"I walked down [Yonge] street, and I thought, 'where is everybody?'" wondered the Dutch architect, garnering a self-conscious laugh from the audience at Toronto's Ryerson University. "Then I went through a door into this underground place, and—wow—I suddenly found myself in a completely different space. I realized this was the Eaton Centre," Nathalie de Vries continued, recounting the somewhat disorienting experience of a winter visit to Toronto. "What is the idea of Toronto?" she asked the assembled crowd, diagnosing a city that seems bereft of a declarative urban identity.

de Vries, a Director and co-founder of Rotterdam's internationally acclaimed MVRDV studio, came to Toronto as part of Ryerson's DAS Lecture Series. The event—co-sponsored by the Dutch Consulate—featured a lecture on density and the "vertical village" by de Vries, followed by a panel discussion that investigated how some of MVRDV's innovative design principles could be utilized in Toronto. 

Nathalie de Vries lectures at Ryerson University, image by Stefan NovakovicNathalie de Vries lectures at Ryerson University, image by Stefan Novakovic

The lecture examined some of MVRDV's most transgressive and influential projects. Since its founding in 1993, the firm has been recognized as a playfully irreverent presence, challenging established paradigms and stretching the limits of the architectural imagination. A commitment to environmental sustainability and a socially conscious ethos inflect the company's work throughout the world. As de Vries puts it, MVRDV's work "stretches to the limits of what the society will accept."

Beginning with some of the firm's early designs, de Vries' lecture elucidated the principles that underlie the company's work, which focuses primarily on housing. Completed in 1997, Amsterdam's WoZoCo—a senior's residence—saw the young firm seize one of its first opportunities, afforded by "the general lack of housing in the Netherlands." Characterized by extruding cantilevered forms, the WoZoCo presents a creative design solution to the relatively small footprint of the site. The youthful vibrancy of the project also imbues a playful energy to seniors' housing, implicitly challenging perceptions of old age by creating "an exciting place for older people to live."

Amsterdam's WoZoCo, image courtesy of MVRDVAmsterdam's WoZoCo, image courtesy of MVRDV

Also in Amsterdam, the Silodam housing complex (2003) challenges architectural norms by subverting the cultural symbolism of aesthetic style. Transforming a "former dam and silo in the Amsterdam harbour into a mixed program of houses, offices, and public spaces," the adaptive reuse project also features an almost overwhelming mixture of architectural styles. Each of the stylized blocks features a unique program, with the housing components a collage of income levels and needs (senior's housing is also on site).

The eclectic Silodam, image courtesy of MVRDVThe eclectic Silodam, image courtesy of MVRDV

The "variety of programming recreates the city as a whole," de Vries tells, creating a sort of diverse "village" of residents, and a socially cohesive environment. "People are curious, and they regularly organize tours to visit other parts of the complex, and to see what other apartments look like," de Vries notes. A common interest—and a social bond—can be nurtured by architecture. Much like Silodam subverts the pristine exclusivity of some of its architectural styles, the Parkrand complex (2006) renegotiates the boundary between interior and exterior space by creating a "furnished outdoor living room, with furniture and 'wallpaper'."  

Parkrand's living-room exterior is contained inside the structure, complete withParkrand's living-room exterior is contained inside the structure, complete with outdoor furniture, image courtesy of MVRDV

The boundary between civic life and private spaces is often re-negotiated in de Vries' work, with the street sometimes "brought into the building and up to the roof," creating the sociable "vertical village" that has become an ideal for urban designers, specifically those working in increasingly dense, tall environments like Toronto.  

A closer look at Parkrand's outdoor furniture, image courtesy of MVRDVA closer look at Parkrand's outdoor furniture, image courtesy of MVRDV

MVRDV's projects are also known for their adaptive reuse and environmental sustainability. The firm often uses wood, which de Vries champions as a "sustainable and friendly material," while many of the projects are crafted out of existing buildings or infrastructure, and are subsequently designed to be reconfigured again "as future needs change." Throughout the lecture, MVRDV's photos of accomplished work showed the projects as they actively exist, sometimes revisiting them a decade or more after they were built, disposing of the idealized presentation that usually accompanies as-yet-unbuilt architecture. The photos position buildings as a living and breathing part of their society rather than pristine testaments to the architect's power.

The transformative Rotterdam Markthal, or Market Hall, image courtesy of MVRDVThe transformative Rotterdam Markthal, or Market Hall, image courtesy of MVRDV

Following de Vries' lecture, the architect took part in a panel discussion regarding architecture in Toronto. Moderated by Canadian Architect Editor Elsa Lam, the panel featured architectsAlliance Principal Peter Clewes, Mod Developments CEO Gary Switzer, Waterfront Toronto VP Chris Glasiek, and UrbanToronto's own Managing Editor, Craig White. Here, de Vries shared her experiences of the city.

Nathalie de Vries, Craig White, Peter Clewes, Elsa Lam, Gary Switzer, and Chris Nathalie de Vries, Craig White, Peter Clewes, Elsa Lam, Gary Switzer, and Chris Glasiek (l-r), image by Stefan Novakovic

"People here should talk to each other," de Vries told the panel, reflecting on a somewhat unwelcoming culture of "empty sidewalks" that seems bereft of a vibrant social fabric. Glasiek postulated that many of the problems de Vries identified are rooted in the fact that "Toronto came of age during the era of the automobile," while Switzer reflected that since "Toronto had no apartments until maybe 1910," the city's very sudden bursts of growth could not replicate the social fabric of more established urban environments.

Addressing de Vries observation that "everybody seems to be underground," Clewes explained that Toronto's "totally perverse" PATH network initially arose out of Mies Van der Rohe's TD Centre. Since "Mies' demand for aesthetic purity" meant that retail pathways had to be pushed underground, Clewes explained that the precedent "was followed by other projects," and that eventually connecting to the PATH become a de facto requirement for new construction in the core. Though Clewes felt that the City's restrictive planning guidelines limit the possibilities of architectural expression, lamenting that many of de Vries' buildings "could never be built here," he added that "it's quite a lovely city in the summer."

Clews identified MVRDV's Turm Mit Taille in Vienna as a project that "could neveClewes identified MVRDV's Turm Mit Taille in Vienna as a project that "could never be built here," image courtesy of MVRDV

de Vries also told the panel that "looking down from a tall tower, everything in Toronto seems so grey," suggesting that the city's infrastructure lacks greenery. While much of the city remains a sea of concrete, UrbanToronto's Craig White reflected that "cool roof requirements now lead many developers to include green roofs," and that the "situation is quickly changing."

On a positive note, Lam asked the panelists to identify some of the progress currently being made, with the revamped Queen's Quay Promenade singled out for particular praise. Promising to return to Toronto in the summer next time around, de Vries expressed excitement at "how much change the city has experienced," while expressing frustration at the glut of condos that "can't be adapted for other uses in the future," and the turgid inflexibility of Toronto's urban design. "I look at the city blocks and laneways here, and sometimes I want to take a saw and just cut right through them. Open them up to their potential."