Has Daniel Libeskind, reigning architectural superstar, become the provocateur Toronto’s elite loves to hate? By reshaping two of the city’s most important venues, he has clearly rattled a lot of influential people with a preference for all things safely understated.
With his Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, Libeskind went way too far for the tastes of this town’s opinion-makers. Crowds of ordinary people line up around the block, but at upscale cocktail parties, the smart set are almost unanimous in pronouncing it a blight on Bloor Street.
Now another burst of antagonistic shrieking seems to be erupting over the soaring bird-like condo tower about to be constructed at Front and Yonge on the grounds of the Sony (nee O’Keefe, a.k.a. Hummingbird) Centre.
But at the risk of entering a danger zone, I must say that last week’s groundbreaking ceremony – which foes of the project predicted would never happen – strikes me as cause for celebration, not lamentation.
It took a year longer to get the shovel in the ground than originally planned, but here’s the upshot: Castlepoint Realty Partners Ltd., the development partner of the venerable performing arts centre, is starting construction on Libeskind’s so-called L Tower – with a likely completion date of late 2011 or early 2012.
In exchange, Castlepoint is turning over close to $30 million so the theatre – which opened its doors in October 1960 with the pre-Broadway run of Camelot – can be renovated and restored to its original glory.
That means the Sony Centre, owned by the City of Toronto, has returned from death row after a decade during which there was a lot of scary talk about demolishing the place – an architectural gem designed by Peter Dickinson – and selling off the land.
Much of the credit belongs to two men who at the groundbreaking ceremony half-jokingly compared their relationship to that of quarrelling lovers – Dan Brambilla, CEO of the centre for the past seven years, and Castlepoint president Alfredo Romano, a developer with discriminating taste and style.
Brambilla had to sell the city on the need to save this historic showplace, and he spent several years planning a multi-purpose Arts and Heritage Awareness Centre, featuring an interactive museum and a banquet facility – all in a podium linking the base of the L Tower to the theatre. But last year, after he was unable to meet the deadline for government funding commitments, the AHA centre plan was scrapped. Instead he and Romano made plans for a street-level plaza next to the theatre.
The $30 million from Romano’s firm will be used to rejuvenate the theatre and restore many details of the original grandeur – marble, brass, wood – while getting rid of some unfortunate interventions over the years that tended to hide some of Dickinson’s best touches.
Opposition to the project seems to be based on misconceptions, such as the idea that the tower will wreck the theatre and be built right on top of it. Actually, it’s discreetly placed, occupying the southwest corner of the site where Yonge meets the Esplanade, and mercifully replacing the hideous back end of the complex.
Last year the theatre became a designated historic site but its ugly backside and below-ground terrace are excluded from the designation.
If Toronto were Utopia, the city would have come up with the money to save and restore the theatre, in which case there would be no need to collaborate with a developer. But it has been clear all along that was never an option for the cash-strapped city.
Unlike the city, Castlepoint can afford to put up $30 million. Luckily, this partnership will preserve all the best aspects of the original building and revitalize the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. That’s why Brambilla and Romano deserve a spirited round of applause.
Martin Knelman’s column on the arts appears every other Monday on this page. firstname.lastname@example.org