From the Globe, by Lisa Rochon:
Winning design returns Don River to its rightful place in the city
The Globe and Mail
May 9, 2007
Imagine the Keating Channel as a generous reflecting pool with people living on its banks the way they do in Chicago, Amsterdam and Venice. Send a great green tongue of parkland into the lake. Dig up the dusty land of Toronto's Port Lands to create a meandering estuary with an island in the middle of it.
These are the key design moves in a 21st-century scheme for returning the Don River to its rightful place in Toronto - a triumph of design both lyrical and efficient. The vision belongs to Michael Van Valkenburgh, a Harvard university professor with a glittering reputation as an intelligent healer of the modern city. Together with Behnisch Architects, Greenberg Consultants and Great Eastern Ecology, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) was named yesterday as the winner of the Lower Don Lands design competition.
It's a win not only for MVVA, but for the hundreds of citizens who have fought for the past 30 years for the reinvention of the Don River. And it's a win for the City of Toronto. The international competition, organized by the increasingly impressive Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp., recognizes the deep loss of the Don River, a fact of nature rendered nearly invisible by the Don Valley Parkway, industries and regular flow of storm water into its waters.
What once provided the geographic splendour of the original town of York, the Don River has suffered countless abuses over more than a century.
The neck of the Don River was broken in the 1880s, its big, powerful waters forced into a 90-degree right turn through the man-made Keating Channel.
Ever since, the idea of nature has been beaten out of the river.
The brilliance of the MVVA scheme lies in its design clarity. This may have to do with Prof. Van Valkenburgh's extensive experience healing the placelessness of tough, highly urbanized cities. He is designing one of the major sections of the Hudson River Park in New York, as well as Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed with rocky beaches and floating pathways as a "meditation" on the connection between the East River and Brooklyn's shoreline.
Other competing schemes, such as the one produced by the Boston-based firm Stoss with Brown + Storey Architects and ZAS Architects, broke apart the concrete walls of the Keating Channel in order to suggest a landscape virgin and untamed - something pre-industrial - with an interest in reconstructing the vast marshland delta that once sprawled from the mouth of the Don River.
The scheme by Weiss/Manfredi Architects, an inspired New York-based partnership responsible for the stunning Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, offers the most joyous waterfront architecture of the four competing schemes. Its outlook pavilion - a blade of glass - seduces the public to the tip of an elongated pier and gives us reason to want to go there.
But, rather than leaving the Keating Channel alone and interpreting it as a Venetian canal, the team opted to curve the river into the Lower Don meander, with a recreational valley of open, public space dipping further south in the Port Lands. This is a lovely idea that recalls another, more bucolic era - but getting there requires tons of money, more than the $160-million the TWRC currently has in the bank, and risks a nostalgia for a place and a time that is long gone. Torontonians are better off looking ahead, not back.
As with the other finalists, the winning scheme also pushes the proposed and much delayed Commissioners Park to a site further south, removing it from contaminated lands to merge with the wilderness areas proposed by MVVA. The $60-million set aside by the TWRC for Commissioners Park, designed by Montreal-based landscape architect Claude Cormier, will now be mostly dedicated to the naturalization of the Don River. Claude Cormier will not be involved in the newly located Commissioners Park, said Christopher Glaisek, vice-president of development for the TWRC.
The reinvention of the Don River and the areas surrounding it represents a massive undertaking, one that could take up to 30 years to accomplish.
What's significant is that the TWRC has effectively led on the need to establish a strong network of public spaces before opening the Port Lands to development. The Task Force to Bring Back the Don deserves big kudos for its tireless lobbying and campaigns to restore the river little by little. And, with the MVVA scheme, says Mr. Glaisek, signs of serious remediation could be evident at the southern tip of the Don River within five years.
Photographer Ed Burtynsky, acclaimed for his large-scale images of industry's impact on natural landscapes, sat on the competition jury, along with architect Bruce Kuwabara, landscape architect Charles Waldheim, Montreal architect RenÃ©e Daoust and the legendary Canadian engineer Morden Yolles.
Together they struggled to find a design that would reclaim some of the natural beauty of the Don River while pointing the vastly underutilized area of the Port Lands to efficient and thoughtful redevelopment. Along the way, there were surprises. The proposal by the European team, led by the Zurich-based Atelier Girot, offered the greatest number of architectural weirdness, with long street corridors lined with tall, slightly kinked towers.
Torontonians are only now coming to terms with being lake people. The seasonal delights at the Toronto Music Garden have provided an inspiring place to visit. The boardwalk and piers have been redesigned at Harbourfront. And West 8, a leading landscape architecture firm from Holland, has recently won the international competition to connect the city's central waterfront with a wooden boardwalk, maple trees and pedestrian bridges intended to gracefully lift visitors up and over the slips. Soon enough, we'll be able to dip our toes into Lake Ontario while sitting on the edge of the HtO park at the foot of Spadina Avenue. To imagine ourselves as a river people will require another reinvention of self, another leap of faith. As Jim once told Huck, his future was drifting down the river. But, in the case of Toronto, bringing nature back into the city is an idea that is moving gracefully upstream.
Credit: SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL