A Toronto plant delivers clean water and high design


GH3 designed this stormwater treatment facility for the agency Waterfront Toronto.

Adrian Ozimek/Handout

For the next three years, Toronto’s eastern waterfront will be torn up: bridges added, roads moved, a span of elevated expressway demolished but reborn. But one piece of the future has already arrived. Alongside the construction chaos of Cherry Street, a crystalline concrete monolith has landed in the mud, like a misplaced package from an alien civilization.

In fact, it’s not from Outer Centauri. However, it is a beautiful public works project in Canada, and these days that is nearly as strange. It signals that public works are important, and that their design should reflect this.

The architecture firm GH3 designed this stormwater treatment facility for the agency Waterfront Toronto; it contains the tanks and pumps that will clean the water from the neighbourhood’s drains.

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I arrived there recently with Pat Hanson of GH3, the lead architect. Ms. Hanson, dapper in her architect’s uniform of black-on-black-on-white sneakers, led me across the muck of the adjacent construction site to a shiny concrete wall and through a matte-black door.

Inside, we left the realm of art and entered the realm of ballasted flocculation. Here, runoff water from the adjacent new neighbourhoods gets filtered and mixed with a harmless chemical that sticks to floating particles and pulls them down – flocculation. From there, it’s hit with UV rays and released, safe, into Lake Ontario. It’s a utilitarian space of tanks, pumps and catwalks, with only a trapezoidal skylight and one window to add architectural drama.

Engineering firm R.V. Anderson was hired to design the stormwater system.

Adrian Ozimek/Handout

“We knew it was going to be a monolithic building, almost without windows,” Ms. Hanson explained. Starting with a box shape, she and her colleagues pushed its top corners upward and downward until the four walls were trapezoids, then divided the roof surface into two triangles that slope in opposite directions. “There is a kind of wilfulness,” she admitted. The goal: “How do you take a simple volume and make it more evocative?”

Ms. Hanson and her small firm are in the first rank of Canada’s high-design architects. She is an unreconstructed modernist, a lover of pure geometric forms and precise details. And they’ve built a water facility in enlightened Edmonton. They are perfect for this job.

How did they get it? At Waterfront Toronto, “We wanted something that was in the tradition of great civic architecture,” said Christopher Glaisek, the agency’s chief planning and design officer. Mr. Glaisek cited the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, the “palace of purification” that Toronto built during the Great Depression. “We wanted a modern interpretation of that,” Mr. Glaisek says, “a contemporary architecture that would celebrate infrastructure.”

The architects originally imagined the building clad with limestone, with a matching plinth around it.

Adrian Ozimek/Handout

The project is part of the redevelopment of hundreds of acres around Toronto’s former port. Waterfront Toronto was created by three levels of government to do this work. They’re best known for their dalliance with the Google sister company Sidewalk Labs, but mostly the agency has built housing, offices, parks and infrastructure. They do these things well – and crucially, they have their own processes for purchasing and hiring. Plus they have a mandate to deliver “design excellence.”

The agency hired the big engineering firm R.V. Anderson to design the stormwater system, but asked them to hire one of three architecture firms to make the outer “envelope” into something beautiful. GH3 got the call.

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The collaboration was sometimes awkward, Ms. Hanson says, and it’s clear there were some compromises. The architects originally imagined the building clad with limestone, with a matching plinth around it. In GH3′s drawings, that design looks like a Greek ruin of mysterious purpose. But limestone is not cheap, and so the building’s exterior is concrete. (In the end it will match the nearby Gardiner Expressway, whose reconstruction will squander the costs of GH3′s design a thousand times over.)

Outside the plant, Ms. Hanson and I walked across two triangles that point to a circle in the ground. The circle marks the two subterranean shafts that collect water on the way in and on the way out of the facility; the triangles will carry rainwater off the building itself and into the system of which it is a part.

In a few years, citizens will drive and cycle right past this spot on a rebuilt Lake Shore Boulevard. Will they see a piece of Land Art and a piece of sculpture? Or will they see high-quality public works in operation? Either way, they will be right.

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