City dwellers

Solving space problems on a grand scale is an urban planner’s predilection, so who plans for planners? During a recent tour of Urban Strategies’ new Toronto offices on the top floor of a six-storey brick building on Spadina Avenue, partner George Dark offers that, “We’ve been involved in an experiment with [architect] Siamak [Hariri] for quite some time. He did this space, and our last office as well, which we loved, but grew out of. We were at Adelaide for 10 years and here now for two, so we’ve been working together for 13 years, and I think we were his first client.”

“They were the first client…the very first client, and when you first start and somebody calls you, it means a lot, you never forget it,” the co-founder of Toronto’s Hariri Pontarini Architects acknowledges. “George called and said, ‘I hope I’m very clear, we’re just on top of each other here [referring to their digs at the time], and we’re going to take this space on Adelaide.’ ” That space was, by all accounts, far more raw and funky than their corporate digs on Queen Street, but the Adelaide space also came with low ceilings and windows in only the front and back, so Hariri’s first gesture was to distribute the light as much as possible. “This is a very basic premise,” Dark acknowledges. “But it was a major shift culturally for the organization. It meant that partners were going to have to move out of their private offices, which was exciting, and it started a discussion.”

Each time the firm has moved, there’s been a corresponding shift in its work culture, and when it came time to shop for the current space, an open floor plate with more natural light was the precedent. When looking at potential spaces, Dark and Hariri were each leaning towards different spaces, each with windows on all four sides. The architect argued: “Did you notice the height of the window sills in the other space we saw?” Dark’s choice was naturally based on the light and the sky, as the windows were up high off the floor. In convincing his client that the space with lower windows was a better option, Hariri afforded the planners a view of their immediate surroundings and a direct engagement with the street.

Immediately after the move, staff was seen hanging out the west-facing windows overlooking Spadina, imbibing the energy from the daily activity of the busy street below. “In the absence of an absolute postcard view of the port, if you look down from the south-facing windows, there are Victorian houses in the residential Chinese neighbourhood,” Dark notes. “And to the east, there’s a great view of Alsop’s OCAD building, where you can actually observe it as floating. And look at Margie Zeidler’s green roof,” he says, directing our gaze through the north bank of windows to the adjacent building. “The tenants are all non-profits there, and in the summer, there are six-foot-high Jerusalem artichokes covered in flowers.”

Hariri’s task was to determine the interventions that would best suit his client’s new culture, partly informed by the raw potential of this 80-by-120-foot industrial space. Capitalizing on the energy from the street, the reception area and meeting rooms garnered the west view over Spadina, and custom oak and glass display screens separate the boardroom, as well as the studio, from reception. Inside the studio, “not unlike in [Norman] Foster’s office [in the U.K.],” Hariri comments, a U-shaped corridor provides a fluid thoroughfare. “The best marketing is to walk a client through this loop,” says Dark. The energy is palpable, and there’s enough distance to observe without interrupting the work.

The corridor also mitigates a public square- like space in the centre, and a series of U-shaped work pods attached to a continuous bench on the peripheral walls. “The big idea was that the heart was in the middle with the bays on both sides,” Hariri explains, “and the central space could be reconfigured for critiques and for client presentations requiring a big horizontal surface for models and drawings.” Hariri’s flexible scheme allowed this central hub to accommodate the studio’s inevitable need for expansion, so when the town square was eventually co-opted for additional work space, its attendant social functions were redirected to the boardroom. “What we found was that the central public area in the middle of the studio was a tad disruptive,” Dark concedes. “But what happens now in this larger room, if someone wants to colour giant drawings, or run a workshop, they can book it. And clients have access to it as well – they come here to meet, and also to work.”

Dark’s directive was for a space that was robust, simple and flexible, to stimulate a creative exchange between absolutely everyone. “The structure of the office is that a partner sits beside an intern who sits beside a planner, across from an urban designer and an economist,” he says. “When you think of urban design and how people are supposed to inhabit cities, we’ve collected an eclectic mix, a whole lot of people who live in the city, and allow them to participate. It’s a big family – many people have worked here 15, 16 years – so we don’t have a big turnover, we’re a group of people, a collective, and we’ve been practicing together for a really long time.”

“This place has a fantastic energy,” says Hariri. “Look at the scale of their projects; they are designing 1/5,000 in contrast to 1/10 for an architect. These guys are all about making cities, so this idea that you have this platform to a city on all four sides, and horizontal transparency all the way through the plan. Wherever you look, the whole city is interesting.”