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Lightbox reflects Toronto’s growing maturity
September 13, 2010 | Chris Hume | Toronto Star
"You’ve seen the movie. Now enjoy the building.

Just opened at the corner of King and John Sts., welcome to the Bell Lightbox/Festival Tower, a $129-million mixed-use complex that will be the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the residents of the 46-storey condo skyscraper to which it is attached.

Toronto hasn’t seen anything quite like this; neither has the rest of the world for that matter. Designed by architects
Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg of KPMB, this isn’t just a metaphor for the city, but an extension of the city.

“It’s a unique building,” says TIFF co-director Piers Handling, without exaggeration. There’s nothing new about mixing uses, of course, but this one takes the idea to another level. Though conceived as a single structure, the Lightbox is best understood as a series of buildings within a building. Considering what’s included — five cinemas, two galleries, a library, several lounges and restaurants, dozens of offices as well as a few hundred residential units — that makes much sense.

The idea was maximum flexibility, to ensure that every element serves as many purposes as possible. A good example is the interior walls that also function as movie screens, a simple but effective strategy.

TIFF occupies a five-storey podium that faces King; the condo tower sits on top farther north on John. In this way, the structure avoids overwhelming the low-rise Victorian buildings on the south side of King. In other words, despite its bulk, the complex fills the site without burying it alive.

Inside, one space flows to another effortlessly. The cinemas are distinct elements within the larger structure, but they also provide the organizational logic for much of the interior. Ranging in size from 540 to 70 seats, these darkened rooms are soundproof and self-contained. In many ways, they are what it’s all about — a place to watch film.

But this is a cultural institution as well as a movie house; that means galleries full of film-related art and artifacts.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the idea of the Lightbox as a social space. In regular commercial cinemas, by contrast, space gets divided between the theatres and waiting areas. You’re either watching a movie or waiting to watch a movie. The Lightbox is a place you’d visit for its own sake. There’s more to do than sit in front of a screen full of moving images.

Indeed, TIFF’s approach to cinema is not to remove it from the world but to situate it within the world. Despite being so highly programmatic, this is architecture at its most extroverted. The brilliance of the project lies in how it reconciles the conflicting demands of the individual moviegoer with those of the larger group. The solutions are partly technical but also include physical layout and transparency. The resulting sense of openness and connectivity will help reduce the intimidation factor and make people feel welcome.

The architecture — clean, crisp and elegant in the neo-modernist manner — fits in more than it stands out. Supremely contextual, the complex mends a hole in the urban fabric and transforms an empty lot into a cultural and social landmark.

As an act of city-building, the Lightbox/Festival Tower also deserves respect; it behaves well urbanistically and sets the right tone for a hybrid cinematic institution that’s neither an art house nor a megaplex, but has bits of both.

Above all, the new building signals Toronto’s growing maturity; during the cultural renaissance of recent years, the city artistic infrastructure was rebuilt. With this building, it is reinvented."

Chris Hume, Toronto Star, September 12, 2010

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