The approach of engaging the community in the design process has proven to be effective and resourceful for both the users and designers. It brings users a sense of ownership and belonging. The 43-story tower by the Copenhagen-based firm 3XN in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley district is one such classic example. Herforth Nielsen founded 3XN in 1986 in Aarhus, Denmark, and now has offices in Copenhagen, Stockholm, New York, and Sydney. Church and Wellesley tower is 3XN’s first North American high-rise project in the city of Toronto.
Also known as ‘The Village’, Church and Wellesley is the historic home to Toronto’s LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning) community. The northeast corner of the intersection between Church and Wellesley where the tower is located is an important public space of the neighborhood.
The building’s most prominent feature is its two-story plaza which opens onto this intersection. A long time Village resident Alex Filiatrault says that “The time is right, The Village needs to transform, even reinvent itself. I think everyone agrees the street needs to be revitalized. Church and Wellesley is an important corner. The project is needed and it might as well be a landmark”.
Giving back to the city
3XN sought a bottom-up approach while designing the high-rise, beginning with the podium which will act as a public space for activities and events like the city’s annual Pride festival. The idea of activating the corner through its design was crucial and was seen as a space that could give back to the city.
The grand staircase that connects to the first-floor level will act as a seating area during events. The elevated ‘catwalk’ is intended as a viewing deck with retractable glass that can either open or close off the plaza. The podium will also accommodate small-scale shops and restaurants.
Engaging the community in the design process
Kim Herforth Nielsen, the founder, and creative director at 3XN says, “We took a radical approach to the design process by engaging the community at the earliest opportunity. In fact, this was before our team had even started to sketch ideas”. 3XN along with One Properties worked closely with the locals during the three public engagement sessions which happened over a period of three months.
In the first round of consultation, the discussion revolved around the Church and Wellesley Village neighborhood plan along with the community’s concerns and ambitions. This led to the establishment of six key principles that will act as the foundation for the design of the project. Following the discussion, 3XN came up with seven different conceptual ideas for the design of the podium. These seven concepts were then presented during the second round of consultation where various aspects of the design were discussed, debated, and modified with the people involved in the session. During the third meeting, 3XN presented two revised options for the podium design which had a combination of preferred elements from the initial seven options.
A proposed plan of the tower was also revealed during the meeting. The idea of engaging with the community proved to be helpful according to the director to which he says, “Inviting the public into the design process proved to be a powerful resource and have made significant contributions to the project we couldn’t otherwise have achieved”.
The ‘vertical village’
The 153-meter high Church and Wellesley tower is a rental building with a total of 430 units designed for the Canadian developer, One properties, which is scheduled for completion in 2021. Inspired by the existing townhouses in the neighborhood, the tower is divided into four stacked masses, calling it a ‘vertical village’.
The side facing Church street is low-rise with a retail shopfront while a more conventional tall façade faces Wellesley street, similar to the other tall buildings in downtown Toronto. The step backs at the 8th, 13th, and 19th floor allow for a wraparound terrace which will provide residents with a spectacular view of the neighborhood’s buzzing street life especially during the city’s annual Pride festival.
The step-backs also generate the distinct volumes of the building creating a transition between the base volume and the tower. Along with a continuous terrace on the periphery, the building’s exterior creates an interesting and alternative pattern of solids and voids, cladded with metal panels and glass.
The building offers a diverse mix of unit types with private balconies which can be rented out. It will also provide the residents with an indoor amenity space with facilities including a lounge with kitchen and dining space, theatre room, saunas, gymnasium, and yoga area.
The approach of involving the community in the design process is an important and effective way forward. We as architects will have to demonstrate the ability to understand the needs of the community and involve them at every step of the process.