A Design ticket for Loblaws on Queen West and Portland Street

We have all waited a very long time for the Loblaws on Queen West. Rio-Can switched it up from its previous sunny parking lot. That lot saw many hip hop festival moments, no more.

We looked across Queen Street from the window of Tequila Bookworm at the display of contractor forces. What will they come up with on this most rare of corner lots? Classical, Modern, whatever? There are listed heritage buildings on all sides.

What will now fill the Tequila Bookworm view, gazed out of by up and coming canadian poets, writers, artists, singers, and actors? Answer brightly - LOBLAWS - WINNERS -RIOCAN - SHOPPES ON QUEEN WEST. "The Man is taking over Queen Street", or so says the conspiracy theorist bartender with that political science degree from U of T.

The new view from Tequila Bookworm.

Nonethless, our neighbors all celebrate this fantastic new grocery in the neighborhood. It has changed our weekly routines. I get my red chinese cart and wheel my groceries home a few blocks, past a token Lamborghini parked in front of HPA, then over tricky King streetcar tracks.  

Oh yes, I hear Joe Fresh and Winners is OK too. The elevators and escalators are many and modern. The interior concept is generous.

As for urban planning, the actual Queen West Heritage Conservation District (HCD) is east of here on the other side of Spadina avenue. It was hoped that the HCD guidelines would extend further down Queen, helping the urban promenade. Parts of that effort has not happened here. Rio-Can could have followed the guidelines more closely. I'll explain.

This is a very important corner in the evolution of the Toronto board game. The pedestrian promenade on Queen is about to take a sharp left turn, as that new yellow Portland street bridge over the railway lands is about to open any day. Our planners vision of 30 years, of a protected pedestrian and bicycle promenade from Queen Street, down Portland, to the waterfront will finally be a reality. 

With that last connection, the vision of the glowing LOBLAWS sign will be the turning point to the waterfront. It can be seen from a mile away. "Turn left at the Loblaws sign" could be told to lost tourists. This is an unintended landmark.

The architectural treatment of the exterior is what this design ticket is about. As I saw it come into focus, I felt it a weak solution to a new large building on Queen West. 

For those planning types, I've composed a night/day photo collage comparing the old north side heritage buildings with the new south side. This should clarify the historical context. The infraction list follows, one number at a time. One may have to zoom in a bit to see them.

Queen and Portland infraction montage.

A disclaimer: Feeding everybody is more important than any design will ever be. 

Infraction 1: Retail glazing and facade is Ok but could be better. 

Speaking of context in detail, as you see by area 1, north side, glazed storefronts are the norm. Tequila Bookworm, even has a rolling garage door. Next door, in the infamous Velvet Underground nightclub below area 6, bars cover the windows. This adds mystery to the dark goth acts inside, like teenagers in black listening to loud music.  Still the decorative grill is very metalesque, reminding only me of Islamic mashrabiya. We can credit our local artist Yanis Ertmanis with this inspired goth facade design, with  silver heads, custom metal Velvet logo and spikes. Yanis says they are 9 inch nails. Yes, thats very funny Yanis.

Comparing the Loblaws side, the glazing ratio is not too bad, in that it has large glass windows to the street. During business hours, it can light the street at night.  There are even some wall mounted up/down lights, making the texture visible. Problematically there's nothing much to see yet in most of those windows, except for a Joe Fresh display, shown in area 2, comprised of some shoes glue-gunned to a wall. Please try and switch up your window display occasionally Joe. There are lots of talented window dressers along the street for hire.

Street facade mid block with BOM hours.

Still that's better than the Bank of Montreal, who has turned their retail display into a sign, covering a bank machine, with white letters on a blue background. The required display window is now the banking hours, in one foot high white letters.  Yes we know your open. Great.

Display windows on queen are for displys, not banking hours. 

My apologies to the other tenants like the graceful little Teaopia.

Walking on a Cloud, and Teaopia Cafe enjoy the street with right scaled elements, pedestriuan diplays and respectful light levels. 

Moving upwards to the second story, the glass bays are colorfull, attractive and innovative, with one side glass corners framed into a fragment of a brick wall. There are jogged levels to the brickwork, although so slight as to be barely noticeable, like engraved paper. 

The brown brick string courses ring the building, but mock the sucessfull design of the glazed bays in the front, an unnecesseary undergrid. The horizontal brick string courses may be a device in a traitional brick wall, but here in this floating fragment they have no meaning. Too many grids collide, magnifying design errors. Grids make your mistakes measurable.

A plain sculpted brick panel would have been better. Everwhere on Queen, architects long gone understood they didn't have to apologeticaly candystripe their brick walls. A nice massive plain wall background was used as datum to decorated openings. Sometimes the well meaning HCD guidelines are misleading. Walk down Queen one day and look up. You will see a rich language of facade design by generations of talented Canadian architects and meticulous creative craftsmen.

Getting back to our facade, the grey shingle pattern above the whole facade used as a metal cornice, has a lot of precedent along the street, courtesy of the classic french mansard roof. I suppose the huge size of them is a byproduct of this "postmodern ironic quotation." Maybe they just ran out of the nice smaller shingles. No matter, they don't fit on the bays windows too well.

There are quotes at the bottom of this blog, with HCD guideines on facade design quoted for reference.

Infraction 2: Dark areas to hide next to the entry and along the street. 

Some of the areas are dead blank, covered by brick or metal louvres and exit doors. Area 3, on each side of the Loblaws entry, is one of those dark spots. Here I'm conflicted, as this dark area, where warm air exhausts come up, is a great place for staff on smoke break, and the just plain tired, to rest squatting dog like on the grate. 

As for entry security that is a deeper question. In Seattle, presented with a large population of transient people, building owners have hired "blackshirts" or private security forces to police the entries of buildings. As we don't support private police in Toronto, the slower response of 911 will do.

Jane Jacobs wrote about the need to protect the street from the "barbarism" of crime , or suffer the gradual breakdown of urban areas, and the desiccation of the core.
We Canadians, spared the brutality if the American system, seem to want to tolerate those random acts of civil disobedience, as long as they are not too prevalent.

Infraction 3: Signage too large, disorganized and too bright. 

Signage and sign background standards and permits are vital to any major street. In area 4, the Loblaws and Winner signs, are twice as large in cap height as they should be. One inch of sign cap height is worth 10 feet of viewing distance, assuming average vision. The elderly may need more.

To internally illuminate a sign increases its legibility at night, so the cap height can be reduced.  These very large aggressive signs create glare. As the backgrounds of the these signs haven't been treated or lit, the glare effect has been amplified. These are techniques used for highway signage, not the sensitive environment of Queen Street West. 

The levels of these signs jump around the building. It seems the signs were an afterthought, placed after the building was completed, anywhere there was room. 

To compare, look at the sensitive treatment of signage in the heritage building across the street. The sign band area is the height the street signs are allowed to exist. This is to prevent a collage of words jumping around the environment.  There are some cheaters there too.

In area 5, discreet Tequila Bookworm doesn't even have an exterior sign, relying on signature blue lighting on an orange background, and discreet vinyl lettering inside the window spandrel glass. 

The amount of light coming from the Loblaws entry signs and the corner window is very dominating. Luckily for Loblaws the buildings around them need lighting, to show off their heritage character at night. As an urban night lighting strategy I find this is poor. Light levels should be consistent and low, with some detail lighting given to the upper levels of heritage features, or newer modern roof flourishes. In areas 11 and 12, some low level detail LED lights can support the detail. Vegas waits with a cynical laugh.

The blast of light from Loblaws and Winners signage and windows.

Infraction 4: Entry signage poor. Both signage too bright, and building address over entry illegible and an afterthought.

Never mind the over bright florescent signs right above the door, the building number was left out of the design till the very last. Ok, a pet peeve of mine, true. The number was squeezed in above the signage, and actually goes across a window mullion. Ok, it could be just a stand in till the real building number gets here. So far no change though. Oh well.

The building number should be a clear and decorative design, and made of good materials that weather well. I've never seen one spell out the whole street name. Possibly there is confusion over the address at the corner entry.

This whole sign would have been better in cutout or fabricated letters, separately lit. Mostly pedestrians, not drivers, are going to be looking at the entry sign, and pedestrians can read pretty well at the slow speeds their going. Internally illuminated signs are for cars driving by at speed at night, like the highway strip malls that this kind of signage was designed for. True heritage conservation districts dont allow this kind of thing. That means you too Shoppers Drug Mart.

The loud florescent RioCan sign is installed without thought of a building address. It appears in vinyl just above.

Hint: When on Queen West, it's not necessary to say "Queen West". People already know what street they are on when they get there. It's just not cool to put it on signage. And, if you just have to say it, don't say it twice please. Its retarded.

Imagine your naming concept being repeated many times. "Bars on Queen West"…"Galleries on Queen West". It's suburban naming poverty. When in doubt, don't be shy, name it after yourself. How about "Sonshine Shops" after Riocan's CEO. Proper names can have a rich historical connotation. See Honest Eds.

Now as for the work "Shoppes", letters in your face, bright and a foot high. The term is appropriate in a group of cute old boutiques, preferably in a small old english town. Stacked, bright orange, big box stores in downtown Toronto may not deserve it.  This is where well meaning mimicry can get one into trouble, almost like a sarcastic pun on "Shoppes."  Not funny.

Even though I disagree with the size and type of signs chosen on heritage grounds, I appreciate the good quality and attention to detail made by the sign manufacturers. Not their fault.

Infraction 5: Roof line design poor, and badly lit in either case.

As a continuation of the new street wall on Queen, the metal panels in area 9 are not proportioned to be a cornice line as in area 10, if that is what it is trying to emulate. The unit size of the texture is too large for the cornice elements.

Both old and new facades don't capitalize on their form at night. Cornice lines could be occasonally dimly lit for effect on both old and new buildings at higher levels, keeping in mind people are trying to sleep up there of course.

Infraction 6: Landscaping has little night lighting.

Both facades don't make the most of the street trees. They can be lit too. Hey wait a minute, there are no trees on the shady south side. 

Infraction 7: The mullion view block.

2nd level cafe on a rainy fall day.

 The big setup is made for the second level cafe, with a great view. You just love to sit on multi-color designer metal chairs, with your Loblaws food and a drink at the edge seating, looking out the window on a rainy day. This facade was designed from the outside in, with little thought for the user experience. Everything was coordinated, except the designer who laid out the relentless grid of mullions right at eye level. 

Infraction 8: Is a post modern design out of date?

The back and condo entry corner, with teal and ochre glass, and folded curtainwall.

I respect the effort of the architects involved to bring us some contemporary architecture. There are some design moments here, like the golden balconies glowing on the condo above. All great architectural periods have logical underpinnings that can resurface. 

The decorative strategies of this architectural style were invented to react against the brutalist appearace of a late modern architecture, and that means grey concrete. The architect was instructed to quote the ancient catalog of academic historical imagery, while cartooning them with contemporary colours, materials and scale. Today's relatively cheap construction, realtive to the orignal noble stone and bronze, can make these decorative features look cynical. Add the death of craft in fine masonry and sculpted decoration, and this makes the strategy difficult to execute. Isn't this the challenge of Queen Street West: the struggle to be different with much more freedom than money?

 The ideas of the perversely decorative, contrarian and mannerist style championed by Michael Graves in Portland City Hall, or a signage driven consumerism by Venturi and Brown in Learning from Las Vegas, can still be comercially valid. Under the zoning pressure of historical districts such as Queen Street, the approach may still seem a clever device by architects of a certian generation. Against the slick computer enabled architecture of today's new neo modern work, the postmodern can look fake and badly proportioned. It was a cartoon of a style.

There is a lot of public criticism in the community for what Rio-Can has done with the street.  In their defense, they could have just copied the bland minimalist formula down the street at Urban Outfitters - grey brick, silver metal, curtain wall, and avoided the controversy. But no, they somehow just had to do something, and for that I give a courage credit.

Creativity, especially on Queen West, can be appreciated, even if a bit clumsy and unpopular. 

Queen West HCD quotes.

Excerpts of design guidelines for the Queen West HCD, with infractions in bold.

  1. A sense of visual coherence along the street, which results in part from a continuous street wall, defined by the cumulative character of building scale, mass, height, and proportion.
  2. Through the design of the façade, new buildings should respect the scale of adjacent Contributing Buildings.
  3. Storefronts typically have recessed entrances creating deep display windows that enliven the street.
  4. The bays of storefronts and façades should ideally be 4.5 metres wide, and must be no more than 7 metres wide.
  5. Heritage building ensembles are divided into bays, giving the appearance of multiple buildings.
  6. The variety of individual store signage tends to add a dynamic character to Queen Street West. Large third party signage on the other hand, tends to detract from the heritage character of buildings.
  7. New and renovated buildings must be sympathetic to the heritage character of the built form by respecting the narrow rhythm of façades. This is particularly crucial to large developments.
  8. All third party signage and any signage above the ground floor must respect the heritage character of the building and streetscape, including the scale and narrow rhythm of storefronts. Signage must not cover windows.
  9. Blank façades detract from the active and engaging character of the street where people frequently enter (and look into) buildings through multiple doors and windows fronting directly onto Queen Street West.
  10. A horizontal rhythm and visual transition between floors is articulated in façade designs, through string courses, a change in materials, and a shift in the proportion of glazing.
  11. Architectural detailing provides a 3-dimensional texture that creates a play of light and shadows on façades.
  12. Upper levels are characterized by less transparency: between 25% to 75%, by windows that are generally vertically oriented. There is often a reduction in glazing from the second floor to the floors above.
  ericksong@ericksong.com © ERICKSONG ARCHITECTS INC. 2018