sturdiness, like a weightlifter pressing a barbell. This is heroic design that flaunts its heroism.
The furnishings are similarly robust. “The building clearly expresses its architecture,” says Little Wing Lee, design director of the Ace Hotel Group’s Atelier Ace, “so we picked pieces that express their architecture too.” The bar, for instance, features sofas with dowels that punch visibly through their arms.
Below it, the lower-level restaurant (Alder, by Patrick Kriss of local hot spot Alo) is a study in elemental materials — brick floors, bush-hammered concrete walls, and copper sconces that refract soft ambient light against the walls. But the interior moment with the most impact is a work of art courtesy of Howard Sutcliffe: Horizon Line, a three-storey art installation that abstractly represents the light-dappled waters of Lake Ontario, adorns the back wall.
The guest rooms also relish the local, and Canadiana ruggedness specifically, with their canvas walls, woven pillows, quilted bedspreads and millwork made from high-grade Douglas fir plywood. Atelier Ace curated the art from 30 creators, and local indie label Arts & Crafts chose the vinyl albums — an all-Canadian collection, including records by Oscar Peterson, Joni Mitchell, the Weeknd and Beverly Glenn-Copeland — to be set alongside the turntables (installed, sensibly, in the suites, rather than distributed Portlandia-style from the check-in counter).
The rooms exude a dusky warmth — thanks to mellow lighting and a colour palette of dark terracotta and indigo — that pairs nicely with the static and crackle of vinyl.
“We wanted them to feel like an oasis from the city, a cabin in the woods,” says Lee. This is what makes the Ace Hotel Toronto distinct: the sense of protectiveness, a feeling of deep security afforded by soft light and fortified walls. It’s a rare luxury, even in the luxury-obsessed world of hospitality. If most Toronto high-rises seem to apologize for their existence, the Ace Hotel Toronto appears to know that it will last a while — and also that it deserves to.
The robustness of the architecture complements the strength of the architectural vision. During a hard-hat tour of the rooms with Shim, I pointed out my favourite feature: a plywood bench on the metre-deep window ledge, which emphasizes the thickness of the surrounding walls. Shim put her hand on the ledge approvingly. “That sense of depth was important to us,” she told me.
Seven years in the making, the Ace Hotel Toronto celebrates the city’s cultural scene — and its brickwork fabric. Shim-Sutcliffe’s first major hospitality project allows people to witness the firm’s striking attention to detail up close.