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Azure January February 2023 issue cover

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Portrait of Peter Clewes, taken prior to his interview with Azure Magazine

Toronto is a city transformed. Since the turn of the millennium, Canada’s largest metropolis has introduced more high-rise residential density than any other on the continent, consistently topping lists of new towers and construction cranes, while forming the locus of one of North America’s fastest-growing urban regions. The manifestation of it all is palpable on the skyline — a swelling constellation of slender glass and steel towers that now dominate the postcard vista. But while the condo boom has conspicuously shaped the 21st-century city — and its politics — its architecture is a civic afterthought. Enter Peter Clewes.

Search the name “Peter Clewes” on AZURE’s website to yield a concise list of results: There are reviews of the architect’s reimagined Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada (MOCA) and of Toronto’s Pan American Games Athletes Village, alongside a reflection on his controversial planned addition to Ottawa’s Château Laurier. Expand the search to find a handful of Clewes’s projects in Canadian Architect, including the Governor General’s Medal-winning Terrence Donnelly Centre at the University of Toronto and the lauded scheme for the upcoming West Don Lands Block 8. What about the rest?

Toronto’s Pier 27 by architects—Alliance, PHOTO: A-Frame Studio

As the principal of Toronto’s architects—Alliance, Clewes designs residential high-rises, and a hell of a lot of them. Characterized by a clean yet malleable modernist language of sleek lines and carefully balanced proportions, the architects—Alliance design vocabulary is epitomized in projects like SP!RE, 18 Yorkville, X, 11 Charlotte, Theatre Park, Market Wharf, Harbour Plaza, Murano and many dozens more. Defined as much by developer pro formas and planning regulations as design vision, these are not the kinds of buildings regularly profiled in Azure. Yet, they constitute much of Toronto’s new housing stock and urban fabric, bearing an aesthetic elan replicated with varying success — by other firms and architects—Alliance itself — across the city.

By awards and acclamation, Peter Clewes is a notable designer. By influence on the urban fabric, he is probably the most important architect working in Toronto today. In our recent interview, we discussed the culture of Toronto and the design of developer-led mass housing and its inclusion in the architectural canon. Taking place in the wake of Ontario’s Bill 23 — and shortly before the announcement of Toronto’s “strong mayor” system and John Tory’s new housing plan — our discussion also touches on the planning policies and regulations that shape architecture and urban life, and whether designers can be more than bit players in shaping civic culture.

You’ve designed a lot of condo towers for private developers. As an architectural journalist, I worry that we ignore these buildings. But it goes beyond the media — the stuff that wins awards and gets recognition tends to be institutional and cultural work, or opulent single-family homes… Among practitioners, is there a sentiment that these buildings aren’t “real” architecture?

Peter Clewes

One of the reasons we do a lot of housing is because I have a fascination with the fabric of cities, which is primarily created through residential architecture. It’s punctuated by important cultural and civic buildings — as well as commercial and industrial uses — but the core of the urban fabric is always housing. And if you don’t engage in mass housing, you’re not really engaged in city-building, in my view. Housing was a fundamental preoccupation for the modern architecture movement in the 20th century. There was an ethos that every self-respecting design practice ought to be engaged in it.

But fast forward to our generation, and most architects viewed housing as “lesser than.” That was the architectural culture — and what was taught in architecture schools. I’ll give you an example. I was going after my first institutional project with my late partner Adrian DiCastri, the Woodsworth Student Residence at the University of Toronto. [Clewes and DiCastri formed architects—Alliance in 1999]. Adrian was interested in institutional work and university buildings, and I was interested in housing, so it was a perfect combination. We ended up winning the project [which was completed in 2004], and we were really proud of it. I remember bumping into another architect of our cohort and telling him about it. But what he said was, “Well, that’s not really an institutional project, because it’s housing.” That epitomizes the culture. The previous generation of architects — like Jack Diamond and Barton Myers — understood that housing is fundamental to the urban fabric, and that they had to engage with it. But what came after them was a set of architects that turned up their noses.

The previous generation of major Toronto architects, including Jack Diamond, Jerome Markson and Peter Dickinson, were engaged with building housing. But they were also building social housing, and working in an era when the federal government was still funding it — and encouraging new ideas. To varying degrees, the same shift happened in the United States and the UK: As Peter Barber told me last year, for example, London architects all wanted to work for the council authorities in the 1960s and ’70s. But today, Toronto’s multi-family housing market is dominated by condominiums and private developers. Maybe the change in architectural culture is also the consequence of a neoliberal turn in housing politics?

It’s a big, multi-focal issue, but public policy is certainly a big part of it. In Toronto, the antecedent to a lot of this is also the introduction of rent controls in the 1970s. After that happened, a lot of institutional investors left the rental housing market — for example, Cadillac Fairview flipped about 10,000 units and got out of residential rental properties. And new multi-unit housing construction basically flatlined, because the long-term revenue model didn’t work anymore.

And then fast forward to the 21st century, and it’s no coincidence that the condominium market has become the dominant mode of delivering urban housing. The economics of purpose-built rentals are contingent on decades of future revenue, whereas condos rely basically entirely on pre-construction sales. So it’s not an accident that the condominium market has also become a secondary market for rental housing in Toronto.

At the foot of Yonge Street, the Pier 27 complex is a conspicuous presence on the waterfront. PHOTO: James Bombales

I support rent control and the security of tenure it provides, but I think it needs to be paired with a return to mid-century levels of social housing construction to create affordable supply. We may not agree on that, but we probably both accept that the status quo of relying on private development to supply housing stock, create affordability through inclusionary zoning — and to simultaneously fund city operations through development charges — without a more tangible public sector presence is inadequate.

It’s totally inadequate. Fundamentally, I think cities have an obligation to support their populations — and there will always be people who aren’t able to survive without that support. And so the question is, how does the public sector provide that support? Is it through government agencies that build social housing? Is it rent control? Is it just inclusionary zoning? Or is it rental subsidies?

I tend to believe it should be rental subsidies, so that you allow the market to do what it does, because governments are not great at building housing. They’re too big and bureaucratic. Any bureaucracy becomes unwieldy when it gets too big, and their work devolves to mediocrity. You see the same thing with large tech companies, and you also see it with architecture firms — they reach a scale where the quality devolves.

It’s obviously a big, polarizing debate, but it has to be part of the architectural conversation. It has a huge impact on what gets built in this city.

We can’t talk about architecture without talking about the public policy — and the economic context — that shapes it. And what we’re building now are slender, glass and steel point towers with window-wall cladding and back-painted spandrel glass. It’s obviously a condo-dominated market, but why is there also relatively little variation in typology?

The “condo boom” was spurred on by the Ontario government’s Greenbelt legislation, which took effect in 2005. The provincial interest was to protect the natural landscape with an urban growth boundary. But they also realized that sprawl requires more dispersed infrastructure — and much more public money — than dense urban communities. The plan created a series of urban growth centres for densification, with Toronto as the central one. And on top of that, there’s a federal interest, which is economic immigration, which makes Canada the fastest-growing country in the G7. In 2023 and 2024, the government is targeting almost 500,000 new immigrants a year.

These are major factors shaping the city and surrounding region. So the combination of new residents and a natural growth boundary creates an impetus for dense urban development. All of that gets channeled through municipal policies, like the 2006 Official Plan, which determined downtown as the principal growth centre. But it was never paired with comprehensive new zoning bylaws, which means everything has been catch-up and sites are still rezoned on an ad hoc basis. There’s no coherent policy. So every public meeting starts with “here’s an application to zone the site with a 45-storey, 200-metre building, but the zoning dictates a height limit of 26 metres.” And then there’s public outrage.

And the city is also controlled through heritage preservation and built form. The Tall Buildings Guidelines dictate high-rise form, with a maximum 750-square-metre floor plate and a height limit. And so we have a commodified housing market dominated by developers — and one where height, built form and density is all controlled.

All of that ties back to architecture. How many times can you iterate a 750-square metre floor plate? It won’t be less than 750 square metres because that’s not economical for the developers, and it won’t be more because the city doesn’t allow it. And we have to use window wall cladding, because that’s the most cost-effective building envelope. So how many iterations of that are we going to see? And the market also dictates that everyone has to have a balcony — especially because outdoor space doesn’t count as part of the 750 square metre calculation. So that’s also part of the reason why architects stay away from it. The architect is reduced to a “service provider.”

A view of the Terrence Donnelly Centre in winter
The Terrence Donnelly Centre at the University of Toronto…
Interior view of Terrence Donnelly centre, showing a glass roof atop a retained heritage building. PHOTOS: A-Frame Studio
is one of architects—Alliance’s institutional projects, featuring substantial retained heritage. PHOTOS: A-Frame Studio

How much of that is particular to Toronto? Across North America, most multi-family housing development is the product of a sort of financial and regulatory vernacular. Even with public projects, Canada’s procurement policies have created what George Kapelos describes as “shifts in the role of the architect from designer to project manager.”

Just this morning, I got a call from a client in Hamilton. Without getting into the weeds of the project, the design of the public realm is complex due to a dramatic grade change across the site, which requires stairs and ramps — and it’s a challenge to create a good relationship between the building and the street. Anyway, our client just called to inform me — the architect — that they’re working with the head of construction at the development company to determine the design of the streetscape…

On the other hand, there are also issues particular to Toronto. We lack real guiding principles in how we plan the city, and in what we designate as heritage. What do we consider culturally significant? I would argue that civic buildings like Union Station or the Ontario Legislature are obviously architectural landmarks – and there are very beautiful smaller buildings that need to be protected. There are also stretches of the city — like the curving Mackenzie Crescent south of Dundas Street — that create an urban fabric that’s absolutely worth preserving. But does that mean we have to keep every single Victorian house? Heritage is being weaponized as a tool to control development.

We also have an Official Plan that’s basically irrelevant. When I work with American companies looking to invest in Toronto, I tell them to disregard it. Instead, look at what’s going on near the site — and then you have to advocate for rezoning and density from there. But this type of piecemeal, incremental approach isn’t good city-building. Toronto city planners will point out that that there’s already sufficient new density approved through rezoning, but that misses the point: It’s not rooted in an idea of how to build a coherent metropolis. And the Tall Building Guidelines are fundamentally more about constraining and limiting new development — not promoting quality of life and creating thriving urban neighbourhoods.

If you compare that to the first zoning resolution in New York in 1916, for example, there was more of an emphasis on the principles of city-building. And — even then — there was some early understanding that the density of midtown Manhattan drives the economy, and that it in turn supports art and music and culture. But Toronto has never accepted that. On some level, we’re still trying to be a Victorian city.

Architecturally, it translates into the “apologetic” style of Toronto high-rises, with fake brick — or preserved Victorian façades — at the base of a blue-grey glass tower that’s visually pretending not to exist.

There’s a project next to our office here on Adelaide Street that’s possibly the ugliest thing Toronto has ever built. It’s the worst of all aspects of development that’s going on in Toronto, from the greed of the development industry (to maximize GFA at all costs) to the banality of the architecture and the architects who see themselves as advocates for their clients (as opposed to advocates for architecture) to the Heritage Department that’s desperately trying to hang on to this nostalgic view of Toronto with a retention of six Victorian houses at the base.

383 Sorauren is a standout in architects-Alliance's mid-rise portfolio.
383 Sorauren is a standout in architects-Alliance’s mid-rise portfolio. PHOTO: A-Frame Studio

Whenever I look at Toronto from an airplane, I’m struck that we’ve built these seemingly arbitrary pockets of extreme density in places like Humber Bay Shores and Liberty Village. Not because these areas are good sites for development — they’re not particularly central or well-served by transit or close to jobs — but because they’re out of the way, where nobody will complain about them…

When I have acquaintances that are coming to Toronto from the airport, I say, as you approach the city, just please don’t look left at Liberty Village, because what we’ve built is outrageous. Avert your eyes. It’s an embarrassment that we’ve collectively allowed that to happen. And it’s not just the fault of the development industry — which needs to be regulated and controlled. Like all big problems, it’s multi-focal. So it’s the relationships between various civic authorities and developers and architects and everyone coalescing to create this.

A worm's eye view of the towers at Toronto's Harbour Plaza, designed by Peter Clewes of architects—Alliance
The Harbour Plaza complex features two of Toronto’s tallest residential buildings.

Toronto only became a big city relatively recently. Most major cities around the world — whether it’s Baghdad, New York, Cairo or London — had some kind of a metropolitan identity well before the 20th century. But Toronto was still a provincial place — Cleveland and Buffalo were bigger regional hubs. If it’s a bigger cultural issue (beyond architecture, development and planning) maybe that’s the deeper root?

I often think of Michael Redhill’s 2006 novel Consolation, which is all about the city’s evolution. Redhill traces the history of the city from a small settlement in the 1850s — “Muddy York,” as they called it then. What I took from the novel is the roots of a provincial city are dominated by the “Family Compact;” the small group of wealthy Anglo-Saxon families that controlled the economy and the culture of the city. And then the city was shaped by waves of immigration and change, but there’s a sense that it all happened accidentally — that the people who came to Toronto just sort of ended up here. Which, by the way, is what happened to me. So it’s that notion of an “accidental city” that’s never intentionally been a major metropolis.

And in Redhill’s view, the dominant culture keeps reverting back to the Family Compact. And he’s sort of speculating “is that all there is here?” And if you look at the leadership of the city historically, or even the way that development has been controlled by local councillors and neighbourhoods, the Family Compact is still there. And if you attend a development meeting, you’ll usually see it — in the old, grey-haired white Anglo-Saxon homeowners who are complaining about new buildings and don’t want them in their neighbourhoods.

The other quintessential Toronto novel is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. In a way, Ondaatje presents a more optimistic vision of the city, where a sort of metropolitan identity is emerging — albeit chaotically. There’s a radically multi-cultural city of immigrants that’s being re-made and re-imagined with every generation, which is a very exciting thing. What does that city become?

And pluralism is a beautiful thing. So even as I complain about a lack of vision and direction, on some level the fact that we haven’t decided what this place is all about is also one of the best things about Toronto. It’s still a city in the making, still to be made and re-made by immigrants.

But there’s always a tension between this open, expansive pluralism, and that desire to clamp down, to constrain and to revert to the Family Compact. To return to the idea of a Victorian city. But whatever Toronto is, it isn’t that.

The 32-storey King Charlotte Condos epitomizes Clewes's sleek, refined aesthetic.
The 32-storey 11 Charlotte epitomizes Clewes’s sleek, refined aesthetic. PHOTO: David Wile

So how’d you end up here?

I grew up in Montreal, and at a time when it was becoming an international city. It was having a moment — one that probably reached its apex with Expo 67 — and it was a city that was looking outwardly to the world and I.M. Pei’s Place Ville Marie and Peter Dickinson’s CIBC Tower were new landmarks. Though at the same time, it was also building highways like other North American cities, and the Décarie Expressway tore a rift that bifurcated the urban fabric. It’s become a very different city now, but as a kid the dynamism of it all sparked my interest in architecture.

But, like every English-speaking Montrealer, I wanted to get out, so I went to the University of Waterloo. Although I never imagined I’d end up in Toronto. If you grew up in Montreal at the time, you thought Toronto was this awful backwater where they turned the lights off at six. I remember visiting with my dad once — he was on a business trip — and I was amazed that there was nobody in the financial district on the weekend. It was completely dead.

So no, I never planned on living here. Then, after graduating, I went to work for Arthur Erickson. He wanted to open a Hong Kong office, and I was supposed to help run it. But in the meantime, I’d be in Toronto. Well, the Hong Kong office never opened — and here I still am. But I remember how excited we were about the move. My wife and I went to the library and took out all these books about Hong Kong. I remember poring over the photos, thinking “wow, now that’s a real city.”

Peter Clewes portrait by Harry Choi.

Is This Architecture? A Conversation with Peter Clewes

The architects—Alliance founder talks to Stefan Novakovic about condos, city-building and the evolution of Toronto in the 21st century.

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