Design City
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Design City

The City of Toronto recognizes the best in urban design during the past two years at the Toronto Urban Design Awards.

Photo of the Sherbourne Common Pavilion by {a href=""}AshtonPal{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}

One could be forgiven for thinking that many in the current administration in Toronto are not necessarily concerned with good design. But while the focus of the past 10 months has been almost entirely on the financial, the City took a moment on September 19 to honour the best in architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, and design at the Toronto Urban Design Awards.

The awards use the name “urban design”—as opposed to architecture, say—because the jury’s mandate is to look not just at the physical design of a building in isolation, but at how the building responds to, connects with, and integrates itself into the built form of the existing city around it. It’s an essential, defining characteristic—whether that response is to blend into the existing fabric or to challenge that fabric by standing out. We’ve all seen buildings that look extremely out of place, as well as those that attempt to mimic their surroundings and fail spectacularly. Just think of the ROM crystal. Is it a bold contemporary design grafted starkly into a much different environment, or a rude explosion of ego onto the street?

These are some of the questions, along with others much more subtle, that the jury for the TUDA must weigh when making their choices. This year there were 129 submissions, of which 90 were built. Thirteen awards of excellence were given, as well as 10 honourable mentions, in 10 different categories that ranged from “small open spaces” to “visions and master plans” to “student projects” [PDF].

In a head-slapping moment, as reported by Torontoist yesterday, the Fort York Bridge was given an Award of Excellence for its use of “innovative shapes and forms to entice pedestrians and cyclists to cross a wide, and for some forbidding expanse of track.” Sounds great. If only council hadn’t voted to kill the bridge months ago.

Sugar Beach was given an Award of Excellence in the “large places or neighbourhood design” category, with the jury commending the attention to small design details and its sense of enclosure set between the Corus building and the Redpath Sugar Refinery. The recognition here surely has special meaning as Waterfront Toronto, the developer of the site, has come under fire recently from the City.

Waterfront Toronto garnered another win in the “elements” category with the Sherbourne Common Pavilion, a Frank Gehry-esque wavering piece of silver designed by Teeple Architects that connects the splash pad and the grassy field on the south edge of the park. (Sherbourne Common as a whole, however, was missing from the list.)

Another well-deserved win went to the West Toronto Railpath in the “small open spaces” category. This two-kilometre cycling and walking trail spans from Dundas Street West up to Cariboo Avenue. The jury noted that the “design is an inviting composition of sensitive landscaping that respects the wild quality of the rail corridor, combined with public art pieces and distinctive markers around the entry points and intersections with the street grid.” We only wish it was longer.

Other notable wins included 60 Richmond Housing Co-op in the “private buildings in context—mid rise”, the Thompson Hotel and Residences in the “private buildings in context—tall residential” category, and the TIFF Bell Lightbox in the “public buildings in context” category.

What is immediately obvious about the awards is that most are located in the old City of Toronto, and many right downtown. This is a fault the jury notes, as they expressed concern over the lack of submissions from North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke.

Whether you agree or not with the choices for the awards given out, the recognition of the importance of quality and thoughtful urban design, planning, and architecture in Toronto is paramount at this point in time. Development should not simply be concerned with extracting the most value from the land as possible, but must also give something back to the public realm. Many of the selections by the jury do just that.