Visionary architects versus the bureaucrats

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 9, 2002

William Thorsell, CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, doesn’t need to fuss much about staying this side of the law. Yes, his museum’s wildly unorthodox, $200-million glass-sheathed expansion will stretch – if not break – a dumpster-load of bylaws, planning codes and other rules governing Toronto developments. But in the end, Toronto’s government will generally look the other way when it can and change the law when it can’t.

Building laws – these govern everything from the shape of buildings to the size of windows – are made for less prominent men. For Mr. Thorsell, such laws can be changed. Especially when the laws threaten to compromise a design from one of the world’s pre-eminent architects, Germany’s Daniel Libeskind.

“The bylaws are a living document,” explained Paul Gogan of Bregman + Hamann Architects, a Toronto firm hired, in part, to help steer the project through the city’s bureaucracy. Translation: With enough pull and enough time – and with enough money to hire firms such as Mr. Gogan’s – rigid building-related bylaws can morph into something more pleasing to the eye.

Mr. Thorsell is not alone in obtaining special treatment. The bylaws will also morph for Robert Birgeneau, president of the University of Toronto, which last week announced that Britain’s Lord Norman Foster, another celebrity architect, will be designing a landmark building for its pharmacy school. And for Allan Gotlieb, the chair of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which has hired Los Angeles superstar Frank Gehry. These showcase projects among others have given rise to “Toronto’s Architectural Renaissance,” as the celebrity projects are known.

The renaissance is much needed. Toronto’s architecture stands out for its drabness among North America’s major cities, a condition abetted by laws that discourage innovation and dictate the status quo. Mr. Thorsell and his highbrow peers, in taking on the status quo, are thus performing a public service.

But the public service, and the renaissance, should not be limited to a handful of high-profile projects. The rules stifle almost all projects, almost all the time. Knowing they’re in for a fight whenever they step outside the box, architects will avoid controversy whenever possible to spare themselves and their clients grief. A case in point. Toronto bylaws limit the overhang on roofs to 500 millimetres, a distance that effectively rules out, for example, the Arts and Crafts architecture made famous by the likes of Charles Rennie Macintosh and the early Frank Lloyd Wright. While Arts and Crafts homes are common in older Toronto districts, they’re all but impossible to find in many newer ones. Not because they would be more expensive to build. Not because the city would refuse to grant an exemption to the inexplicable 500-millimetre limit. New homes influenced by Arts and Crafts homes are often difficult to find in Toronto because obtaining permission for that roof overhang can delay a project by 90 days and, if the permission is denied, add thousands of dollars to the budget in architectural and hearings expenses. Much easier for the architect to show the client a risk-free design.

Laws like these institutionalize mediocrity. While they doubtless do some good in some places at some times, and while some architects may work brilliantly under their constraints, the laws more often dampen the inspiration of architects and deaden the urban landscape. “Rules are based on protecting what’s already there instead of having a vision of what could be there,” explains Stephen Teeple, a Toronto architect involved in an earlier foreign-celebrity-designed, rule-breaking University of Toronto building – this one featuring an oversized cornice, six storeys up, that extends half-way across a road.

“Planning is too often negative, protectionist, preventing one from doing his very best,” adds Mr. Teeple. Ironically, planning attempts to protect the districts that were created prior to the existence of the rules that planners now deem so necessary.

While celebrity architects from away have more leeway to avoid rules than the local architects designing conventional buildings for average customers, celebrity architects, too, are held back. Mr. Libeskind’s design for the Royal Ontario Museum has already seen compromises in the arduous process required to bring any project to fruition – Mr. Thorsell has been negotiating with the city for months to keep objections at bay, and soon will be revisiting city officials to protect his project.

Projects that don’t have a William Thorsell, a Robert Birgeneau or an Allan Gotlieb behind them will not fare as well, not until we see a loosening of needlessly rigid rules, or a system of governance that doesn’t provide one set of rules for the powerful and another for the rest.

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