It’s got some cool interiors, but in its delicate downtown hood the TIFF Bell Lightbox, in Toronto, comes across as very tall and vaguely menacing

Lisa Rochon

Friday, September 03, 2010

An architectural snore.

That’s the tragic upshot of the highly anticipated TIFF Bell Lightbox. It could have been a poetic work touched by the sultry light of Atom Egoyan’s films. The exterior might have been sculpted as a vessel of drama, made gritty and raw as Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. There might have been elements of unsettling surprise, the way Wim Wenders amazed us in Wings of Desire.

Citizens, lower your expectations. What could have been released as a summer blockbuster of epic, original architecture turns out to be barely alive.

In the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district, the new headquarters for the Toronto International Film Festival bullies King Street West with mostly blank walls clad in painted metal panels. And, rising from the five-storey TIFF podium, the 42-floor Festival Tower condominium has opened the floodgates to a rash of towers in a district once distinctly, delightfully defined by its Victorian houses and brick warehouses.

Directly north of Festival Tower, the earth has already been opened up for the 43-storey Cinema Tower, designed by Kirkor Architects and Planners, which also served as the architects of record for the Bell Lightbox and Festival Tower. Next to it is the 42-storey Pinnacle on Adelaide. The Charlie tower – 32 storeys of “condos that love you” – is going up at the corner of Charlotte and King; nearby is the 30-storey M5V by Core Architects.

From its inception, the idea of a year-round headquarters for TIFF had gathered a star cast of backers and designers into its fold. In 2003, Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg of KPMB Architects won the design competition tendered by TIFF and a consortium called the King and John Festival Corporation, made up of Hollywood producer Ivan Reitman, his sisters Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels, and Toronto developer Daniels Corporation.

The Reitmans donated the prime downtown land for the TIFF showpiece; Daniels donated its management fees associated with construction of the complex. The promise of a major centre dedicated to film inspired many acts of generosity – from festival board chair Paul Atkinson to the late impresario David Pecaut, and from fundraising campaign chair John Tory to the federal and provincial governments, which donated a combined $60-million to the project.

Certainly, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will become the city’s definitive hub of cinema culture, with five technologically supreme theatres, richly appointed seating, exhibition space, and a $10-million endowment to nurture young filmmakers. But in embracing the vision of TIFF to go big downtown, the city has sacrificed on a couple of fronts.

The lively Victorian cheek-by-jowl rhythm of King Street, where three-storey brick buildings house a collection of restaurants and outdoor-adventure stores, is now heavily shadowed by the new King Kong of culture. Height is not the only nasty gorilla on the street: Apart from the occasional relief pushed into the Lightbox façade, the building sets up a series of windowless walls containing cinemas within.

Rather than the kind of architectural drama found in the much smaller but emotionally charged Cinémathèque québécoise in Montreal by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes, the Lightbox is revived by some specific architectural close-ups. These include some chic watering holes and eateries designed by KPMB.

The second-floor Blackberry lounge features a long, white-marble bar and direct views onto the street. Connected to it is Luma, a restaurant with enough texture and restraint to make you feel instantly welcome; there are long leather banquettes, walnut on the floors and walls, and Eramosa stone, too. Elsewhere, there’s some repressed drama in the south walls of two cinemas clad in dark zinc and punching out over King Street; in the two-storey entrance atrium; and in an airy ground-floor restaurant with monumental sliding glass doors.

Within the ground-floor entrance, there is one other notable flourish – an atrium with a suspended red box functions as the control deck from which the digitalized cinemas will operate (and a wall is painted a startling Yves Klein blue). Actually, the star of the Lightbox is not architecture but that invisible force that now governs our lives: technology.

That red box can control simultaneous screenings of films in five cinemas; and it allows artists to create images on screens within the atrium. An interview with an actor or director, meanwhile, could be broadcast from 40 screens scattered throughout the building. Very cool.

But one of the Lightbox’s big architectural moments is invisible to anyone on the street: A rooftop capping the base building, where generous steps and benches in concrete slope down to a vast terrace, is to be primarily restricted to the 200 TIFF employees who will work in the building.

Kuwabara and Blumberg have produced some heady moments of architecture in Toronto, particularly the National Ballet School on Jarvis Street. The Lightbox, however, does not represent their finest hour. If there was a grand vision by TIFF to seriously ignite the public’s passion for film, embraced by distinctive architecture, it has been abandoned on the editing floor.

What drove the big scale? A big dream, of course.

Wanting to make an impressive splash in the world, TIFF director Piers Handling called for five cinemas; the British Film Institute, he notes, has only three. In the end, the building houses seven cinemas, including a screening room for condo dwellers and another one for TIFF employees. There was a lot being packed into the program.

Not surprisingly, the square footage within the Lightbox jumped 20 per cent. To make that happen, while keeping to a budget of $196-million, cuts to the design vision had to be made. A luminous ground-floor box with cut-through atrium – the proposal of the design-build consortium that won the bid for the King & John Festival Corporation – was reduced in size and reclad in a mix of glass and, mostly, metal.

Why call the building a Lightbox? It’s actually misleading. Yes, there will be some carefully appointed strips and stripes of coloured light embedded into the metal canopy and framing the front doors; Seattle lighting artist Jeff Miller has worked some visual relief into the architecture.

And, way up high, there’s a tall mast that will glow with white light on the condominium rooftop. It’s a luminous beacon marking TIFF’s determination to build a new headquarters – catch the drama at night – so many storeys above the new but already tired architecture sleeping on the street. Zzzzzzzzzz.

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