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Canadian Architect

Leslie Jen
June 2009 | p.g 19-23

"Core Identity"

Two corporate offices in downtown Toronto reassert their respective identities through newly redesigned interior spaces.

PROJECT Torys LLP Law Offices, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects

In recent years, there has been an increasing level of sophistication apparent in the creation of a public image that positively reflects the values and interests of businesses in the corporate and commercial sector. Integral to this exercise in corporate identity and branding is the physical design of a company's office space, and the message it delivers to its employees, clients, and the population at large. Here, two businesses--an international mining company and a large corporate law firm--have undertaken major redesigns of their office spaces to accommodate current functions but also to communicate and clarify not only who they are, but what they do and how they do it.

The Toronto-Dominion Centre has long been established as the financial heart of the country and one of Canada's architectural icons. Comprised of six office towers and a low-rise banking pavilion, the TD complex is best known for its Mies van der Rohe design, the commission of which we are forever indebted to Phyllis Lambert. Though Mies (along with Bregman + Hamann and John B. Parkin Associates) was responsible only for the design of the plaza, the banking pavilion, the original TD Bank Tower (1967) and the Royal Trust Tower (1969), over the next two decades, the remaining four buildings were designed to be harmoniously consistent with their older siblings.

Within this prestigious complex, Torys LLP occupies 10 floors in the 36-storey TD Waterhouse Tower (1985) on the south side of Wellington Street across the road from Mies' original TD Bank Tower. Torys is a massive business and commercial law firm with offices in Toronto and New York, and with an impending lease expiration, debated on whether to move entirely or to conduct a substantial renovation to its existing space to better meet the firm's spatial requirements--and, more importantly, to refresh its identity and reputation for contemporary leadership and innovative spirit. After an extensive study was conducted with selected firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB), the choice was ultimately made to stay put and renovate. The scope of the project was more or less confined to a complete overhaul of the 32nd and 33rd floors, each ringing in at 30,000 square feet.

Revealing the characteristically understated good taste of KPMB, the redesign is in keeping with the generally staid conservatism of a law firm and also the gorgeously ascetic restraint of Mies' original vision. A neutral colour and material palette of dark walnut floors and millwork, fumed oak, marble slab, bronze accents, glass, and matte white walls provides the perfect backdrop for an impressive art collection, and to better accept magnificent views of the lake and the city along with abundant natural daylight.

By consolidating all client functions on the 33rd floor and one-third of the 32nd floor, the firm was able to eliminate redundancies and "demonstrate its commitment to providing a high level of client service." Two impressively scaled conference spaces occupy prime real estate on the 33rd floor. A north-facing multi-conference "room" can be divided into as many as five separate spaces through articulated partition walls that fold up into the ceiling. Moreover, this space enjoys views of Mies' darkly austere TD Tower across the street. Divisible into four separate spaces, the opposite conference suite occupies the southwest corner of the 33rd floor, capturing glorious views of Lake Ontario.

The conventional image of a law firm as an old boys' club of tufted leather sofas, stinky cigars, 16-hour workdays and an insatiable appetite for billable hours is blown away here, for one could mistake the 33rd floor for a cool, contemporary art gallery. Torys has a long history of collecting art which began in the 1970s, but which really accelerated in the mid-'90s when they retained the services of art consultant Fela Grunwald. The firm communicates its progressive culture and creatively innovative approach to the practice of law through the acquisition and display of art and through its support of artists.

Consequently, the firm now owns over 400 pieces of cutting-edge contemporary Canadian art, much of which hangs on the walls of the lengthy corridors which form deliberately continuous loops of circulation. These white-walled corridors were designed extra-wide to provide the requisite distance from which to view the art, which further amplifies the gallery feel. Comprising all scales and types, the pieces hang at continuous intervals down the corridors, forming a pleasing rhythm as one moves through the space.

Capitalizing upon the role of art in the firm's identity, the renovation project presented an opportunity to commission fresh contemporary Canadian artwork to help define and embellish the folding partition walls in the aforementioned conference spaces. From submissions by five invited artists, pieces by Montreal-based Pascal Grandmaison and Toronto resident Robert Fones were selected. Grandmaison's massively scaled close-up photographs of an androgynous face are utterly captivating in the north conference area, and one doesn't know where to look: the photos or the fabulous view of the Mies tower to the north? In the south-facing conference zone, Fones adapts text from Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote and renders it in barely legible script, superimposing it over photographic images of a blue, blue Lake Ontario, echoing the exhilarating views of the same lake at the city's edge below.

Clearly, it is no longer sufficient to hire an architect to just design a nice office. The demands being made on design firms require a clear understanding and articulation of what the client represents and what that client chooses to communicate. The design for Agnico-Eagle Mines is very clear about tangibly referencing what the company's business is all about. In the Torys office, while the design is less literal, it does an excellent job of conveying the ideology of the firm, its process, and its identity. CA

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