Yorkville’s loss

An­other ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sure falls to the condo boom


Its mod­est red brick ex­te­rior seems un­re­mark­able in 2017. But in ar­chi­tec­ture, con­text is ev­ery­thing. When York Square was de­signed by the u pstart firm of Di­a­mond and My­ers in the mid-60s, in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tec­tural and plan­ning wis­dom was that the city was a dan­ger­ous place, full of de­crepit, over­crowded build­ings best bull­dozed to make way for the brave new world of ur­ban re­newal.

Favoured at the time were build­ings set back from the street, sur­rounded by big lawns and plazas. Projects like St. James Town were re­plac­ing large tracts of Cab­bage­town. There were few places to dine outdoors.

But in Toronto, a new gen­er­a­tion of ur­ban­ists was ques­tion­ing con­ven­tional plan­ning wis­dom. Jane Ja­cobs had just pub­lished The Death And Life Of Great Amer­i­can Cities, and made Toronto home. John Sewell was or­ga­niz­ing against ur­ban re­newal in Tre- fann Court, and counter-cul­ture ac­tivists, ar­chi­tects and com­mu­nity ad­vo­cates started or­ga­niz­ing around stop­ping ex­press­ways, her­itage preser­va­tion and the ben­e­fits of in­fill de­vel­op­ment.

Yorkville was full of peo­ple protest­ing the es­tab­lished or­der, so where bet­ter for an ar­chi­tec­tural project to break com­pletely new ground?

“It be­gan with Dick Wookey, who had bought the prop­erty and had not been a de­vel­oper, so both he and we were start­ing out on a jour­ney,” ar­chi­tect Jack Di­a­mond com­mented in a re­cent in­ter­view. “We per­suaded him not to fol­low the rules.”

Old build­ings were kept and adapted, manda­tory set­backs from the street were ig­nored, and a square with long pas­sage­ways and hid­den and shel­tered cafe spa­ces was cre­ated to al­low peo­ple-watch­ing.

The eye-catch­ing round win­dows, which Di­a­mond ac­knowl­edges today might be con­sid­ered “a des­e­cra­tion of the his­toric build­ings,” were im­port- ant in cre­at­ing a land­mark with vis­i­bil­ity for the new re­tail uses. The ap­proach in­spired sim­i­lar de­vel­op­ments in the neigh­bour­hood.

“The bold­ness of the ap­proach was its sim­plic­ity and mod­esty,” says Di­a­mond.

York Square put the firm of Di­a­mond and My­ers on the in­ter­na­tional stage. Ja­cobs was quoted in Pro­gres­sive Ar­chi­tec­ture on the project.

“Di­a­mond and My­ers have sen­si­tively used the old build­ings with­out try­ing to pre­tend they are some­thing else; they have made them not in the least bit quaintsy, but of our times.” She went on, “The unique­ness and prom­ise of York Square, though it can­not and should not be copied in car­bon, should be an ex­am­ple to all de­vel­op­ers.”

York Square was the hottest com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment in Toronto. Key early ten­ants were the Book Cel­lar and Lon­don’s Vi­dal Sas­soon. In an era when women were burn­ing their bras, Sas­soon rev­o­lu­tion­ized women’s hairstyling, putting an end to sleep­ing on pin­curls and hair rollers. The sa­lon in­te­rior was de­signed by Di­a­mond and My­ers in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Michael Ste­wart of Muller and Ste­wart, who cus­tom de­signed the fur­ni­ture.

York Square was the first of three key projects by Di­a­mond and My­ers to demon­strate that new places could be cre­ated by re­pur­pos­ing old build­ings and adding around them. The other two are Dun­das-Sher­bourne and the Hy­dro Block, just north of Bald­win, east of Bev­erly.

In the late 60s there were no her­itage pro­tec­tion laws in On­tario. The only way to save a build­ing was through pub­lic pres­sure and per­sua­sion, which worked for Union Sta­tion and Old City Hall but not much else.

York Square was owned and op­er­ated by the Wookey fam­ily for over 40 years.

But over the past decade, some wellinten­tioned pro­vin­cial poli­cies, such as in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion (with its com­men­su­rate prop­erty tax pres­sures), have come to­gether to seal the fate of this rather mag­i­cal place. By 2010, prop­erty tax in­creases had pushed rents above what busi­nesses could af­ford, forc­ing the fam­ily to sell the prop­erty for rede­vel­op­ment.

A high-rise con­do­minium de­vel­op­ment de­signed by Zei­dler Part­ner­ship Ar­chi­tects has been pro­posed for the site. The pro­posal calls for to­tal de­mo­li­tion of the square and most of the build­ings but re­tains fa­cades along Av­enue Road and Yorkville – ac­knowl­edg­ing York Square’s des­ig­na­tion as his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant un­der the On­tario Her­itage Act. The project in­cludes a new ur­ban plaza open­ing onto Yorkville, as well as a com­mu­nity gallery space. The project was the sub­ject of an On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board hear­ing in Jan­uary 2017. The OMB has yet to re­lease its de­ci­sion.

In­ter­est­ingly, Di­a­mond feels that the time may have come for a new project. In his view, the lessons of the place have been learned and Toronto is a very dif­fer­ent place now than it was when York Square was built. Ar­chi­tec­tural Con­ser­vancy of On­tario (ACO) Toronto hosts a cel­e­bra­tion of York Square on Septem­ber 12, with a screen­ing of the 1968 Yorkville ri­ots doc­u­men­tary Flow­ers On A One Way Street, at York Square (148 Yorkville). The event is part of an ACO film project to record York Square’s unique story. Tick­ets $35 at eventbrite.ca. Cather­ine Na­smith is a her­itage ar­chi­tect and pres­i­dent of ACO Toronto. news@now­toronto.com | @now­toronto

York Square rede­vel­op­ment marks an­other loss for ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage.

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