The architects building Toronto’s past into its future

307 Lake Shore Boulevard East is the squat gray building in the center of this aerial image of the Quayside neighborhood. (Sidewalk Labs)

The firm Lebel & Bouliane has become known for adaptive reuse projects — like the new Sidewalk Toronto workspace, “307” — that make history an integral part of their designs.

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TORONTO — From the second floor of a noisy construction site, at 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East, Luc Bouliane walks towards a window facing Lake Ontario. Considering the undeveloped waterfront outside, the architect points towards the swath of desolate land that will one day become the Quayside neighborhood.

“Look one way and you see concrete silos and ships being fixed up on shore, it’s very industrial,” he says. “Look the other way and it’s condos and towers and parks. 307 is literally on the boundary. It’s a pivotal point in the waterfront’s development.”

Projects at this nexus of past and future have become a calling for Lebel & Bouliane, the Toronto-based firm Bouliane launched with partner Natasha Lebel in 2010. The firm has created a new headquarters for Cossette Media from a former World War II ammunition factory in Liberty Village; modernized York University’s Student Centre while preserving the glory of its 1991 design; and transformed a crammed corner inside of Philip Johnson’s CBC building into a spacious, light-filled contemporary workplace. Their latest adaptive reuse project will turn a former fish processing plant into “307,” an office space and innovation workshop for Sidewalk Toronto’sexplorations-in-progress.

“We’re really adept at reading architecture from different periods and understanding it,” says Lebel. “It’s about the original intention, its poetic nature.”

Exterior view of 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East. (Old Toronto)

Hard-hat on head, Bouliane recently walked me through the construction site at 307, pointing out the subtle interventions that bridge the divide between old use and new. The concrete floors have been ground down, but not perfectly polished. The columns, once-covered up with drywall, have been stripped to reveal their graffiti-lined steel skeletons. Above, seven gaping ducts indicate where, not too long ago, large HVAC tubes had cluttered the ceiling.

Looking up, Bouliane suddenly pauses the tour and calls over a colleague for consultation. He apologizes for the interruption. “That new conduit that was going down the wall, they have to move that,” he explains. “You have to pay attention to all those moments, even little ones, so you don’t have those intrusions.”

That hyper-sensitivity to “intrusion” is critical to understanding Lebel & Bouliane’s approach. Each adaptive reuse project begins with the architects stripping the building of its more recent renovations or additions to reveal and express the original structure — and hence the building’s history. Only then do they begin to weave in their own architectural interventions, which often take the form of dramatic geometric volumes, warm natural materials, and site-responsive forms.

“We definitely try to peel back all the layers, expose what’s beautiful, and then add our language within that, in a very simple way, without trying to take it over,” says Bouliane. “So you really understand the difference between the older, original building and the new elements that we’re layering on top of it.”

It’s a technique the firm used to most dramatic effect in the Cossette Media headquarters in Liberty Village. The architects stripped down the 50,000-square-foot building, exposing the structure, and carefully inserted two-story contemporary volumes, including a triangular overhang that resembles a sharp ocean liner pulling into harbor. These dramatic volumes hold private, second-story meeting “pods,” while also dividing up the ground floor and creating an internal “main street,” where public services (like a café and print shop) are housed. The idea was to create a variety of flexible private, semi-private, and public spaces, which compensate for the smaller personal footprints that characterize many open plan workspaces today. The result is unabashedly contemporary, yet still mindful of the building’s history.

Cossette Media’s headquareters are housed in an old ammunitions factory in Toronto. Lebel & Bouliane exposed the original structure of the building and inserted dramatic, geometric volumes. (Lebel & Bouliane)

“That’s one of the benefits of our approach,” says Lebel. “It’s never in conflict in terms of the dialogue of what is past, present, and future. Our work does have some futuristic, avant garde elements to it, and we really try to weave our architecture into the buildings that we work in — they’re not toupées clumped onto the space.”

The interventions at 307 are far less polished than those at the Cossette headquarters, in keeping with the building’s ethos. “It actually looks like something that you would be testing a lot of stuff in,” says Bouliane, who describes the building as “rough” and “humble.”

Originally, the former 20th-century fish processing plant was designed to optimize for light (a large clerestory window wraps the southern wall, letting soft light flood the open space), observation (a second story office allows managers to easily survey the factory floor), and connectivity to the waterfront (large garage doors grace the south-west walls). Lebel & Bouliane has preserved all these elements and kept interventions small and purposeful: the high bay lights now hold efficient LED bulbs; the HVAC ducts will be replaced with sustainable “Big Ass fans,” powered using digital electricity.

To mediate between the building’s new collaborative spaces in a way that conjures the past, the architects have designed a volume reminiscent of the hull of a ship. The low wood ceiling at the building’s entrance will direct visitors towards the building’s main 8,000-square-foot, double-height space, which will be open to the public on weekends throughout the summer to view explorations-in-progress. It is the potential of this space to evolve over time that is most exciting to Bouliane and his firm.

“This huge public space brings in the city to see these ideas,” he says. “That level of collaboration with the public is a key part of this project and the development of the city. To engage the public into the process that is going to form this new neighborhood, I think is a really unique and important thing.”

To that end, the architects have also amplified the building’s relationship to the waterfront by dissolving, as much as possible, the boundaries between interior and exterior space. Visitors will enter through glass double doors, windows into the activities happening inside and out. Throughout the summer, the parking lot will be periodically animated with a shipping container market community gardens, and performances. And, Bouliane notes, bike paths and public transit will further connect the site, currently a low-density, under-serviced neighborhood to the rest of the city.

Lebel and Bouliane hope the building will draw in Torontonians who wish to engage with the question of what their city should be. But to contemplate the future, their building suggests, also requires us to understand the past.

May 31, 2018