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The Building That Has Toronto Looking Up

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page C01

TORONTO -- Okay, here's the report: The "flying rectangle" on McCaul Street, aka the Sharp Centre for Design of the Ontario College of Art and Design, is every bit as astonishing and delightful in real life as it appears in photographs.

Back in Washington, sitting at my computer, I had gazed at the images on the screen with a certain joyous disbelief. Here in Toronto, as I turned the corner from Queen Street onto McCaul and the building popped into view, my reaction was . . . joyous disbelief.

The Sharp Centre is only 30 feet high, but its unique foundation, six pairs of angled stilts, creates a "flying rectangle." (Photos Richard Johnson -- Interiorimage.ca)

There it stood, this immense, playfully improbable checkerboard box, sharply delineated against a gray winter sky, hovering on angled stilts above an otherwise nondescript city street. Way above it. The box is only 30 feet high, but there's a gap of maybe 50 feet between its underside and the roofs of the four-story buildings below.

Altogether, it's a riveting sight. Challenging, unexpected, weird. Funny ha-ha and funny strange. Something you might encounter in a painting by surrealist Rene Magritte but would hardly anticipate on a stroll around the neighborhood. It's almost as if British architect Will Alsop, when he created the design, was using the city of Toronto as a backdrop for his surrealistic canvas.

The marvel is threefold: that folks rather enthusiastically allowed this thing to be built, that it works so well as a practical matter, and that, quite simply, it is beautiful. Actually, the beauty issue may not be quite so simple, but let's get back to that in a moment.

Like most buildings, the Sharp Centre started out with a list of pragmatic needs. The 128-year-old Ontario College of Art and Design, bursting at the seams with more than 3,000 students and rapidly rising enrollments, needed desperately to expand.

Fortunately, says college Vice President Peter Caldwell, who shepherded the project from idea to reality in just four years, the institution had room to grow right next door. A parking lot just to the south of the main studio building cried out for more intensive use.

The college also had money enough to start the job, Caldwell notes, in the form of a $24 million allotment from the provincial government. (The remainder of the project's $42.5 million budget was raised from private donors, including $5 million from Canadian business couple Rosalie and Isadore Sharp -- she's a 1968 graduate of the art school and an interior designer; he's the founder of the Four Seasons Hotel chain.)

Those were the everyday facts at the project's beginning. But from that point on, things got curiouser and curiouser. "Everybody expected that we would simply add another four- or five-story building on that parking lot," Caldwell says. Thanks to Alsop, that did not happen.

Alsop's reputation for free-wheeling inventiveness preceded him across the Atlantic for this, his first building in North America. There are crucial resemblances between the important civic buildings he has designed in Europe over the past decade or so -- his affection for color and pattern, his penchant for exposed structural devices, his love of objects lifted off the ground, his pop art sensibility.

But Alsop's buildings also are notable for their dissimilarities. There is an Alsop attitude but not an Alsop style. Like Eero Saarinen did decades ago, Alsop tries mightily to start each project afresh, without stylistic preconceptions, and then let the process and the context suggest a pathway for design.

In the initial phases of design, the architect, who also is a painter, often will start off with brush on canvas in his art studio, which is separate from his busy architectural office in London.

"Paint has a life of its own, and in the process you see things you didn't expect to see," Alsop says. "It's a way of trying to get out from under all that excess cultural baggage we all carry around."

However, Caldwell reports, Alsop and the Toronto firm of Robbie Young + Wright were chosen in a limited competition for reasons other than formal inventiveness.

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