Dreaming of a real estate Robin Hood
“Do you understand the conditions I’ve set forth, Mr. LeBlanc?” said the electronically-disguised voice on the other end of the line.
“Yes, although I still don’t know why you’ve chosen me,” I said, still dumbfounded by what I’d just heard.
“You are one of the few architecture writers who ‘get it,’ and we think you’ll deliver our message properly,” said the mysterious voice in closing. “We’ll see you at the appointed place and time – goodbye.”
And so began my experience with ‘Developer X,’ undoubtedly the strangest I’ve had while covering the real estate beat for the Globe and Mail. While I’m forbidden to reveal Developer X’s true identity or even the location of our meeting, I can tell you that Toronto will never be the same if what I’ve heard is true.
If you’re tired of watching McMansion after McMansion replace perfectly good bungalows, or grow like weeds on any and every infill lot while destroying the scale and sanctity of our neighbourhoods in the process, read on.
You might say Developer X is a real estate Robin Hood. Or a superhero. Or both. As it was told to me, the plan is to force Torontonians (especially homebuilding ones) to confront smaller, modest and modernist residential architecture by building first and asking questions later. Don’t follow me? Try this: Right now, at the southeast corner of Dupont Street and Westmoreland Avenue is a rather large vacant lot – last I checked, the hoarding was painted bright blue – but at some point in the very near future it will contain a row of six pointy and glassy townhouses that will be erected virtually overnight.
Don’t ask how Developer X has gotten permission to do this or where the parts are being fabricated, because I don’t know. All I know is that once built, these strikingly beautiful structures will ignite questions that should have been asked long ago, such as: Why is it that no high-volume home builders offer smaller, affordable starter homes in the modern style? Are there no consumers willing to buy them? And why must ‘modern’ equal stark boxes with flat roofs like those in the pages of Dwell magazine? Are there no new ways to rethink the traditional pitched roof?
Developer X thinks there are: “It makes sense in Canada … there are a lot of reasons to have a pitched roof, and when you expose them on the inside they make very beautiful forms. So it’s something we’ve been working on for a number of years. You can get very large spans without using steel and [instead] using conventional wood framing systems.”
In the rendering handed to me, I saw this to be true: Wonderful shapes and spans have been created, and by slicing away portions of the roof to create private decks and light-wells, natural light penetrates deep into these homes. By glazing only the front and rear elevations, Developer X’s homes can be ganged together in groups of two, four, ten or as many as you like.
“Compositionally really interesting volumetric spaces,” says Developer X as I hand the rendering back and watch, amazed, as a match is held to it before being dropped into a metal trash can. “We’ve taken advantage of the roofscape in order to fit in an exterior space that’s entirely enclosed, set away from the street and completely private.”
So simple, yet so modern, it makes me wonder why this hasn’t been done before. And with the traditional roof peak retained, these homes can be inserted into older Toronto neighbourhoods without ruining the streetscape.
There are other top secret sites (that will be revealed soon) where similar homes will be dropped, guerrilla-style. And, if Developer X gets his/her wish, these philanthropic gifts will become the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back as people demand more choice, whether directly from the traditional homebuilders or via their city councillors, the media or on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
Okay, I’ll fess up. While the above scenario is something I’ve wanted for a very long time, most of it is fiction. Yes, the designs are real, but they aren’t coming to a neighbourhood near you under cover of darkness.
There is no Developer X.
Developer X is the brainchild of two very imaginative, talented (and married) architects named Merike and Stephen Bauer of Reigo & Bauer. You may remember a very lovely (and very real) home at 12 Cassels Ave. featured in these pages in May 2006.
The architectural Robin Hood story of Developer X is part of a new gallery show at Harbourfront Centre’s York Quay Centre (235 Queens Quay W.) called Neighbourhood Maverick, which opens tonight and runs until June 12, 2011. Of her and her husband’s fictional creation, Ms. Bauer says: “He’s making a pitch to developers to say ‘Give Torontonians a chance to adopt modern.’ Every developer is scared [and thinks] that everybody buys traditional, and Developer X is saying ‘Just look, here’s a modern building, I bet you it’s going to sell.’ ”
And I bet you that when a developer finally does find the courage to go modern, Reigo & Bauer will be the ones getting the surprising phone call.