A little past 7 PM yesterday, Koerner Hall filled with some of Toronto's most prominent city-builders, as a who's who of architects, planners, designers, and developers, took their seats. The star of the show was Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who took to the stage to deliver the almost irresistibly charming "Yes is More" lecture that has now been making the rounds worldwide for several years. Last night, however, Ingel's well-practiced presentation crescendoed with a revealing new look at the architect's much-anticipated Toronto project at 489-539 King West

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels Aerial view of the site, image courtesy of Westbank/Allied

Working with developers Westbank Corp. and Allied Properties REIT, the superstar architect unveiled the Bjarke Ingels Group's (BIG) radical and playful vision for the site. Presenting a "hybrid of Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 and the urban ecology of the neighbourhood's small alleyways," Ingels argued that the design—in its aesthetic style and ambition—"picks up where Safdie left off 50 years ago" in evoking a sense of radical idealism rarely expressed in Canada's built form. 

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels Ingels discusses BIG's New York 'Dry Line' as a love-child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, image by Stefan Novakovic

Characterized by a varied series of rectilinear volumes, Ingels described the design's "soft topography" as a human-made homage to mountainous landscapes. The residential volumes—which rise to a maximum height of 17 storeys—would be clad in "stone natural to Ontario," said the Danish architect.

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels A closer look at the King West streetscape, image courtesy of Westbank/Allied

The project's massing strategy sees the modern volumes set back from the heritage buildings along King Street, preserving their street-level prominence while visually inviting pedestrians into the "secret courtyard" within. Ingels described the greenscaped space as a "Canadian hemlock forest." Alongside the extensive landscaping—appointed by Public Work—Ingels's design allows for "integrated public art throughout the courtyard," giving the art a more vital presence in BIG's manufactured landscape.

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels Inside the 'secret courtyard.' image courtesy of Westbank/Allied

Describing BIG's architectural style as a manifestation of "pragmatic idealism," Ingels presented the project as both an icon and a powerful social incubator. Yet, while the declarative design would certainly give the city an impressive new icon, the social impact of the project is more difficult to predict. 

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels A closer look at the terraces, image courtesy of Westbank/Allied

While much of the Bjarke Ingels Group's (BIG) portfolio is characterized by the sort of big-name architectural statement pieces that are sometimes—perhaps justifiably—derided as showy and self-indulgent, Ingel's presentation elucidated a deftly sophisticated grasp of the social ramifications of built form.

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels Another view of the courtyard, image courtesy of Westbank/Allied

In a lecture that sampled from BIG's work around the world, Ingels emphasized the power of architecture to inflect social relations, facilitating new social bonds and stronger communities. Indeed, in a lecture subtitled "how can architecture create communities," Ingels foregrounded the  social responsibility that characterizes BIG's architectural sensibility.

A strong commitment to ecology and social interaction is evidenced throughout BIG's portfolio, while a playfully irreverent aesthetic is met by a deft capacity for architectural problem-solving, thoughtfully considering the unique challenges of each site. It was a rousing presentation—and one hell of a pitch—coalescing in a utopian vision of architecture's purpose; "to make the world a little more like our dreams." 

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Following Ingel's lecture, a panel discussion brought the architect into conversation with the Toronto Film Festival's Cameron Bailey, Sheldon Levy (formerly of Ryerson University), U of T Daniels' Richard M. Sommer, and Doblin Canada's Zahra Ebrahim. Moderated by Denise Donlon, the discusion analyzed the interstice of architecture and social relations through a broader scope, challenging the optimistic utopianism of Ingel's vision. 

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels Donlon, Sommer, Ebrahim, Ingels, Bailey, Levy (l-r), image by Stefan Novakovic

Looking out across the assembled audience, Bailey asked the crowd three questions. "How many of you live in million-dollar homes?" Tentatively, hundreds of audience members raised their hands, perhaps anticipating the discomfort of the questions to come. "Now, how many of you have lived in public housing?" This time, a small smattering of hands shot up across the auditorium. "And how many of you have lived in both?" Somewhere in the back of the right balcony, a single man raised his hand.

"That's the problem," Bailey concluded, "how do you a bridge that gap?" It was a question that BIG's architecture does not focus on answering. While Ingel's creative designs can indeed help foster stronger social bonds within their communities, BIG's portfolio—full of expensive projects and powerful clients—offers relatively little evidence of a more broad-based commitment to social change championed by other leading architects.

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels A look at the scale model, image by Stefan Novakovic

"On a macro level, how can architecture help society?" Donlon asked, taking the architect into territory beyond the scope of the pitch. While Ingels argued that making "a world more like our dreams" through small architectural doses can play a part in greater change, BIG's work arguably lacks the deeper inventiveness and social consciousness required to break through socio-economic barriers. The need to have affordable buildings alongside "architectural icons" was widely discussed, although the issue of the project's affordability was only alluded to. (Time was running out).

Yet, while some of the polished edges of Ingel's vision began to seem less convincing, the panelists nonetheless enthusiastically praised the design—and justifiably so. The interplay of forms was discussed as an intelligent symbolic representation of both the individual and the whole, while the design was widely praised for introducing a new level of architectural ambition to Toronto. 

489-539 King Street West, Westbank Corp, Allied Properties REIT, Bjarke Inglels View from a balcony, image courtesy of Allied/Westbank

It's a design that has been widely well-received by UrbanToronto readers as well, garnering an enthusiastic reception from our Forum members. 489-539 King West is undoubtedly one of our city's most exciting upcoming developments, and it is one that is almost certain to become an architectural icon for Toronto. Perhaps it will even succeed in fulfilling Ingel's vision of making the modern city a more vibrant and socially cohesive space, if not quite the landscape of our collective dreams. 

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Want to learn more about the development? Our dataBase file for the project, linked below, contains more images. Want to talk about it? You're welcome to visit the associated Forum thread to get in on the discussion there, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.