UrbanToronto recently had the opportunity to sit down with Gary Switzer, CEO of MOD Developments, in the resplendent Massey Tower sales centre. Covering everything from Gary's childhood interest in all things architectural and urban up to his current developments, we are presenting the interview in three segments. This week we start with the foundational years and formative work experience before Gary broke into the development scene.

Lets start back at the beginning, tracing what has brought you to this point, to what got you interested in development, cities and architecture. We know you graduated from UofT’s Architecture school in 1978, but can you tell us what set you on that path in the first place?

I’ve always been interested in buildings. I was one of those geeky kids that had a Kodak Instamatic and was taking pictures throughout downtown. I used to go downtown with my friends, and still have pictures that I’ve posted online of buildings being demolished, such as the Temple Building at Richmond and Bay. I remember being with a friend of mine in 1964 while the New City Hall was under construction, and we went behind the hoarding and were playing there — I must have been twelve! It was all an adventure. I grew up in Midtown Toronto so in those days it wasn’t a big deal – parents just gave the kids a subway ticket and you’d go downtown, so I was always walking around taking pictures; I think I was always interested in buildings. 

Gary Switzer and interviewer Alex Corey, image by Craig White

You had quite the urban experience as a child! Toronto was experiencing a population and economic boom in the 60s and 70s, with new skyscraping bank towers rising through the core. What was UofT’s architecture schooling like in that period, and how did it affect your outlook on urban development and design? 

Interesting question. On one hand the architecture school was very engaged with the city, but on the other it was totally disengaged from the city. Our building – 230 College Street – was at College and Huron, and I started there in 1972 so you couldn’t avoid dealing with College and Spadina and places like the Silver Dollar or Grossman’s Tavern. The street was still transitioning from The Bagel and Moishe’s Tel Aviv to Chinese restaurants – it had an edge to it, probably as much as it has today - so you couldn’t help dealing with the city by being down there.

I remember that one of the first assignments we had as part of the new program under Peter Pragnell was that you had to analyze different institutions in the city in a group project, after which you would have to come back and present it to everyone else. The first institution that I had to analyze was the old Globe and Mail building at King and York; this was exactly the same time that Olympia and York announced First Canadian Place, so those older buildings were still there. We toured the Globe and Mail from the bottom to the top, and I wish I still had the photos and drawings. We had to analyze features like why the building’s presses were the basement - you used to be able to stand on York Street with these huge windows, and it was like in the 1930’s movies where you saw the newspapers going up and down the conveyor belt and they would literally be hot of the presses with all the papers dropping on the sidewalk where the trucks would then pick them up and go and distribute them - so we were not only looking at this building from the point of view as to how it functions, but also noting that it was a gem of a little Art Deco building with sculptures and stainless steel window frames.

At the time it was like nobody actually cared about it… well I shouldn’t say nobody actually, seeing as what was at risk was Old City Hall, Union Station, all the places that we think of now as so iconic; they could have been demolished in the 60s. That First Canadian Place block with the Toronto Star building, the old Bank of Montreal building, and the Globe and Mail building? Very few people made a peep about historic preservation on that block. By the time I was finished school in 1978 there had already been an evolution in the way of thinking about buildings. You look at the site planning for First Canadian Place versus Scotia Plaza; Scotia Plaza was all about saving the old Bank of Nova Scotia building, moving the Wood Gundy façade over to Adelaide and saving the façades on Yonge Street. That was in 1980, so in eight years things had evolved already.

Intersection of King and Bay in the 1960's, image sourced by thecharioteer

That’s a really interesting period of time, with a change of mindset in terms of the approach to heritage; attempting to balance the clean-slate approach of the International Style with the rise of PoMo, where we were trying to deal with the legacy of modernism.

I think one of the biggest influences of the time, and he’s still around, was George Baird. Baird was one of our professors at the university, and two of the buzzwords of the time were ‘typology’ and ‘morphology’, epitomized in those thick magazines that use to come out called Lotus, that were all about these guys like the New York 5 who were trying to analyze these ideas while George was trying to apply them urbanistically. He had us do an assignment in an area that was called South Midtown which is now north Jarvis Street, and we had to analyze the area. He would send the students out to pick a building and draw it out at the same scale. You’d have the Keg Mansion - which I think at the time was Julie’s - drawn at the same scale the Confederation Life Building on Bloor and you’d try to map and analyze the area, tracking how the city developed from Victorian house lots, to be assembled to apartment buildings, to whatever. There were no condos at the time but it was at the same time as the big battles of the 70s like North Saint Jamestown. and the hydro block at Beverly and Dundas. The Spadina Expressway was a little before that.

George was a big influence urbanistically because he also came out with “On Building Downtown”, the seminal study he was hired to do by the City where he analyzed all the things we take for granted now, like axial views on streets, or that Toronto is designed with north-south streets with major buildings at the top, looking down to the lake. I don’t think anyone had really analyzed the city to that extent as he did. A lot of what he analyzed made its way into the first official plan, up from the reform movement. I remember George would show a plan with the view up University with notes on buildings such as the Hyatt [which eventually became the Four Seasons] that stated ‘condition to be avoided’, which essentially meant that if we were really serious about these axial views then the zoning should be reflective of the fact that we have to protect them. For a while they did that with Old and New City Hall but then, you know, put your money where your mouth is: if you believe in something then do it, but if you don’t then don’t talk about it and then just let whatever happen.

As a recent graduate of the undergrad program it’s interesting to hear what the program was like then, especially in regard to studies such as the Jarvis Street work in the 70s and Baird/Myers' work on Vacant Lottery.

Don’t be romantic about it – there was a very anti-technical aspect at the school with a heavy focus on theory rather than actual drawing; at UofT they said you just have to think. There was no emphasis on structural or technical prowess, I guess they figured you’d learn that when you worked for an architect. You could talk about Le Corbusier and Gothic Revival, but could you actually do a proper wall section? It’s sort of like a lawyer who graduated from law school who doesn’t know how to do a lease. There was that kind of premise that did us a disservice. Waterloo was well known as they balanced it better - you’d get a good technical background as well as theory. I guess there was so much emphasis at the time on the masters of the Modern movement, especially Le Corbusier. I remember Peter Pragnell at the time loved doing these slideshows, showing that this car is the Temple of Paestum and this car is the Parthenon. He showed a recliner by Le Corbusier and the Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe, and said that the Barcelona chair is inferior as the main joint is so difficult and is not natural, where Le Corbusier’s assemblage of parts is natural. It’s sort of like, well, who gives a shit?

After graduating from UofT in the late 1970s you took a job at Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden Architects. WZMH is best known for their large-scale office tower developments. How did your work on projects there – Calgary’s Suncor Centre and Toronto’s Scotia Plaza were two large projects of that period – influence your philosophy of architecture? 

I don’t think it did really; when I graduated Webb Zerafa had a definite split between those who were doing design and those doing drawings. They used to be at 99 Yorkville in Cumberland Court so it was physical - the ground floor was all the shleppers on the drafting machines doing working drawings, upstairs on the balcony were the designers, and then there were 11 partners in their back offices. It was totally different from the Hariri Pontarini or KPMB type of offices today where it’s much more egalitarian. When I got hired I thought I was being hired for design work but it turned out it was for working drawings, which I didn’t mind because I needed my black book filled out. One of the guys I worked with was Siegfried Schmarje who worked at Page + Steele on Commerce Court, and he knew about details; think of those revolving doors going into Commerce Court where the glass curves, for example. He worked with I.M. Pei, working on things like how you do a detail on the granite floor so that the horizontal meets the vertical, especially around elevators. I spent two years doing that kind of stuff, and on one hand it’s mind-numbing, but on the other it’s treating these buildings like a fine watch. You can tell when you walk into a second-rate office building where they don’t think about stuff like that versus a Commerce Court or a TD Centre, and that was totally opposite from UofT.

I remember coming back from France having done a photo essay on the Maeght Foundation museum in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, designed by Josep Lluis Sert. The place is a gorgeous series of pavilions, trees, indoor and outdoor water features, a garden by Joan Miró. I gave a presentation talking about how they took sandstone tiles that were sort of Roman and how they fitted them all together, and one of the younger professors said “what are we talking so much about materials for, what’s the idea behind what Sert is trying to do here?” following which an older professor said “well why the fuck shouldn’t we be talking about materials? This is what we do as architects, saying sandstone should go against copper against etc.”. 

WZMH buildings from the past many years… they are what they are. Totally different is that Peter Dickinson building on Richmond that we think is gorgeous, but 20 years ago you’d think it was a dump, some 1960s piece of crap. Even somewhere like just to the south here, I had a conversation with Allied about what was done to the lower two floors of the Heintzman building [193 Yonge Street]. Look at the 60s photograph and you see that the whole second floor is glass from lot line to lot line, and then in the 70s when Marks and Spencer leased it they did all this granite on the front that might as well just be ripped off.

The Colonial, Bank of Commerce and Heintzman Building, image sourced by clash

The 70s really were about materiality; whether it is the marble at First Canadian Place or the granite at Scotia Plaza, material carried a meaning that might at times have bypassed better judgment.

It’s symbolism, really. At the same time though they’d tear down limestone buildings with ornate carvings that ended up in the graveyard at the Guild Inn

Who cares about Limestone when you could have marble, right?! So let’s continue on this journey of all things urban that you were embarking on – what triggered your departure from WZMH?

I remember speaking to one of the partners about my future and I realized I didn’t really have a future in a firm like that. It was explained to me that you’re either a brilliant designer – and I never thought of myself as a brilliant designer – or you’re the kind of guy that solves problems all the time, which didn’t interest me. I decided at that point that I wanted to think about becoming a developer but I didn’t know much about it. I went and saw Ron Soskolne, a former principal at Olympia and York who now has his own practice. I had five years as an architect and wanted to be a developer – I didn’t know anything, not even the difference between a zoning bylaw and an official plan, because you didn’t have to as an architect. He said to me that I should get a job in the planning department at City Hall and introduced me to a few of his contacts there. 

Gary Switzer, image by Craig White

I started at City Hall in 1985, which was a really interesting time as it was the second wave of condo boom in Toronto, and because you started getting buildings with smaller and more affordable suites as the thinking had really changed. When you think of Bay Street south of Bloor back in the 70s it was all zoned for office buildings, and Howard Cohen [now of Context Development] tells an interesting story about when he appeared on behalf of the City to change the zoning to mixed use. The Chairman of the Board said “Well Mr. Cohen, why would anybody want to live on Bay Street?” It didn’t make much sense, most of Bay Street at the time was car dealerships and parking lots.

In the early 80s the first condos were large empty-nester buildings like 1166 Bay, 110 Bloor, Renaissance Plaza, those big clunky buildings. In the mid-80s you started getting the Tridel's of the world doing Polo 1 and 2, Century Plaza, even the University Theatre condo. I stayed at city planning for two years and enjoyed it but got frustrated. When you’re working as a planner you’re just observing, as well as the fact that you’re essentially making other people money. Guys would come in and say, “I have zoning for 21 storeys, can I have 23?” and I’d say 'sure'. Management would get angry but in the end what’s the real difference? This was also at the time when we’d approved the addition to the Windsor Arms Hotel and all of a sudden the surrounding sites around Sultan and St. Thomas became soft, such as 1 St. Thomas. I’d really had enough, it was 1987 and I knew a bunch of developers so I began asking around, got a bunch of job offers and then Great Gulf — who I’d met through other people — came to me and they said they wanted to do downtown stuff, which none of these suburban builders were doing, except for Tridel and Conservatory Group. They said they wanted me to start a new division, so we did. We started the high-rise division at Great Gulf in 87 and I stayed there for 21 years. 

…and that's where we will leave it until next week, when we will examine Gary's time with Great Gulf Homes, followed by the start of his own company, MOD Developments. Comments are always welcome below!

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