Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Toronto City Centre - A place full of interesting places

I'm just back from a short trip to Toronto to see family and friends and while there was struck by a number of developments that help to define the city centre as a place of many places, very different kinds of places, which, taken together provide its overall character. In a hectic week the highlights were the Distillery District, the Bloor/Yorkville shopping area, the Kensington Market area, and the nearby Art Gallery of Ontario and its surrounding area.

                                        The square in the Distillery District

I'd been told that the Distillery District (www.thedistillerydistrict.com) was one of the "gems" of the city as it's a great example of industrial preservation with a new purpose - as a retail, arts and eating place, and it does not disappoint. I had great coffee at Balzac's and great food - pulled pork - at the Pure Spirits Oyster House. And I met up after a too long break with my friends Jeannette and Peter at Trajectory brand consulting (www.trajectoryco.com) who have supported the area by moving in to one of the old buildings now converted in to offices. Its not a large area but it is a destination worth a visit as its got a range of shops and galleries that you will not find in any of the modern retail centres in the city and is a great antidote to their bland international brands.

The Kensington Market Area

Bland the Kensington Market a'int. Located just west of the city's China Town this is an area of quirky and characterful clothes, food and art shops and restaurants that was nearly redeveloped some years ago but saved by the kind of determined environmentally aware activism that Toronto is known for. It's also very different to the feel of the Distillery District which is much more ordered. Here you get a sense of regular replacement and adaptation of the retail and food offer, with lots of new businesses trying out their offers; its got a more earthy and authentic feel. And it feels like a real meeting place; for locals and for diverse social groups from across the city.

Yorkville Retail Area

By comparison the Bloor/Yorkville area, much touted as the retail revival area of the city centre, is given over to a mix of up market independent, national and international fashion brands. It is more ordered and more focussed on higher end spenders and fashionistas. It is marketed as Toronto's neighbourhood of style and has a well developed persona (www.bloor-yorkville.com). Founded in 1850 by entrepreneur Joseph Bloor it is a former village that got incorporated in to the city as it expanded and you get a sense of its traditional low density scale and character in the streets behind Bloor street with its high rise and dominant buildings. The "back-streets" accommodate independent retailers and restaurants and provide (expensive looking) homes for city workers. The backstreets offer is also a complement to the expensive international brand stores on Bloor. Much is made on the area's web site of the new landscaping that has been created on Bloor but for me the most imaginative landscaped spaces were in the backstreets like the mini field shown above. And the most imaginative store, in terms of product, display and assistants attitude was Anthropologie.

Frank Ghery's blue facade for the Art Gallery of Ontario 
overlooking Grange Park

The empty space at the Art Galley of Ontario

Completely different in character is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on Dundas street and the area which surrounds it which includes the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). The Museum was given a major make-over a few years ago by Frank Ghery, who remodelled its two main exteriors and its central atrium, to create a place with a very different feel to a traditional gallery. The front elevation on Dundas Street resembles an upturned canoe made out of Douglas Fir and when inside the new internal "corridor" that overlooks the street at first floor level you feel like you are inside the structure of a giant canoe or Viking longboat, one with glass panels to view the active streetscape. This corridor space is sadly wasted with next to no art on display; it would make a great place for light sculptures to be seen from the street. One of the interior highlights for me was the magnificent collection of Canadian art, in particular the work of the Group of Seven and Tom Thompson and many of their contemporaries.

The Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD

Close by on McCaul Street and beside Grange Park (behind the ROM) is the is Sharp Centre for Design building of OCAD. Designed by Will Alsop Associates this building presents a complementary counterpoint to Frank Ghery's ROM extensions and is a great environment for fulfilling OCAD's stated purpose of  education of the imagination, describing itself as a place where great minds meet. The presence of this college feeds the surrounding area with demand for food and beverage, music venues, clothes shops and other goods that contribute to the rich urban experience that this part of central Toronto offers its workers and residents.