This past Tuesday leaders in Toronto's urban design and development community came together at the Art Gallery of Ontario for an intimate Pug Talk entitled 'The Future of the Glass Tower?' Moderated by Spacing publisher Matthew Blackett, the panel featured Graeme Stewart of E.R.A. Architects, Sam Crignano of Cityzen Developments, and David Pontarini of Hariri Pontarini Architects. All three offered unique perspectives on the past, present, and future of the glass tower, speaking individually before engaging in a spirited discussion in response to Blackett's and the audience's questions.

Graeme Stewart, Sam Crignano, David Pontarini and Matthew Blackett, image by Craig White

Graeme Stewart, coming from the a firm that focuses on heritage conservation, spoke about the history of tower design in Toronto, referencing the thousands of modern slab apartments that were built in the 1960s and 70s that are now the focus of the City's Tower Renewal Project. His assessment was that, historically, design has come down to fashion versus resiliency: the 'tower in the park' may have been fashionable at the time, but today they are failing to meet many of their residents' urban needs in term of retail access and mobility. Stewart said that 'tower in the parking lot' would be a more accurate term today to describe the results of "heavy-handed policy and a ready market and a ready consumer base… with Canada coming of age at the end of the war". He also challenged the development community to look at the long-term lifecycle of new towers, including affordability, the sustainability of window-wall systems and the accommodation of growing families.

Sam Crignano, developer behind L Tower, Waterlink at Pier 27, and Absolute World in Mississauga, took the perspective that contemporary design trends are driven primarily by the market. "What we build is largely determined by the demand of the marketplace. Our purchasers want views; they want bright units. The marketplace recently has seen demand for smaller units… we need to provide our purchasers with greater fenestration." The future, he stated, lies in the architectural flexibility and attractability of glass and aluminum. Crignano noted that the use of the window-wall cladding technique instead of the curtain wall—which many consider to be more attractive—has merely been the result of the high cost of curtain wall systems, but that has changed recently. Interestingly, according to Crignano, Chinese manufacturers entered the GTA market in recent years with curtain wall technologies at close to the same cost as window wall systems, and since then North American curtain wall manufacturers have responded to the competition, driving the price for curtain wall down.

L Tower; curtain wall on the left, window wall on the right, image by Jack Landau

Craignano declared that the longevity of glass tower cladding is not determined by the glass nor the aluminum, but by the gaskets and seals that fit it all tightly together. "They degrade over time, like a rubber tire on a car." In response to a question on whether the combined might of Toronto's development industry could drive manufacturers to push gasket and seal technology to last longer, Crignano deferred again to the market, saying that Toronto developers do not build cheap buildings; "We are in for the long-term, we have our reputations on the line". He referenced L Tower, for which Cityzen selected an international architect and advanced materials which increased costs, but which was met with increased value for purchasers through design.

Similarly, David Pontarini mentioned floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which dominate the majority of new towers in Toronto at the expense of 'punched' windows, arguing that purchasers want as much natural light as physically possible if they're going to be buying a unit that may not have any windows on three out of four sides. Pontarini discussed what he termed the 'third generation' of glass tower design, and predicted the rise in influence of a 'stronger set of performance guidelines' which will dictate the way we use and inhabit new spaces. One part of this will be a shift towards triple-pane glass glazing. "There's a whole issue of cost and performance that we struggle with in the industry... buildings like the TD Bank building and First Canadian Place are starting to experience the kind of aging process that comes naturally with these buildings. [...] So what's being built today probably reflects most accurately what we in the industry can provide in terms of technologies and systems, so I think it kind of reflects the values of all of society right now. Our values are changing and we're [all] starting to demand more energy efficiency in our buildings... and I think the industry will shift, but it's not going to shift without the kind of impetus and push we're going to get from politicians, from the development industry, and from users."

Audience for the Pug Talk: Future of the Glass Tower, image by Craig White

On the relationship between unit size and exterior design, Pontarini expressed that he believes "mid-rise projects are going to pick up the slack for the units that need to be bigger and for people who want to have a different relationship to the street," and Crignano agreed that family accommodation is and will continue to be a major industry challenge. Pontarini also discussed the way in which he and his firm approach projects from the start, referencing 1 Yonge and the desire to use both curtain wall and innovative solid paneling to provide greater expression.

In response to a question from Gary Switzer of MOD Developments on whether policy, development restrictions and so on are really relevant in the context of low architectural skill at some firms, Pontarini said that he was positive about the future, particularly with the introduction of formerly institutionally and commercially focused architects to the residential sector, as well as the rise of truly mixed-use projects, such as the Globe and Mail Lands project. Crignano also said that he saw a role for developers to push architects towards better and better design.

While there was disagreement amongst the speakers over who should primarily drive better design—the market, government, developers, or architects—all expressed hope that the industry will continue to innovate in the context of Toronto's amazing building boom.

Details of the next Pug Talk will be released soon. In the meantime, visit the Pug Awards website to vote for the best and worst in Toronto design for 2013. The Pug Awards ceremony will be held on June 26 at the Shops of Summerhill.

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