Toronto is now considered the fourth largest city in North America, ranking behind New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City. Wow!
Although there’s a pioneering synergy that comes when you live in a city where a construction boom has been occurring for well over fifteen years (there are currently 147 skyscrapers currently being built in Toronto, according to Emporis, the German data provider). This is twice as many as in New York, a city with about three times the population. This also contributes to one experiencing moments of placelessness when one looks up and wonders where they really are.
Especially as so much of it looks the same.
And, well, a lot of it is plain or ugly.
Which brings us to this month’s Dear Urbaneer post which answers a question posed by one of our clients:
We’re considering purchasing a suite in a downtown Toronto mid or high-rise condominium. We’re curious whether the exterior facade of a condominium has any bearing on value. Does it really matter what a building looks like?
Here’s our response:
“Dear Concrete Jungle,
This is a fascinating question, in particular because of the complexity in putting a price on the intangible value of aesthetics.
But yes, we, at urbaneer.com, appreciate beauty in form and function, and do place importance on how a condominium looks. We assess the materials used for construction (are they attractive or ugly, trendy or timeless?), how do elements of the development (size, proportion and scale) relate to people (do you feel comfortable when standing in front of it?) and neighbouring buildings (is it similar in size?). Also to consider: how well the condominium fits within the context of the neighbourhood (does it look like it belongs on the street or is it visually a hot mess)? We take all of these variables into account when we assess whether we like a condominium or not.
Although it can’t be quantified, we believe many (but not all) Buyers include the appearance of a building’s exterior (realtors call this ‘curb appeal’) as part of their decision to purchase in one building over another. And while we’re not ultimately qualified to judge exteriors, Toronto‘s much-needed and inspirational architecture and urban design critics like The Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume and The Globe and Mail’s John Bentley Mays offer Torontonians insights in how good design makes for good neighbours. Certainly many developers ‘try’. After all, over the past few decades we’ve seen condominium facades continually evolve as developers attempt to tap into the changing architectural styles and trends of the times in which they’re built. Given condominiums are typically marketed as a ‘lifestyle’ to specific targeted groups of buyers, then the overall aesthetics of a building must play into the market’s desire for a beautiful home, inside and out.
Would you agree?
Here’s a brief (and incomplete) exploration on how the exterior facades of condominiums have evolved in Toronto, whilst tapping into the domestic design zeitgeist of fashion, trends and style.
Although condominiums have been in existence in Ontario since the late 1960s, their presence and popularity in downtown Toronto began around 1980. An example of this is Cadillac Fairview’s 15 Mcmurrich (1980) at Yonge and Davenport, which is a 15 storey brick monolithic structure constructed as ‘houses in the sky’ for the well-heeled. Although there is a certain severity in the brick facade, despite the imposing nature of this mid-rise, whenever I visit this building I find it possesses an understated elegance which feels a bit like a tony New York co-op. Since the building refurbished its lobby, the building has reaffirmed its cachet and glamour, in part because the suites are typically 1300 to 1800 square feet. Given the age of the building, the acquisition price can be as low as $400 per square foot (the average price for a downtown resale condo is around $500 per square foot), but this is because you’ll have to invest some capital renovating. In the original suites you’ll find 1980s almond kitchens, popcorn stucco ceilings, and acres of yellow parquet flooring. Still, when it comes to the exterior, it’s less is more symmetrical exterior seems to work.
By the mid-1980s, high-rise condominium towers like Polo Club I (1986) and II (1987) – how Ralph Lauren cologne! – located on Bay Street just south of Bloor, rose as affordable alternatives to the rental apartment or the first time buyer house. These buildings offer loads of amenities and smaller units which were specifically geared to young single urban professionals. Essentially brick bunkers with solariums (a clever idea on the part of developers who, under the city’s approvals process were allowed to exclude these ‘enclosed balconies’ from their gross floor area calculations by calling them ‘outdoor space’, and then marketing these ‘four season rooms’ as ‘interior living space’ to buyers as a means to increase their profit margin), these brutalist towers set the precedent on what high rise living in downtown Toronto would become. This saddens us.
Toronto’s first condo boom occurred during the mid to late 1980s when housing prices soared and speculation became rampant. Condominiums were an inexpensive investment vehicle that promised riches for anyone willing to buy and flip their units just as a building neared completion (sound familiar?). Buildings typically had a broader mix of units than we see today, including smaller suites geared to investors and single buyers, and larger units for end users. Aesthetically, as the 1980s progressed the previously common brick facades were replaced with ‘skins’ of concrete and glass, as you can see in the facade of the Residences of the World Trade Centre Condominium Complex (1990) located at Yonge and Queens Quay. The late 1980s also ushered in the arrival of the neo-eclectic Post Modernist architectural trend which borrowed elements and references from the past, while reintroducing color and symbolism to architecture. In Toronto, this was showcased in the ‘Beaux Arts’ flat iron facade of 25 The Esplanade (1988) and the construction of Empire Plaza (1990) located at 33 University Avenue, with its circular blue glass face amidst building blocks of pink granite. At least these are visually interesting, don’t you think?
When the real estate market bubble burst at the end of 1989, real estate values began a precipitous decline by as much as 35 percent. while simultaneously, thousands of new condominiums were completed. Speculators quickly discovered buyers had all but disappeared from the market, leaving them in a negative equity position that forced many owners to lose their properties and their fortunes. The massive oversupply of new builds amidst a climate of few buyers resulted in a substantial number of bank repossessed ‘power of sales’. It would take years for the glut of condominium units to be absorbed into the market place. In fact, while the market bottomed out, Toronto saw few new condominium projects being launched between 1990 through 1996, until the market began its recovery.
Once real estate sales returned in the mid to late 1990s, condominium developers responded by going in one of two directions. First, we began to see transparent glass edifices (which developers commodified and buyers embraced) because they contained suites that celebrated light and views. The increasing use of glass as the dominant ‘skin’ on the exterior facade allowed the glittering floor-to-ceiling city views to become a focal point. In bringing the outside in to create the illusion of more space, developers were able to build smaller suites. These centrally located urban dwellings served the growing market for single first time GenX buyers. While this architectural trend is more visually pleasing than the brick bunkers of the past (to the detriment of birds who keep flying into all our glass towers), most any urban resident will say these high-rise towers pretty much all look the same. You only have to look at the massive master planned community called CityPlace to agree, where 44 acres of former industrial land is now two-thirds complete and will soon be home to 7500 glass-encased units situated in dozens of high-rises situated to the west of the CN Tower.
When Cityplace’s main developer Concord Alex first launched CityPlace they introduced unusual shapes like the elliptical complexes called Apex and Matrix (2003) on Front Street West at Spadina shown below. While the shapes offered some uniqueness, this movement towards skins of glass and poly panels (which are prone to leak) became the ‘go-to’ materials for condominium facades.
In conjunction with these ubiquitous boxes-in-the-sky, we also saw the beginning of development teams who targeted Buyers looking for something a little more unique. In the late 1990s we began to see the rise of the ‘soft loft’ condominiums which embraced clean lines, spare interiors (often with exposed concrete floors, ceilings or columns) and higher ceiling heights of 9 or 10 feet. This movement – coined by the developer’s marketing agencies as ‘distilled modernism’ – became the hallmark for two significant developers, one being Context Developments who completed District Lofts on Richmond West at Spadina (2002), Radio City (2005) on Jarvis Street and Spire Condominiums (2007) located at 33 Lombard near Church Street.
The other developer who embraced and commodified a similar aesthetic is Freed Developments. Over the past decade, Freed has focused and cultivated the Fashion District (running mostly along the artery of King West between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street) as the young hip trendy destination of cool, developing mid-rise condominiums such as 20 Stewart (2004), Seventy5 Portland (2010 – featuring design flourishes by Philip Starck), and Fashion House at 560 King West which is nearing completion. These all offer design variations of the concrete ‘n cool loft style favoured by young urban professionals and a segment of down-scaling boomers.
As the zeros of 2000 approached 2010, the pared down aesthetic of modern living became firmly entrenched in the residential condominium market. In fact, it’s moved into an even more elevated aesthetic called ‘New Modernism’, which caters to the increasingly sophisticated taste makers (and purists) of modern design. In Toronto’s Y2K, condominiums have begun to compete for attention with strong design statements, such as the streamlined ‘iconic’ facades of X Condominiums (2010) on Jarvis Street and Casa Condominio (2010) at 33 Charles Street with their steel and glass curtain walls (both designed by architectsAlliance). In response to this extreme (and to tap into the traditional market who don’t favour this style) we’re also seeing new condominiums which feature ornate classical facades like the elegant 29-storey, stepped, point tower building designed by the award-winning New York architectural firm, Robert A.M. Stern in conjunction with Toronto architectural firm, Young + Wright located at 1 St. Thomas (2009) near Bay and Bloor Streets.
As we move into the 2010s, it appears the monochromatic black exterior is now all the rage. Although I love a black house (and am the owner of one!), I didn’t anticipate tiny black bricks would make their appearance coating the facades of mid and high-rise condominiums. Unless you’ve been reading Dwell Magazine for the past decade, black brick appears fresh and innovative. But will the trendy rise (and inevitable fall) of the black brick building ultimately be deemed as too flash-in-the-pan trendy? Below is the nearly completed Cube Condominiums on College Street near Shaw, Nero Condominiums in presale located at Dundas West and Manning, and The Modern at Richmond East and Sherbourne which is registering imminently.
While black brick is making its mark, what is also trending right now are condominiums with more futuristic shapes and facades. The recently completed, wildly unique, and award-winning ‘Marilyn Monroe’ towers near Square One in Mississauga – called The Absolute Towers – have been the talk of the town. As are the white undulating, curved balconies of One Bloor West which “possess duel qualities of playfulness and control, while dramatically contrasting the surrounding modernist high-rises to the north” (says the development website) and the white canvas of geometry of Yonge + Rich Condominiums (also by architectsAlliance), both of which are under development:
With thirty years of mid and high-rise condominium towers competing for buyers, we’re pretty sure there’s a segment of the market whose purchasing decision is influenced, in part, by the exterior facade of any building. And why not? Living somewhere aesthetically beautiful could be just the boost someone needs to love their home even more. However, one has to be careful, for there’s the risk that what you consider ‘high style’ right now could be trashed as ‘oh so 2000s’ in a matter of a few years. So be careful not to put too much of your ‘value’ on aesthetics,”
~ Steven and the urbaneer team
Can we help? With a multi-disciplinary education in housing, over twenty years of real estate sales, marketing and development including a sterling reputation as one of Bosley Real Estate’s Top Ten Producers, my team and I make it our mandate to guide buyers and sellers through all their real estate needs.
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Did you read our newsletter on the six layers of Buildings – Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff (the furnishings)? Click HERE for more insight.
** many of the condominium images used here were sourced from the original developers’ websites, with thanks **