Back on the boil

Back on the boil

In Toronto, figure3 breathes new life into a once-derelict Victorian boiler house. The result – for U. S.-based clients Allsteel and Gunlocke – is a distinctive, eco-friendly showroom that looks to the future while preserving the past.

Liberty Village is one of the best success stories to roll out of Toronto’s ongoing real-estate boom. Until recently a district of mostly derelict Victorian factories and warehouses, the Village is being transformed into a hub for the city’s dot-com, communications and design enterprises – with often striking artistic results.

The site of one such notable transfiguration is the 1899 boiler house that once powered the looms of a vast carpet factory, and that last fall became the Canadian showroom for the U. S.-based Allsteel and Gunlocke manufacturers of office furniture. Overhauled for its new tenants by Christopher Wright, partner in the Toronto interior design studio figure3, the gruff old building now combines traces of its muscular industrial origins with broad contemporary brushstrokes of steel and glass. Wright’s treatment is not radical, but it provides handsome settings for the functional Allsteel products and the more elegant Gunlocke furnishings it was built to showcase.

Urged on by his green-spirited clients. Wright is aiming for the silver rating in Canada’s LEED scheme. Much has been reused or preserved: immense steel fittings for the coal hoppers that fed the boilers, the red and glazed brick walls, the magnificent original windows and soaring ceiling heights. A pine-floored mezzanine added during a previous renovation has also been retained. The lighting system employs low-voltage lamps and LEDs for the sake of energy conservation.

But in a gesture beyond physical sustain-ability, Wright has employed materials and imagery to evoke the rich character of the site. “The story we developed could not ignore the history of the building, why it was here,” he told me. The carpets once manufactured in the adjoining structures, for example, inspired the tile-pattern area rugs by Interface that cover the concrete and wooden floors, while the colours woven into the rugs -grey, black and earth tones – echo the weathered surfaces of surrounding industrial architecture. An equally direct reference to the built environment -this time, to the transit link between Liberty Village and downtown Toronto -is made in a dramatic photograph of a streetcar and street scene by Steve Chai, a figure3 colleague, enlarged and applied to a glass wall on the lower level.

The project’s best feature, however, is the variety of attractive spaces it offers for the product displays and for meetings between staff and potential clients. The round base of the plant’s smokestack has become the venue for an intimate grouping of furniture. The large below-grade level of the building has been devoted to Allsteel’s workstations and cubicles, while a glass-enclosed platform rising from this floor provides a compact context for a large white seminar table, ringed by modernist chairs upholstered in white leather.

But of all Wright’s contributions to the building, none is more beautiful or impressive than the room designated for confidential conferences. Completely encased in floor-to-ceiling glass, this space is suspended high above the floor in a sunny part of the boiler plant lined with glazed brick. Though firmly cantilevered from the wall and tied back to the ceiling, this large, sleekly appointed pod seems to float free of all support, thereby creating a wonderful moment of sparkling lightness amid the massive fixtures and structures that encompass it.

Wright has made several excellent moves to clarify and unite these various spaces. The entrance in the earlier reconstruction, he told me, was a “funnel” that took clients from the front door too directly into the office areas. His reply to this awkward condition was to open up, in the heart of the building, an ample reception area with comfortable seating and a fireplace framed by an expanse of galvanized steel. (A long wall in this area, however, remains unattractively blank.) To bring together the main entry level and the mezzanine above it, he has introduced a large glass lantern suspended from the high ceiling and banded with coloured strips that resume the industrial-strength palette in the carpeting.

Among the few elements that work against the unity of the design are the staircases that join the levels and the railings that define them. Inheritances from the earlier renovation -which Wright said he could not get rid of -these conspicuous features are charmless things, with knobbed, skinny metal balusters, all painted dark. (The landlord did not even allow Wright to repaint them.) They don’t fit the distinctive modern atmosphere Wright has tried to generate throughout the interior; more important, they make the visitor’s every transition between levels a small encounter with ugliness.

Apart from these staircases, which figure3 should have been allowed to replace, Christopher Wright’s work for Allsteel and Gunlocke is warmly sensitive and occasionally bright, and it delivers a jolt of refined energy to a wonderful building fromToronto’s past. cI