"I really love Toronto," Daniel Libeskind tells me. "It's a beautiful city, and it's growing so quickly, and really becoming a global cultural centre. And the diversity is incredible," the architect continues. Returning to Toronto for the global CityAge conference, Libeskind is full of praise for the city, offering an optimistic—if guarded—vision of the future.
Based in New York, the Polish-American architect ranks among the world's most recognized—and recognizable—designers. In 2001, the opening of Berlin's Jewish Museum solidified Libeskind's global reputation, with the structure's startlingly expressive, deconstructivist aesthetic garnering widespread acclaim. Since then, Libeskind has designed a wealth of showpiece projects across the world, including the master plan for the World Trade Centre site in Lower Manhattan. Here in Toronto, Libeskind led the design for the expanded Royal Ontario Museum, as well as Front Street's 58-storey L Tower.
At October's CityAge conference, Libeskind will speak on the theme of 'Density Desire Design — Masterplanning around the world.' In an "era of cities," Libeskind stresses the crucial role that architecture and master planning play in shaping urban environments and—by extension—socio-economic orders. "I don't divide master planning from architecture," he explains, "I see them both as part of the same art."
For Libeskind, master planning and architectural design both work to shape the human experience. Creating healthy, dynamic new environments requires an "organic intertwining" of both disciplines, Libeskind argues. "It's about making cities livable and beautiful, which really comes down to the public realm, and the experience at the human scale."
"We shouldn't understand public space as just the ground level, though," he adds, "it extends up, and the design of the building above—especially along the first five floors—influences how that space is experienced." To Libeskind, these spaces are where architecture and master planning must work together.
"With cities becoming the world's economic engines, we have to think more seriously about the impacts of culture and urban design," Libeskind argues. "Cultural institutions have a positive effect on their neighbourhoods and their communities," he adds, "as do public spaces, of course. When we talk about greenery, parks, and the public realm, we're also talking about people's health, about communities, about economics. It's vital, and we need to do better."
Luckily, "Toronto has embraced urban density, and the region has smart policies in place to manage growth and prevent horizontal sprawl," Libeskind notes, celebrating the Province's "progressive urban growth policies." The architect adds that "the city's changed so much in the time I've known it. When I lived in Toronto in the 70s, it was a very different place. Even the neighbourhood around the ROM… it's become much more of a cultural centre in the space of a few years."
But what about the city's architecture? For many of Toronto's new-build towers, a lack of architectural diversity, and, arguably, a lack of commitment to design excellence, has led to new urban landscapes that—in places at least—lack the sort of dynamism that Libeskind preaches. Is that caused by a lack of investment, or a market that's yet to fully mature? "Not necessarily."
"I'm not a believer that you need a lot of money for good architecture. If I had gold, I might still use concrete," Libeskind notes. "Planning and government have to demand it," he argues, stressing that good design is often more a matter of attention and civic priority than developer coffers. "Look, every city has its planning challenges, and Toronto is no different," says Libeskind, emphasizing that opportunities for good urban design are still abundant. "In a place like Toronto, where there is so much energy, and there are many, many creative people, it has to be possible."
Daniel Libeskind will be speaking at the CityAge Conference on Friday, October 7th. More information about the event—which runs October 6th and 7th—is available in our preview editorial, as well as the CityAge website, which includes a full itinerary of speakers and discussions. This year, UrbanToronto is CityAge's official media partner, so keep an eye out for our reporting from the conference.
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