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The Building That Has Toronto Looking Up

"We didn't ask the competitors what the building would look like," he says. "We asked what approach they would take, and how they would work with the faculty, the students and five citizens groups in the neighborhood." Alsop's approach was the most consultative, Caldwell says, and that's why he won the commission.

Most architects these days talk a good participatory game, but many, I suspect, heartily dislike the hours spent at community meetings, taking criticism from hoi polloi. Alsop, by contrast, appears genuinely to embrace the process. In several Toronto workshops he asked the different constituencies to dream along with him.

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)

"From the very beginning," he says, "my response was to hand the pencil to the people, to hand them the paintbrush."

One has to regard such protestations with a grain of salt because creative personalities as strong as Alsop's can be powerfully manipulative. Nonetheless, the results in Toronto are notable. Anyone familiar with the process of design in Washington knows that citizen consultations often result in the progressive weakening of a forward-looking design. But just the reverse happened here.

Alsop's design came after the consultations, not before. Thus, when he finally showed his idea for a "flying rectangle" (his favorite term), the architect was able to build support for the radical idea by demonstrating how it met common goals of the college, the community and the architect.

Two outstanding conclusions could be reached from the workshops, the architect says. "We found it was quite obvious that people didn't like McCaul Street itself, which is understandable, and that they loved" Grange Park, a historic six-acre green immediately to the west of the art school.

Unlike a conventional building on that parking lot, even a very pretty one, Alsop's flying box enables the space to be transformed into a public gathering place, a continuation of the adjacent park. And the lift of the building above the existing art school structures, humdrum exercises of the 1960s and 1970s, preserves the view into the park from mid-rise apartments on the opposite side of McCaul Street.

So the logic of the structure is undeniable. The Sharp Centre does exactly what the architect said it would do by adding parkland, improving access and preserving cherished views. With its two spacious, high-ceilinged floors, the box commodiously provides the college with much-needed studio and classroom space.

But the logic doesn't explain the magic. As in much art, the magic here has to do with transformation.

We live in an environment of mostly rectangular buildings, but the Sharp Centre seems in a world of its own. Everything about it sets it apart. The furrowed metal skin. The crazy checkerboard of random black squares on a white ground. The asymmetrical pattern of deeply inset windows, with their intensely colored borders. (These are especially affecting at night.)

Above all, this box hovers startlingly in the air, tantalizing you with questions of how and why.

As it turns out, the six pairs of splayed "stilts" -- steel pipes weighing 18,000 pounds apiece -- hold up about half of the building. The massive concrete elevator core does the heavy lifting for the other half and also provides stability for the building in case of an earthquake. Gregory Woods, an associate in the Alsop & Partners Toronto office, points out that because of its seeming precariousness, the Sharp Centre underwent testing "way beyond what's normal for a building of this size and shape."

As to the whys, there are, of course, all those practical considerations. And then there are other, less calculable reasons located primarily in Alsop's head, and ours.

Mere defiance of convention doesn't necessarily equate with the mysterious quality we call "beauty," and yet this building somehow possesses that quality. Its urbanistic scale is right. It contributes crazily to its context. In its emphatic improbability, it makes space on the urban skyline for the human imagination.

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