"Toronto is on a roll. At least, its architecture is. Not only are new office towers finally appearing on the skyline, they are doing so with unusual aplomb.
There are exceptions, of course, but the city has been transformed by a series of glass skyscrapers that remind us just how much life remains in a form that now goes back a long way.
The most recent example is Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg’s PwC Tower, an elegant minimalist essay that opened weeks ago on the northwest corner of York St. and Bremner Blvd. This 26-storey tower follows on the heels of KPF’s gently sculptural RBC/Dexia Tower, the sinuous Telus House (Adamson Associates Architects and Sweeny, Sterling, Finlayson) and WZMH’s well-turned out Bay-Adelaide Centre.
More corporate highrises are in various stages of completion, including the Royal Bank headquarters on Queens Quay and a second office tower just west of PwC.
But PwC stands out for its sheer monumentality. It has an institutional air. Somehow, it looks important. Certainly, it’s a hard building to ignore. There’s a rigour to the architecture, a severity, that keeps it from being just another exercise in corporate neo-minimalism.
More important, the tower represents a fully contemporary commitment to the community both within and without. That means the people who work inside the city and, indeed, the world beyond.
By contrast, traditional corporate architecture was dedicated to creating icons of wealth and power. Towers of the past were demonstrations of company might.
Think of the PwC as a vertical campus, a series of stacked open spaces filled with light and offering some of the most impressive views in and of the city. The windows long blocked by the bosses’ offices have been opened up and given to those who actually do the work.
This is also a structure that takes the city as its starting point. That can be seen in the plaza-like space in front of the building on Bremner and the ways the tower is connected to Union Station, the GO Bus Terminal, the PATH system and the rest of downtown.
“We work more collaboratively now,” explains PwC director of real estate and property, Mary McGrath. “We wanted to create opportunities for people to collaborate. We needed more space to meet and get together. We shrunk personal space and increased common space.”
In fact, the accounting firm is among a growing number of companies that have adopted a practice known as “hotelling,” which means that no one short of a partner has a claim to a permanent office. And even partners relinquish their rooms when on vacation or away for more than a few days.
The implications are interesting; on one hand, PwC’s quarters verge on hospital-like sterility. On the other hand, you’re welcome just about everywhere you go.
And unlike the narrow-halled, dimly-lit and clearly hierarchical spaces of earlier corporate offices, these are open and accessible. But perhaps the most startling change is the light, which enlivens these interiors almost obliterating the difference between indoors and out.
Every floor has its own “oasis,” a staff lounge that resembles a small café complete with a row of banquettes. It’s the third floor, however, that leaves even an unapologetic innumerate longing to become an accountant. This is the Learning and Education Centre, also PwC’s party central, an exquisite series of spaces intended to serve as classrooms, meeting rooms and the like.
There’s another lounge here, this one big enough to accommodate more than 100 visitors. Here’s where hard-working number crunchers meet on Thirsty Thursdays to hoist a few.
The floor leads out to a large “urban forest” that extends along the south side of the railway embankment west of York. Though invisible from the street, the garden, which has yet to grow in, is one of Toronto’s most extraordinary new urban spaces, so compelling it should be classified as a taxable benefit.
Equally important to PwC are the things employees don’t see. Needless to say the building is fully computerized, but more interesting; it avoids the usual HVAC system. Instead, it collects water late at night from Lake Ontario through Enwave. It’s then stored in four giant underground pools and pumped through the building to heat or cool as needed.
For all involved in the project, sustainability was crucial, not simply as an economic measure, but also to help employees and the environment.
“Sustainability was a consensus ambition for the whole team,” says KPMB’s Chris Couse. “But it was especially appealing to the tenants. That’s why the building is sucking tenants out of old downtown towers.”
That’s also why the financial district is moving from its traditional Valhalla at King and Bay towards the waterfront. Whether all this new-found transparency leads to enlightenment remains to be seen, but things are looking better than ever.