In Toronto, Umbra’s Facade Gets a Dichroic Makeover

In Toronto, Umbra’s Facade Gets a Dichroic Makeover

The Umbra facade, with its iconic fuchsia panels, get an experimental refresh thanks to Kohn Shnier Architects.

A decade after Umbra’s flagship opened in Toronto, its iconic hot pink cladding wasn’t looking so hot anymore. Its colourful mojo, so different from the city’s regular toned-down palette, was meant not only to stand out but to hold its own against nearby buildings like Will Alsop’s OCAD University extension and Frank Gehry’s reboot of the Art Gallery of Ontario. But the distinctive polycarbonate panels had faded, especially on the southern, sun-exposed side of the facade facing Queen Street West.

The Umbra facade get a dichroic twist.

The store’s owners consulted Kohn Shnier Architects, the firm that originally helped them transform the building. Should they change out the panels? Maybe rethink the pink? John Shnier pitched them on keeping the fins and wrapping them in a dichroic film. The colour base would still be fuchsia, but now – with changes in sunlight, viewers’ motions and even passing car headlights – the material’s layers of optical coating would constantly recalibrate, moving from deep purple and mauve, through pink, to amber, orange and green, like the shifting hues of gasoline on water.

The Umbra facade get a dichroic twist.

There was only one problem: This high-tech, bedazzled shrink-wrap had only been used indoors; there were no guarantees as to durability, or how long it would retain its dichroic character. True to their adventurous nature, the clients were willing to take a risk on this experimental application. The result, at least for now, is a multi-dimensional, immersive effect that, in Shnier’s words, “punches above its weight class and manages to stand up to its more high-profile neighbours.”

What Shnier likes best is the way strong light can reflect the shades beyond the building itself, onto, for example, the sidewalk and a nearby blank wall. The chromatic aura aptly suits the brand name – umbra being Latin for “shade.” The downtown venue has become such a hit on social media that local sightseeing companies have started adding it to their Toronto tours. 

This story was taken from the June 2018 issue of Azure. Buy a copy of the issue here, or subscribe here.

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