Remodeling and Home Design
Toronto Architects & Designers

Design ticket for the Bohemian Embassy Lofts on West Queen  West

A design ticket is my way of applying critical standards to a project. Some say Toronto lacks design controls, as great zoning recomendations are often sidestepped by the OMB.
Beyond just a matter of taste, the design ticket tries to quantify the rules that may have been bruised in the application of professional design standards in the public realm. 

I seek your approval, in giving the Bohemian Embassy Lofts facade, a design ticket.

The future of our Queen Street West Heritage District depends on the way architects, developers and their clients interpret, avoid or apply our cities zoning bylaws for projects on Queen Street West. And Bylaws there are. 

By way of analysis, I've compared a representative peice of the large residential and retail project called the Bohemian Embassy Lofts on the south side of West Queen Street West to the existing historical fabric on the north side, almost directly facing each other across the street. 

Infraction 1 - Lack of continuous glazing. In area 1 the openings are only 50% of the street segment. In area 3, they are 80%. This is a signifiant problem, as pedestrian use depends on the street level engagement provided by glased areas of display. I don't mean a glass spandrel or sign, Im talking about something you would want to look at as you walk by, like a dress shop or clothing mannequin. The design is supposed to emphasize the ground level retail.

Infraction 2 - Bland solid area surrounds and pilasters to glazing. In area 2, simple brick or steel exit doors are the cheapest material brought into the line of pedestrian sight. We shouldn't have to look at this cheap stuff. Compare this dumb material to the exotic and sculptural infill of the slender pilasters and innovative wood headers between and above windows in area 4 on the North side. Glazing should be framed for emphasis, not merged into the stories above.

Infraction 3 - Poor development of solids above the street level. The simple brick and concrete striping  in area 7 is the minimum possible in creating a building face. A change of brick color is all that stops this 3-5 story face from becoming a monotonous block. A Queen Street facade is a rich tapestry of sculpture and decoration as in areas 5 and 6, the cornice. I understand that the art of brickwork is lost now, but there are other materials that can be crafted, such as precast and metal.

Infraction 4 - Monotonous glazing patters that don't work with bays. The chevron design in area 10 is not compensation for a real glazed bay window, even though it probably hides an unfortunate internal division. Compare the area 11 of the north side, with a centralized glass window and smaller proportioned side panes. 

Infraction 5 - Redundant tiers of setback massing. The area 9 has repeated setbacks in a sawtooth pattern. I like the variety and concept of this pattern, but wonder if it really works as tiers of terraces. We know its cheaper to just repeat units, but small differences in that roofscape can soften the line with the sky. See the simple and unplanned drops in the roofs of the old north side. 

Infraction 6 - Too many grids. I recommend not gridding surfaces so much. Like crazy tiles in a bathroom, grids collide.  See the simplicity of area 5's for the break between areas of fetish and planar fields in the old north facade. Although the old north side of the street was an accident of design experiments, it compares better as a prototype for the creation of walkable streets in a historic neighborhood.

I don't think I'm being unfair, as the same criticisms could be made of many developments on Queen Street, for example the recent Loblaws on Portland and Queen.

I also don't want to give the impression I'm a heritage architect repeating the past, all due respect to that noble calling. I believe new structures can successfully compete and exceed the older work. I understand there are many reasons why they may not. As Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities noted, old areas have a grace and flexibility despite the patina. The cost of new construction demands new cash flows from more established tenants. The little dress shop and bakery cafe is replaced by Shoppers Drug Mart and the Royal Bank, at least temporarily. They too will be someday gone, to be replaced by lower rent uses, like the startup tech company. This will take decades of paying off the investment. What will be left then? The new structure shown here doesn't work without it's big box clients. It isn't as divisible into smaller tenancies. 

Underground parking, green though it may be,  is the culprit in the structural grids of new facades. The 9 m parking grid has its monotonous grind across the facades of the city. Split in two, the 9 m grid is now making two living rooms of 4 m (12 ft) wide, probably leading to the unfortunate central split window you see in area 10. The old buildings were more generous inside and had a variety of narrower lots, without the dumbing down effect of underground parking. 

I can understand the necessity of a bland facade in a suburban area, where people aren't supposed to be out there walking around thinking and getting exercise, but driving at high speed in Corby cars, at high speed on wide asphalt highways, behind tinted windows, listening to tasty fresh new fast food radio advertisements, while dreaming of that Carribbean vacation with all the right people.

In our most protected of cultural areas in Canada, the West Queen West Triangle, we should expect a higher level of  built culture, at least as good as those cool media ads for the Bohemian Embassy. For developers stamping out Queen Street facades, if you must fly thought it for profit reasons, please consider copying the old stuff across the street. 

  ericksong@ericksong.com © Gary Erickson 2016