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ALSOP AND PARTNERS: A PLANNING FREE ZONE

From Saturdays' Globe and Mail

TORONTO — Toronto had never seen anything like it – a gigantic checkered box hoisted into the sky, balanced on a handful of gigantic spikes. Six years later, we are not only accustomed to the Sharp Centre for Design, designed by British architect Will Alsop, it has become the architectural benchmark against which a clutch of ambitious new projects are measured.

And when Mr. Alsop was asked how we might make wider changes to Toronto's often scruffy urban fabric, he delivered something characteristically different. His confection of coloured geometry, with buildings growing out of the landscape – and seemingly each other – is what might happen, he suggests, if Toronto were to fling off its corset of planners, politicians and bureaucrats and live a little, removing all the planning rules and letting residents and developers rebuild at their pleasure. The fanciful picture sends the message that organic growth is more interesting than urban planning. In Mr. Alsop's words, “A carefully planned place usually lacks soul and results in people behaving badly.”

Mr. Alsop calls his concept a “no-planning” zone. Here, market forces take over and there is a rush to maximize the potential for lake views. Buildings appear that dip their toes in the water. Among them are some that are lifted above the ground, allowing public access to the water's edge. Others emerge north of the first ones, but are built higher, also to achieve lake views. The increase in density persuades the city to locate a new museum in the area. The architect decides to raise the building as a 3-D Mobius strip. Bars, restaurants and street markets appear in what Mr. Alsop calls a “useful terrestrial grunge.” This, he adds, “is the part where people really want to be.”

While the area selected is one of Toronto's most uninspired quadrants – bounded by College, Dufferin, Lansdowne and the waterfront – it might happen anywhere. Mr. Alsop says he is interested in “the power of the alien object to wake people up.” No kidding. As he sees it (and a growing legacy bears him out), initial fears about a different building generally melt away once it goes up. “When they [the public] relax and they're not nervous about it, then they think it's great.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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