Last week in Part 1 of our interview with Prishram Jain, principal at TACT Architecture, we learned about Jain's education and early career. This week we delve into how those experiences shape what the firm is doing today.
Tell us about breaking out on your own and setting up TACT Architecture with Michael Krus?
Forty years of age for me was always a target to be on my own by. After finishing Block 24 with Concord, I moved on and set up practice with Michael with whom I had worked for many many years. We set TACT up in July 2007 and we became an architectural practice in 2009. That was almost five and a half years ago which now seem like only months. We are a small practice because we choose not to do construction documents for large projects. We have several companies with whom we work quite well, which do all our construction documents. We monitor and manage from the outset through the approvals process to the final specifications. If we did do our own construction documents we would probably have over forty staff but we would rather focus on the design and the approvals, which we are very good at. Could we be equally good at construction documents? Probably, but there are other firms out there that are also very good at that.
Everything I believe and practice now as a principle at TACT Architecture is seeded in the idea that it doesn’t cost any more to get an excellent architectural or urban design solution from an average one. The excellence of the solution depends on two factors: the knowledge of the Client, and the talent of the Designer. If both can work well together, it makes all the difference. It doesn’t cost the Client any more to select better-suited architects and in many cases, it can cost them less. In the context of our own work, I don’t believe that the buildings cost our clients any more than the average. Our buildings don’t scream; they are polite, handsome insertions into the urban environment. I think that a truly beautiful city consists of a collage of individually beautiful but quiet structures… relatively few screaming: ‘architecture!' I think an excellent example is the building we just finished at 2 Gladstone.
It’s a handsome, polite urban intervention which asserts itself but doesn’t take over the street. Our goal at TACT is to do those sorts of polite insertions that, when you look at them carefully under a magnifying glass, you're able to see that somebody’s thought about this or that, somebody’s concerned about the heights and the cornice lines and somebody’s paid attention to the size of the windows and materiality…
It’s a single entity contributing to a greater whole.
That’s right. Now of course, there is a place and a time for buildings that do scream and there are any number of architects that do that quite well. The kind of architecture we are practising currently however, is one that is reflective of the fact that we are not yet mature enough to do buildings that scream. One needs to be prolific to be able to do that. The 100th time you do something, you are going to be much better at it than the second time. So, for the time being, I think we haven’t quite earned that right yet. We’re not at that 100th building just quite yet.
Creating sharp and modern buildings which are less-showy but improve the quality of the city’s urban fabric is what both aA and KPMB embrace and do really, really well, no?
(Laughs) well it’s no coincidence that those are the only two other architectural firms that I’ve worked and been trained at…
There also seems to be an evolutive connection between those early employers and the ideology and aesthetic that TACT is pursuing now. The Villas at 18 Yorkville for example, which is still one of the best mid-rise projects in the city, has elements which can be traced into your more recent work; the way the building meets the street, the way it’s proportioned…
It’s a structure that was built before the City’s mid-rise guidelines were adopted and is one that often gets lost because it’s not screaming and few people bother to document it. In fact, the city has used many of our buildings as part of various urban design guidelines such as The Avenues and Mid-Rise Buildings Study. Ottawa’s urban design guidelines use Ideal Lofts at College and Bathurst which is another one of the buildings I did for Context.
It also preceded the mid-rise guidelines and is often cited as precedent for angular planes and how to step down to residential neighbourhoods. There’s also a more direct connection between our current work and the Scollard building you mentioned earlier because a project we’re doing now, 707 Dovercourt, has taken many of its cues from Scollard in terms of its massing and proportioning.
TACT’s sensitivity to context and a greater urban fabric is evident in the unique plan which will connect The Carnaby with Two and 8 Gladstone with a number of new laneways and public spaces. Tell us about TACT’s vision and how the city responded?
The inspiration for The Carnaby comes of course from Carnaby Street in London where you have a great number of highly individual buildings. Funny enough, we were actually taking a similar approach prior to the marketing of the building. It was always our intent to break The Carnaby down into smaller parts which look as distinct and separate as possible. This way, they appear as a collection of structures as opposed to one monolithic form. They all have different balcony treatments, different glazing and cladding systems and different materials which reflect different uses and unit types on the interior.
On the west side, we are proposing a new park which will feature an Arthur Erickson-like bike path down a set of stairs. The site has a natural grade which we wanted to capitalize on so there are several sets of stairs stepping down from the north end of the site and creating a natural performance area. West of The Carnaby, in the centre of the scheme we’ve inserted a laneway. Here we’re applying a special surface treatment and suggesting to the city that any kind of assembly of the parcels west of 11 Peel should have a building with an urban condition that addresses the driveway.
We originally worked on this site for Context Development about four years ago but back then, the city wouldn’t even entertain the idea of converting these lands to residential use. Years later, Streetcar Developments picked up the site at 2 Gladstone, then shortly after, the site next door at 8 Gladstone. Most recently, they acquired 11 Peel - The Carnaby site - which has a frontage on Queen and which Streetcar managed to pick up for much less money than was being discussed four years ago.
There is a lot of development pressure along this part of the railway corridor and many lots have been rezoned from employment to mixed-use and residential - the lot across the street for example, which is being handled by RAW Design. We’re putting in a fairly significant Metro store, an LCBO and a coffee shop. Those tenants give the city something that they’re looking for in terms of an employment use for the land. In addition, Streetcar is dedicating a significant amount of space at ground level, on both the west and east sides to be cultural space not unlike what we're doing with Urbancorp at The Edge.
A number of recent newspaper articles celebrated the fact that Block, a townhouse project in Little Italy had been redesigned when the builder discovered that buyers would respond more positively to a distinctly modern design than the faux-Victorian they had proposed. At the same time, you’ve been on the other side of a similar debate when TACT was asked to refine a townhouse project to be more ‘contextually appropriate.' Do you believe that Block is part of a broader shift in Toronto towards bolder architectural statements or more of a one-off case where something ‘different’ was more marketable?
That’s a great question and I have many thoughts on the subject. We are actually doing three townhouse infill projects in the east end. Fortunately, we were able to convince our client, Urbancorp, to do something modern. Each of the three went through a separate approvals process involving public consultation sessions. One of these sites is not in a heritage district but it is surrounded by turn-of-the-century homes… but at the meetings for all three, in addition to the usual issues of parking and density and height, aesthetics was also a main course of discussion. We must have had four community meetings for each of these three sites and at the first one, the public used language that bordered on offensive regarding how horrible the locals thought the project was; really visceral stuff, questioning my schooling, asking ‘how could you’ and so on. A year and a half and four meetings later, after going through several different iterations of the design which responded to local concerns, at a very friendly public meeting not long ago, they embraced a scheme not too far from the original design. Our approach to it was that because they all live in beautiful older homes, a modern group of buildings opposite them would only give the original houses more significance, not less. We are exemplifying the original houses, showcasing them by providing contrast. In fact, the cues for the new project have been taken from their buildings; the scale, the sensibility, the materiality is derived from that rich context. It took a long time and a lot of effort to convince the community that that was the right thing to do. We owe it to our Client that they stuck through with the process and the intent. Not all clients would have done so.
The second part of my answer to your question regarding the broader shift is that the people who do prefer modern are finally being able to afford it. Whereas in the past, the people who preferred it or admired it didn’t have the wherewithal to demand it or the opportunity to seek it out. If the demand is not there, the supply won’t be there. Finally now, mid-to-late-thirties singles and couples with similar tastes and styles are finally in a position where they can ask for homes that express the way that they feel. I have always found it interesting that on the interior, people are often willing to be as modern as possible as it’s more of a private expression. Whereas the design of the exterior of ones’ home, has always required a stronger belief in their commitment to their taste.
With that, there’s a deeper conversation about the planning process in Toronto, especially with regard to the role of the OMB. It seems to me that what you’re saying is that development is a more encompassing thing which should encourage more debate and discussion before final decisions are made?
I think that planning in the City of Toronto is more planning by administration rather than planning by vision. Rather than inspiring and guiding developers and their architects, they're administrating them. And that’s unfortunate because once it becomes a legal game where “I’m entitled to this, and I’m entitled to that” and somewhere in there, there's a little bit of architecture. Otherwise it’s all about the dynamics of size: how much, how high, how dense, and it’s not about the vision, it’s about the administration.
Now, let me be clear: it’s not our Planning Department’s failure either. They are incredibly short staffed and they don’t have the tools. They’re not given the power like in Vancouver for instance, where there's a different municipal political structure. There, the design review panel has the power to award bonuses to a developer. So for example, if one proposes an innovative design or a significant benefit to the community, the City can respond with a reward of more density or height. This creates a culture with Developers of being expected to excel in terms of design as it will result in anticipated rewards.
It’s almost painful here in Toronto because I can give you any number of political stories which overshadow the design or aesthetic conversation.
For example, I worked on a project near High Park and I spent several years on that building because it was such a complicated approval. We spent years getting the approval of every City department from Planning and Urban Design to Forestry to Garbage and Services, you name it… we ultimately received their sign-off. So the recommendation from Planning goes to council suggesting that they adopt what was being proposed. Unfortunately, the local councillor recommended that council turn down the positive recommendation that had taken much effort to achieve and had been funded by taxpayer dollars. For all of that work to happen and to finally be awarded a positive report from every department, and then have the local councillor urge the other councillors to turn it down was disheartening. The OMB, [which is non-partisan], does not have to answer to unfounded local political pressures and evaluates projects on their specific criteria. In the end, the OMB approved the proposal exactly as it was designed. I spent 4 years on that particular project and it just goes to show that in such a political process, there was very little in there about design.
Now Councillor Wong-Tam is trying to abolish the OMB, or at least have its jurisdiction end outside of Toronto.
My comments about all this is that it’s unfortunate that in Toronto, our political structure has a lot to do with the outcome of aesthetics in the city. In other cities like Vancouver, the political structure does not interfere as specifically with design process. There, the planning department has the power to give bonuses, to give height for better materials and more inventive architecture; ‘you set it back this much and give us a wider sidewalk and in return, you can get something else.' Here planning doesn’t have that power.
In that vein, the notion of a ‘Toronto Style’ is something which is hotly debated on UrbanToronto. If such a school exists, where would you situate TACT within that context?
Architecture is a reflection of our culture and in Toronto, we’re not only Canadians, we are Torontonians. We are polite, competent people. I think our resulting environment is a reflection of who we are. It’s the truest form of a reflection of us as Torontonians. Our forms therefore are polite and competent and reflective of us…[us referring to the collective us]. It’s a bit erratic, it’s a bit eclectic but fundamentally it’s a polite sophisticated style which is shaped by our planning policies and our by-laws.
I also think there is a new young demographic group that is coming into social and financial maturity. They are and will continue to push the envelope… to expect more from our architects and desire better for our communities.
It’s no surprise that Toronto is in the midst of an explosive building boom. What projects outside of those your office is working on excite you?
I would say the Pan Am Games site. There you have both of my alma mater [KPMB and aA] working together not only on the design of buildings, but also the overall neighbourhood. Very rarely do you get the opportunity to have talented architects working together to produce a master-planned community. Here you have a very competent master-plan and you have competent architects producing competent individual buildings – it has all the ingredients for being successful, beautiful and a place Toronto should be proud of. I only wish I was playing a role in it as well… Not being involved however, I am comforted that the firms involved are very competent. I can look forward to seeing it go up, being there, to spending time there. I look forward to being proud of it as a Torontonian.
UrbanToronto thanks Mr. Jain very much for taking the time to sit down with us. TACT Architecture's new offices, still being finsihed, are pictured above in their rear laneway setting in Little Italy.
We would love to get your feedback on this article as well as Part 1; you may leave a comment below. You will also find linked below UrbanToronto dataBase pages for a number of the TACT Architecture-designed projects mentioned in the article. Many more images and more information about those projects can be found there.