Toronto, by many standards, has burst onto the world stage as a global city. Often cited as one of the most livable cities on the globe, Toronto's success is evident in its economic prosperity, diversity, and cultural institutions. And in the world of architecture, the success of a global city is often reflected by who designs its buildings; you know you've made it when the international starchitects are in town.
Toronto had a glimpse of celebrity during its coming-of-age in the postwar era. Following Finnish architect Viljo Revell's striking City Hall, the likes of international superstars Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and I.M. Pei graced the skyline with their iconic TD and CIBC towers. Things quieted down through the latter part of the 20th century, but since the mid-2000s, Toronto's international architecture scene is booming. Many of the profession's big names have arrived here: Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster, Snøhetta, and Jeanne Gang, to name a few.
Within the contemporary global scene, one country in particular has produced an impressive roster of internationally-renowned architecture firms over the past decade: the tiny Scandinavian country of Denmark. Known as the one of the happiest countries on earth, home of smørrebrød and pastries galore, Denmark's population hovers around 5.8 million people, yet it is leading the design world in architecture, urbanism, and landscape design.
The Danish style can often be described as having a striking yet humble simplicity. The focus tends to be on a strong, well-defined form and a simple material palette. Clean lines, textured surfaces, crisp details, and a single broad concept that is carried through the building inside and out, start to finish. The result is a strong idea that is easily understood, a visually-stimulating appearance either through its stark minimalism or its busy repetition, and a well-constructed building that is pleasing to the eye. Jørn Utzon, the great Danish Modernist best known for the Sydney Opera House, brought Danish architecture to the international stage, and a roster of contemporary architecture firms are now building on that reputation.
Luckily for us, the Danes have arrived in Toronto, and they bring with them their brand of architecture that has certainly made an impact on the local development scene. Below we profile four Danish firms and their Toronto projects, and how their influence is changing the architecture scene throughout the city.
Founded in Aarhus, Denmark in 1986, 3XN - named after its three founding partners, all whose last name is Nielsen - has built a reputation of providing an innovative spin on rather ordinary programs. They are known as game-changers in educational and institutional buildings, redefining how buildings can influence learning and well-being, while also producing atypical housing developments with a human focus. In 2007, the firm established a new innovation unit of their company called GXN, which focuses on research and experimentation with new materials and technologies in architecture. The company mantra emphasizes that architecture shapes behaviour.
In Toronto, 3XN has four projects underway, each of them residential developments of varying scales. They are already making their mark with Hines and Tridel's Bayside community, where they partnered with local firm Kirkor Architects to design the Aquabella and Aqualuna mid-rises, both of which are now under construction. Aquabella is an L-shaped building featuring stepped terraces and a stacked-box aesthetic where splashes of wood add texture and variance to the white and grey facade. The human-scaled terraces and 'outdoor rooms' are an attempt to package the advantages of a single-family home into a multi-unit building.
With Aqualuna, 3XN took the stepped terrace form and added a whole lot of flair to it. Inspired by its prominent waterfront location, the wave-like balconies and bronzed aluminum cladding evoke a myriad of nautical themes and are sure to create a landmark anchoring the Bayside community. Aqualuna takes a fairly simple building typology and transforms it with two small formal gestures - the stepped 'peaks' and the undulating balconies - to create something unique.
Two other larger projects are in the early stages of design. 3XN has again partnered with Hines and Kirkor for a development at 64-86 Bathurst Street, just south of King. Much of what was tested at Aquabella can be seen repeated here, albeit at a much larger scale.
But at Church and Wellesley, 3XN is reaching for the sky, with their only tower project in the city being designed alongside Graziani + Corazza Architects and ONE Properties. This development stands out for its extensive pre-application consultations with the community regarding the design of the podium. The attention to detail given to the interaction of the building at street level embodies 3XN's people-first approach, who hope to create a positive addition to the Church-Wellesley Village that gives back more to the community than it takes.
Relatively new to the scene, COBE Architects was founded in 2005 by Danish architect Dan Stubbergaard and German architect Vanessa Miriam Carlow. The name derives from the first two letters of the founders' home towns - Copenhagen and Berlin. In a mere 13 years, COBE have made a name for themselves through high-profile institutional and infrastructural projects, tackling major libraries, museums, train stations, and commercial buildings across Denmark and Europe. Expanding into large-scale master plans has provided a smooth transition into residential development, which has now landed them in Toronto.
COBE is involved in two developments in Toronto, one of which is ruffling a few feathers with the locals. Scrivener Court, adjacent to Summerhill subway station, is led by Tricon and Diamond Corp with designs from COBE alongside Graziani + Corazza Architects. Much like 3XN's buildings, Scrivener Court presents a mash-up of a Toronto glass-clad pencil tower with a Danish flair for smaller-scale, brick-clad formalism. The cascading tower appears as a stacked-up pile of increasingly taller rectangular volumes to break up its massing, while deep punched-out windows add shadow and a relatable scale to the facades. While locals take issue with its height and scale, its massing shows a sensitivity to context - a hallmark of COBE's design approach.
Down in the West Don Lands, Block 8 was recently unveiled to be a collaboration of COBE and architectsAlliance for developers Tricon, Dream, and Kilmer. The trio of buildings appear unique amongst Toronto's housing stock. The simple formal treatment of the facades - the angled recesses of the podium windows, the curving flairs of the upper towers - and the simple two-material palette represents a clear contextual nod to the scale and image of the neighbouring Distillery District, while creating something that stands out in its own right.
Henning Larsen Architects
The oldest firm on our list, Henning Larsen Architects was founded in Copenhagen in 1959 by the late Henning Larsen. Over the decades, their portfolio has expanded to include everything from master plans to corporate headquarters, embassies, concert halls, residential developments, schools, and government buildings. Recently, they have been garnering international attention alongside their Danish counterparts for their edgy formalism and facade treatments, and have brought their unique approach to two very high-profile projects in Toronto.
Henning Larsen burst onto the local scene when they were awarded top prize in the international competition to design the new Etobicoke Civic Centre. Teaming up with Adamson Associates, they presented an intriguing proposal for a collection of angled boxes varying in height and huddled together to frame a central civic plaza. The subtle play with the massing of the building creates several eye-catching moments where corners punch out from the pile, balancing each other to orchestrate an overall harmonious composition. The cladding is uniform throughout, with vertical fins that vary in density and rhythm, placing the emphasis squarely on the form of the building.
More recently, Henning Larsen has been brought on to the design team for First Gulf's East Harbour, the massive redevelopment of the former Unilever soap factory site. Henning Larsen's role on the project is as an 'ideas generator', and their impact has already been felt with some favourable revisions to the master plan. It remains uncertain whether they will have a direct hand in designing any of East Harbour's buildings, but their tendency for outside-of-the-box formal exercises would be most welcome.
Bjarke Ingels Group
Last but not least, the most famous of the Danish firms is Bjarke Ingels Group, better known as BIG. Founded in 2005 by Bjarke Ingels following a brief partnership as PLOT Architects, the firm and its founder exploded onto the international scene and have since done nothing short of revolutionize the profession in little over a decade. BIG has broken the mould of Danish architecture, abandoning the humility in favour of a loud, expressive form that screams architecture in your face. Their unapologetic diagram-turned-building aesthetic takes simple, logical ideas rooted in context and the human scale and transforms them into unconventional, unusual, yet visually stunning structures. While Danish society praises the power of the collective, BIG stands alone as the loudest and most influential voice in the room.
Their creative brand has landed in Toronto, and Westbank and Allied's KING Toronto has been grabbing headlines since it was first unveiled. Teaming up with Diamond Schmitt Architects, the stacked mountain on King West takes its influences from Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 in Montreal, while its courtyard form is a response to the local urban context. The undulating form is a first for Toronto and is a distinctly BIG aesthetic, but perhaps even more unique is their proposal to clad the building entirely in glass block. Formally and materially groundbreaking, the Danish influence of a strong formal language combined with a simple textured material palette can still be seen, albeit amplified beyond that of COBE's subdued contextualism or Henning Larsen's simplified forms.
Bolstered by the recent Unzipped exhibition, where Westbank brought BIG's Serpentine Pavilion to Toronto - the first time any Serpentine Pavilion has travelled outside of London's Hyde Park - BIG's KING Toronto looks set to inject a jolt of energy into Toronto's signature glass box aesthetic.
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The four Danish firms building in Toronto each bring a distinct flavour of design to the local architecture scene. We often criticize ourselves for the repetitiveness of our buildings, but there is something different about the projects shown above. The standard curtain walls and developer-driven layouts have been given the Danish treatment, and the result is decidedly above average. Whether it be a clearer response to context, a unique massing and form, or an innovative material and facade treatment, it is clear that the Danes have arrived, and they've brought their architecture with them.
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