Dan Stubbergaard is optimistic that architecture has the power to transform our cities for the better. He cautions, though, that a lot needs to change in the way we currently build our buildings before we get there, otherwise our future generations may face even larger urban crises than we do today.

Stubbergaard is the founder of COBE, a leading architecture firm based in Copenhagen that is known for its innovative contextual designs and outside-the-box thinking. Established in 2006, COBE has catapulted into the international spotlight, and in just 13 short years has constructed a variety of renowned projects ranging from residential developments, to train stations, commercial buildings, and cultural institutions. COBE currently has two active proposals in Toronto, both residential developments, at Scrivener Square and in the West Don Lands.

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoDan Stubbergaard, founder of COBE, image courtesy of Nikolai Linares.

In the West Don Lands, COBE has partnered with architectsAlliance to build three residential towers in the southern portion of the district for developers Dream, Kilmer van Nostrand, and Tricon Capital. The trio of buildings will rise 16, 16, and 26 storeys and contain a total of 756 rental units, of which roughly 30% will be affordable units integrated throughout the complex. COBE is in charge of designing the two westernmost towers, with architectsAlliance designing the third.

UrbanToronto recently had the opportunity to speak with Stubbergaard about COBE’s West Don Lands project, his thoughts on post-industrial development, his fascination with Toronto, and the role of the architect in the future of our cities.

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Julian Mirabelli: To start off, I was wondering if you could walk us through your design process with the West Don Lands, the series of decisions that led to the proposal that you have today?

Dan Stubbergaard: This project started when I was in Toronto and I, for the first time, visited the West Don Lands and the Distillery District, which I think is a very inspiring small enclave of urban life in a part of Toronto where the city is really emerging toward the lake. The Distillery has that kind of atmosphere and urban life to it that I thought was really inspiring, and also the architecture, this kind of industrial heritage being invaded by a lot of different activities which was nice to see.

We then spoke with our clients on Scrivener Square [Tricon Capital] to talk about the Distillery and the potential of this whole area, and we were invited as part of a team for bidding on the plots there. We were selected to work on the big block site which is currently the project. I think what we wanted to do was to try to extend the life of the main street of the Distillery to the other side of Cherry Street, and to extend in a way the scale of the Distillery, and also hopefully some of the life and outward function of the ground level. So I thought that was a really nice opportunity both architecturally but also urbanistically to think about the city at eye level in a way, to extend the feeling and atmosphere of the Distillery further ahead to this area. Actually, I think the whole starting point was a very nice first spring day where me and one of my colleagues had a beer there after a long meeting in Toronto!

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoRendering of the West Don Lands project, image courtesy of COBE.

JM: As I understand it, the buildings are broken down into three sections; you have the townhouses at the bottom, then the apartments above, and then the upper tower portion. Can you explain a bit about the massing of the buildings and how you settled on the materials?

DS: It’s a little bit again like the Distillery, that we wanted to create a new interpretation of the post-industrial heritage of the architecture on the whole site of the West Don Lands. This was a former active working place of the city, there was an industry happening and an industrial mix of the city happening in the West Don Lands. So to be a little bit contextual in a very big open brownfield, we wanted to find the atmosphere of the history of the site and combine it with some modern ways of both living and creating spaces for landscape in the city, while also creating outward functions.

So what we did was to create a high capacity of critical mass at ground level so that it’s a very deep building, like a big factory basically, that is a one-level building where you have outwards functions like shops, and you have some townhouses in the lower part. Then we wanted to step the building backwards, and we have a middle building which also consists of loft apartments and rowhouses, and on the top we have, you can say, a tower.

My idea was to create a little bit of a silo feeling to the top building. Maybe it’s not that clear when you see the project but I have to speak a bit about my inspirational source, which was looking into some of these post-industrial typologies and fusing them into this kind of new volumetric composition at the site. Really trying to create a certain quality at ground level, and create a public realm around the building, and using that surface as a landscape surface for the inhabitants living in the blocks as well.

So it was a lot about having a lot of square metres and also a quite large volume, and then trying in a very sensible way to scale it down into readable volumes, which in a sense has a bit more of a human factor or scale in the architecture as well. And all of it has been inspired from the historical industrial architecture, which in certain ways can be very beautiful and very interesting as an architect to look into and then reinterpret in a modern way.

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoRendering of the West Don Lands project, image courtesy of COBE.

JM: I know your firm is familiar with post-industrial landscapes, such as The Silo project in Copenhagen. Actually, we have a couple silos here in Toronto that are just sitting empty, if you could come and redo those that would be fantastic!

DS: Well, what is interesting is that you will never build architecture or build things like that again, so they’re really worth preserving and transforming into something new. I think they have a huge potential of becoming these new urban beacons, you can bring them alive again. And these buildings were very central to the development of our cities and Toronto many years ago, so I also think they have a certain pride. You need to respect and give them back a life again rather than just taking them down. And then there’s also all the resources to it as well which is very important to consider.

JM: Yes, there are quite a few old industrial buildings here in Toronto that the City is trying to bring back to life.

DS: That’s also the success of the Distillery District, the old brewery and the quality of that. And especially also the quality of the industrial architecture in which you have big flexible spaces that you can inhabit in many different ways. On the West Don Lands project, I know its housing and housing has certain units and it’s not super flexible, but we are creating a set of these kind of loft apartments where you have high ceiling heights and you have a bit more flexibility to it as well. So I think it was the idea of that project to take or to embrace the history of the larger site, that it has been former industry and now it’s turning into a livable neighbourhood. But you should still in a way try to enhance that contextual cultural history of that area and actually build upon the Distillery rather than coming up with something completely alien and different and generic.

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoThe Silo in Copenhagen, Denmark, images courtesy of Rasmus Hjorsthøj - COAST.

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoThe Silo in Copenhagen, Denmark, images courtesy of Rasmus Hjorsthøj - COAST.

JM: There is a big emphasis on creating a sense of community with the West Don Lands project, could you elaborate a bit more on what aspects of these buildings help to foster a sense of community?

DS: I think first of all it’s about creating not only private spaces inside the buildings but also creating a common community landscape, which is on top of the lowest building of the development. The low warehouse building, we created the capacity of having a wonderful outdoor public terrace; well it’s both private and also available for the public. This is the place where you have what you need much more of in the city centre of Toronto, green landscaped spaces to bring a bit of nature back to the community, and it’s a place where you can meet as well.

So you can say you have three levels of interaction in that development: you have your private home; you have your semi-private outdoor landscapes, and of course amenities which you have in most housing developments; and then on the ground level you have interaction with the public life, with these kind of facades we have created and the continuity of the main street of the Distillery into our site as well. So I indeed hope that there will be a larger community feeling when this development has been created.

It’s based on pedestrians and it’s based on creating a nice environment at eye level, which is both beneficial for the people living there but also for the larger community of the West Don Lands as well, which indeed is dramatically going to be changed in the coming years due to the high level of activity and development in the area. And then I figured out recently that Jane Jacobs lived in Toronto for some years so I think we need to do really well here in honour of her as well!

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoRendering of the West Don Lands project, image courtesy of COBE.

JM: You’ve also talked about sustainability in the West Don Lands project, I believe it is aiming for LEED Gold. What sustainable aspects are included in the building design?

DS: There are traditional things of creating energy-low buildings, there is a very low energy use with the buildings. But there is a little bit of the social sustainability to it as well. We want to create an anchor of social interaction, and we are working with affordable housing, which is a big challenge in many cities around the world, also in Europe, due to the high speed of urban developments and the cities having become a market. It is really important to integrate different social incomes in the city.

I also think this development is contributing to creating a social diversity as well, which I think Toronto is all about. Because what I really like about being in Toronto is the wonderful diversity and collage of a city of different neighbourhoods closely located to each other. And it’s also a very inspiring multiethnic city, so it also contributes to inviting different people to live in the city with different incomes as well.

And then, we are not completely finalized, but I really would love to use upcycled bricks on the lower part of the development, which would be a great story to start to talk about circular economy. But also the quality of upcycled bricks is just immense, it’s actually a really really beautiful facade. So if you could imagine the brick facade on the ground, that’s my dream to have it in upcycled bricks. But that’s not defined yet as we are in the detailing phase, and we need to figure out how we can get some upcycled bricks. The whole idea of using them, it could also be from other industrial facilities that are taken down, where we actually bring that history back in a very kind of literal way. It’s a tactile thing, but it’s also a nice story to it too.

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoRendering of the West Don Lands project, image courtesy of COBE.

JM: I want to shift gears a bit with my next question. You recently published a manifesto in Politiken Byrum [written in Danish] where you’re quoted as saying: "We must save 21st century architecture from speculation, tedious standards, and low-ceilinged apartments without soul". You’ve been to Toronto, and you’ve seen all of the cranes and all of the condo towers that sort of all look the same, so I think that’s a very relevant statement for us over here. How does your development in the West Don Lands save us from speculation and tedious standards?

DS: That’s a great question, and also a very difficult question, because it’s not easy. It’s a lot about bringing different perspectives and people together, and creating a common vision to do something different than the way we are just making housing today, as we have been used to doing for many years. We need a bit of radical change to actually change things, and the biggest argument currently will be climate change. We need to build in a much smarter, a much more intelligent, a much more circular, and a much more environmentally- and resource-thoughtful way than we have done until now. I think there is a big movement towards understanding that that’s where we need to go, and I think that that argument can really change things gradually.

The difficult part of architecture is that we create buildings in our current understanding of where we are in our society, how the economic conditions are and the social conditions, but buildings are built to last much longer than our own generation. They’re actually built for the future generation. So in general I think there’s a huge dilemma that buildings have become such a big part of the economy as a market generator that they’re created on a very short-term sense, but they belong for many many years and are part of a much longer-term sense of how we actually perceive our city. And I think that is a huge dilemma. That builders, they build housing blocks so that they can earn fast money, but the problem is that those buildings are going to stand much longer than our life span, so what is actually the quality of those buildings? And the worst thing environmentally would be that we would have to tear them down again to build something new in 50 years.

So I think we need to change dramatically the way we construct these kinds of set-ups when we build, and especially housing. We need a common understanding that we need to build also for the future generations and for much higher flexibility, and create some robust, resilient buildings that can embrace the future as well. And in that sense, I think it’s the small steps currently where we are. It’s not easy, but I think we’re making small steps.

For instance, with the West Don Lands project, I think it’s very nice that there’s low-income housing in that project, and at least we tried to make a project that is thought in a very contextual way. That this project is built as a West Don Lands project, that it’s part of a larger understanding of where a neighbourhood is going, and what is the identity and what is the stronghold of that neighbourhood. That we don’t only build buildings, but we build neighbourhoods, and we build things that are in line with a much larger scale than only yourself, so to say. I think we need to speak about that, and also speak, from my point of view, with our clients, and show them that there is value in doing things a bit differently than the last 10 to 15 years when we build. So I think there’s a big kind of pressure on the shoulders of the architect, and maybe also on other people, that we need to do quite a big turnaround in the way we build our cities for the future.

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoRendering of Christiansholm, also known as Papirøen (Paper Island) in Copenhagen, image courtesy of COBE.

JM: Very powerful statement, I agree. And like you said, it’s very difficult to change, and I think the easiest way to get it to change is to lead by example, to show people that this is how you can build in a way that is different. So no pressure on your West Don Lands project, but...

DS: Well, I think the pressure is important, and I think the understanding that soon we are on a quite burning platform that is climate change, I think that’s going to push us somewhere else. Because if we just continue as we are doing right now, we are going to create big problems for ourselves in the future. Maybe not for us, but maybe for future generations.

And in that sense, you can also criticize how some of the development in Toronto has been. I think some parts you really lost the understanding of what a city is. What is the identity and the quality of the city of Toronto, and how do you build on that rather than just building something new into it, which doesn’t have anything to do with anything basically? And I think that’s very important when you have such a fast speed of development that you need to at least ask the question, why do you build? What is the building doing for the community and the neighbourhood? Is it bringing quality back to a larger scale than just itself? So I think there are some general questions you need to address when you start off a project, it’s not just another building in a line of other uninspiring buildings which are generic and non-contextual.

I also think what we should be better at is speaking about the value of good design and good city-building as also creating a high value for the clients and developers as well. I think we need to be better in addressing that part.

COBE, West Don Lands, Tricon, Dream, Kilmer, TorontoRendering of Christiansholm, also known as Papirøen (Paper Island) in Copenhagen, image courtesy of COBE.

JM: Excellent argument, thank you. Is there anything else you want to add?

DS: It’s super interesting to work in Toronto, and for me personally I really enjoy the Canadian culture. And I think it’s quite interesting actually, because it’s quite similar to Danish and Scandinavian culture in general. We’re very far away from each other regarding physical distance but there’s some kind of cultural understanding of values that I can clearly see identified between the two countries, which is quite nice to experience as well.

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We will keep you updated as COBE’s Scrivener Square and West Don Lands projects work their way through the planning process, but in the meantime, you can tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum threads, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.