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Skål! The Great Danish Invasion of Toronto’s Architecture

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Toronto, by many standards, has burst onto the world stage as a global city. Often cited as one of the most livable cities on the globe, Toronto’s success is evident in its economic prosperity, diversity, and cultural institutions. And in the world of architecture, the success of a global city is often reflected by who designs its buildings; you know you’ve made it when the international starchitects are in town.

Toronto had a glimpse of celebrity during its coming-of-age in the postwar era. Following Finnish architect Viljo Revell’s striking City Hall, the likes of international superstars Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and I.M. Pei graced the skyline with their iconic TD and CIBC towers. Things quieted down through the latter part of the 20th century, but since the mid-2000s, Toronto’s international architecture scene is booming. Many of the profession’s big names have arrived here: Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster, Snøhetta, and Jeanne Gang, to name a few.

Danish Architecture, TorontoPhoto of the Ryerson Student Learning Centre, image courtesy of Snøhetta.

Within the contemporary global scene, one country in particular has produced an impressive roster of internationally-renowned architecture firms over the past decade: the tiny Scandinavian country of Denmark. Known as the one of the happiest countries on earth, home of smørrebrød and pastries galore, Denmark’s population hovers around 5.8 million people, yet it is leading the design world in architecture, urbanism, and landscape design.

The Danish style can often be described as having a striking yet humble simplicity. The focus tends to be on a strong, well-defined form and a simple material palette. Clean lines, textured surfaces, crisp details, and a single broad concept that is carried through the building inside and out, start to finish. The result is a strong idea that is easily understood, a visually-stimulating appearance either through its stark minimalism or its busy repetition, and a well-constructed building that is pleasing to the eye. Jørn Utzon, the great Danish Modernist best known for the Sydney Opera House, brought Danish architecture to the international stage, and a roster of contemporary architecture firms are now building on that reputation.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of KING Toronto, image courtesy of Westbank and Allied.

Luckily for us, the Danes have arrived in Toronto, and they bring with them their brand of architecture that has certainly made an impact on the local development scene. Below we profile four Danish firms and their Toronto projects, and how their influence is changing the architecture scene throughout the city.

3XN

Founded in Aarhus, Denmark in 1986, 3XN – named after its three founding partners, all whose last name is Nielsen – has built a reputation of providing an innovative spin on rather ordinary programs. They are known as game-changers in educational and institutional buildings, redefining how buildings can influence learning and well-being, while also producing atypical housing developments with a human focus. In 2007, the firm established a new innovation unit of their company called GXN, which focuses on research and experimentation with new materials and technologies in architecture. The company mantra emphasizes that architecture shapes behaviour.

3XN Architects, TorontoRendering of the Olympic House IOC Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, image courtesy of 3XN Architects.

In Toronto, 3XN has four projects underway, each of them residential developments of varying scales. They are already making their mark with Hines and Tridel‘s Bayside community, where they partnered with local firm Kirkor Architects to design the Aquabella and Aqualuna mid-rises, both of which are now under construction. Aquabella is an L-shaped building featuring stepped terraces and a stacked-box aesthetic where splashes of wood add texture and variance to the white and grey facade. The human-scaled terraces and ‘outdoor rooms’ are an attempt to package the advantages of a single-family home into a multi-unit building.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of Aquabella, image courtesy of Hines and Tridel.

With Aqualuna, 3XN took the stepped terrace form and added a whole lot of flair to it. Inspired by its prominent waterfront location, the wave-like balconies and bronzed aluminum cladding evoke a myriad of nautical themes and are sure to create a landmark anchoring the Bayside community. Aqualuna takes a fairly simple building typology and transforms it with two small formal gestures – the stepped ‘peaks’ and the undulating balconies – to create something unique. 

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of Aqualuna, image courtesy of Hines and Tridel.

Two other larger projects are in the early stages of design. 3XN has again partnered with Hines and Kirkor for a development at 64-86 Bathurst Street, just south of King. Much of what was tested at Aquabella can be seen repeated here, albeit at a much larger scale.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of 64-86 Bathurst Street, image courtesy of Hines.

But at Church and Wellesley, 3XN is reaching for the sky, with their only tower project in the city being designed alongside Graziani + Corazza Architects and ONE Properties. This development stands out for its extensive pre-application consultations with the community regarding the design of the podium. The attention to detail given to the interaction of the building at street level embodies 3XN’s people-first approach, who hope to create a positive addition to the Church-Wellesley Village that gives back more to the community than it takes.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of Church and Wellesley, image courtesy of ONE Properties.

COBE Architects

Relatively new to the scene, COBE Architects was founded in 2005 by Danish architect Dan Stubbergaard and German architect Vanessa Miriam Carlow. The name derives from the first two letters of the founders’ home towns – Copenhagen and Berlin. In a mere 13 years, COBE have made a name for themselves through high-profile institutional and infrastructural projects, tackling major libraries, museums, train stations, and commercial buildings across Denmark and Europe. Expanding into large-scale master plans has provided a smooth transition into residential development, which has now landed them in Toronto.

Danish Architecture, TorontoPhoto of Krøyers Plads in Copenhagen, Denmark, image courtesy of COBE Architects.

COBE is involved in two developments in Toronto, one of which is ruffling a few feathers with the locals. Scrivener Court, adjacent to Summerhill subway station, is led by Tricon and Diamond Corp with designs from COBE alongside Graziani + Corazza Architects. Much like 3XN’s buildings, Scrivener Court presents a mash-up of a Toronto glass-clad pencil tower with a Danish flair for smaller-scale, brick-clad formalism. The cascading tower appears as a stacked-up pile of increasingly taller rectangular volumes to break up its massing, while deep punched-out windows add shadow and a relatable scale to the facades. While locals take issue with its height and scale, its massing shows a sensitivity to context – a hallmark of COBE’s design approach.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of Scrivener Court, image courtesy of Tricon.

Down in the West Don Lands, Block 8 was recently unveiled to be a collaboration of COBE and architectsAlliance for developers Tricon, Dream, and Kilmer. The trio of buildings appear unique amongst Toronto’s housing stock. The simple formal treatment of the facades – the angled recesses of the podium windows, the curving flairs of the upper towers – and the simple two-material palette represents a clear contextual nod to the scale and image of the neighbouring Distillery District, while creating something that stands out in its own right.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of Block 8 West Don Lands, image courtesy of Tricon, Dream, and Kilmer.

Henning Larsen Architects

The oldest firm on our list, Henning Larsen Architects was founded in Copenhagen in 1959 by the late Henning Larsen. Over the decades, their portfolio has expanded to include everything from master plans to corporate headquarters, embassies, concert halls, residential developments, schools, and government buildings. Recently, they have been garnering international attention alongside their Danish counterparts for their edgy formalism and facade treatments, and have brought their unique approach to two very high-profile projects in Toronto.

Danish Architecture, TorontoPhoto of Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, image courtesy of Henning Larsen Architects.

Henning Larsen burst onto the local scene when they were awarded top prize in the international competition to design the new Etobicoke Civic Centre. Teaming up with Adamson Associates, they presented an intriguing proposal for a collection of angled boxes varying in height and huddled together to frame a central civic plaza. The subtle play with the massing of the building creates several eye-catching moments where corners punch out from the pile, balancing each other to orchestrate an overall harmonious composition. The cladding is uniform throughout, with vertical fins that vary in density and rhythm, placing the emphasis squarely on the form of the building.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of the Etobicoke Civic Centre, image courtesy of CreateTO.

More recently, Henning Larsen has been brought on to the design team for First Gulf‘s East Harbour, the massive redevelopment of the former Unilever soap factory site. Henning Larsen’s role on the project is as an ‘ideas generator’, and their impact has already been felt with some favourable revisions to the master plan. It remains uncertain whether they will have a direct hand in designing any of East Harbour’s buildings, but their tendency for outside-of-the-box formal exercises would be most welcome.

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of the Soap Factory Plaza in East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Bjarke Ingels Group

Last but not least, the most famous of the Danish firms is Bjarke Ingels Group, better known as BIG. Founded in 2005 by Bjarke Ingels following a brief partnership as PLOT Architects, the firm and its founder exploded onto the international scene and have since done nothing short of revolutionize the profession in little over a decade. BIG has broken the mould of Danish architecture, abandoning the humility in favour of a loud, expressive form that screams architecture in your face. Their unapologetic diagram-turned-building aesthetic takes simple, logical ideas rooted in context and the human scale and transforms them into unconventional, unusual, yet visually stunning structures. While Danish society praises the power of the collective, BIG stands alone as the loudest and most influential voice in the room.

Danish Architecture, TorontoPhoto of VIA 57 West in New York City, image by Nic Lehoux.

Their creative brand has landed in Toronto, and Westbank and Allied‘s KING Toronto has been grabbing headlines since it was first unveiled. Teaming up with Diamond Schmitt Architects, the stacked mountain on King West takes its influences from Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal, while its courtyard form is a response to the local urban context. The undulating form is a first for Toronto and is a distinctly BIG aesthetic, but perhaps even more unique is their proposal to clad the building entirely in glass block. Formally and materially groundbreaking, the Danish influence of a strong formal language combined with a simple textured material palette can still be seen, albeit amplified beyond that of COBE’s subdued contextualism or Henning Larsen’s simplified forms. 

Danish Architecture, TorontoRendering of KING Toronto, image courtesy of Westbank and Allied.

Bolstered by the recent Unzipped exhibition, where Westbank brought BIG’s Serpentine Pavilion to Toronto – the first time any Serpentine Pavilion has travelled outside of London’s Hyde Park – BIG’s KING Toronto looks set to inject a jolt of energy into Toronto’s signature glass box aesthetic.

* * *

The four Danish firms building in Toronto each bring a distinct flavour of design to the local architecture scene. We often criticize ourselves for the repetitiveness of our buildings, but there is something different about the projects shown above. The standard curtain walls and developer-driven layouts have been given the Danish treatment, and the result is decidedly above average. Whether it be a clearer response to context, a unique massing and form, or an innovative material and facade treatment, it is clear that the Danes have arrived, and they’ve brought their architecture with them.

Check back for updates on the projects mentioned above, and be sure to tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum threads, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.



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7 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers In Calgary

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Buying a house for the first time can be overwhelming to say the least. If you’re wondering what neighbourhood to go with, what you can afford, or even how to just get started on the process, let us take some stress off your hands! We’ve teamed up with Hopewell Residential to give you 7 tips to ensure the home you end up with is everything you dreamed of.

Hopewell Residential is a five-time Developer of the Year award winner, so their expertise is second-to-none in Calgary and beyond. Who better to learn home-buying tips from than the homebuilders themselves?

Create a checklist of needs & wants

This is a biggie. When you’re buying your very first home, you’ll want to weigh your needs vs. your wants. Ensuring you have what you love in your first home is a big, big deal.

What should you do? Easy. Set up a list of needs and a list of wants, but be pretty strict with yourself, and make sure you take your lifestyle into consideration. With the increase in remote work over the past year, it’s important to keep in mind that a home office or flex room might just be the key to maximizing at home happiness. Especially if you’re thinking you might be expanding your family later on, spare rooms and extra space is key (but more on that later!).

Or for instance, you might need a home in an area with a high walkability score, but you want to be close to certain amenities. Set yourself up with the right level of compromise and the number of homes that actually fit your ‘perfect’ idea will skyrocket.

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‘Don’t give up’: Ottawa Valley realtors share statistics, tips for homebuyers in ‘extreme’ sellers market

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The real estate market in the Ottawa Valley can be summed up this way: people from far and wide are in a buying frenzy, but there’s hardly anything to buy at the “store,” and the limited inventory is overpriced.

This “stampede” — as one realtor described it — will affect rural towns as residents grapple with finding affordable housing and agonize over their inability to purchase homes in their price range.

“We are seeing a lack of inventory in all price ranges,” said Laura Keller, a real estate agent from Carleton Place.

Helen Vincent, a Renfrew realtor, said she’s never seen a market like this in her 36 years of practice. “We postpone offers for four to five days in order to get all the buyers,” she said.

Multiple offers — between seven and 10 — became the norm, with cash offers and no conditions, as buyers faced bidding wars. “In Ottawa, they have up to 50 (offers),” she added.

“It’s very stressful. You’re going to get nine (people) ticked off, and one happy. So many people are disappointed,” Vincent said.

Terry Stavenow, an Arnprior realtor for 40 years, said that “the pent-up need took over with inventory going low. It made a stampede on everything that was available.“

“Brand new housing — it’s very much gone. Several building developers are rushing to get inventory. They usually don’t do construction in the winter months,” said Stavenow.

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10 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers

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Buying a home for the first time is exciting and a commitment to the future. It’s often challenging, too, and the process requires a lot of steps, many of which can be tricky to navigate as a first-time home buyer.

What are some things you should keep in mind as a first-time home buyer?

First-Time Home Buyer Tips

Here are 10 tips to keep in mind as you begin your journey toward homeownership.

1. Have Your Finances in Order

It’s wise to begin saving as early as possible once you’ve made the decision to purchase a house. You’ll need to consider the down payment, closing costs (which often range from 2% to 5% of the down payment), as well as move-in expenses.

You also need to understand the other costs of homeownership, such as mortgage insurance. property taxes, utilities, homeowner’s insurance, and more.

2. How Much Can You Afford?

Knowing how much you can realistically afford in a home is another important financial consideration. Look for the home of your dreams that fits your budget.

One way to avoid future financial stress is to set a price range for your home that fits your budget, and then staying within that range. Going through the preapproval process will help you understand what price range is realistic for your budget.

3. Make Sure Your Credit is Good

Another thing to keep in mind as a first-time home buyer is your credit score because it determines whether you qualify for a mortgage and affects the interest rate that lenders offer. 

You can check your credit score from the three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

This is another good reason for getting preapproved before you start your search. Learn more about the preapproval process and your credit score.

4. Choose The Right Real Estate Agent

A good real estate agent guides you through the process every step of the way. He or she will help you find a home that fits your needs, help you through the financial processes, and help ease any first-time buyer anxiety you may have.

Interview several agents and request references.

5. Research Mortgage Options

A variety of mortgages are available, including conventional mortgages – which are guaranteed by the government – FHA loans, USDA loans, and VA loans (for veterans).

You’ll also have options regarding the mortgage term. A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is popular among many homebuyers and has an interest rate that doesn’t change over the course of the loan. A 15-year loan usually has a lower interest rate but monthly payments are larger.

6. Talk to Multiple Lenders

It’s worth your time to talk to several lenders and banks before you accept a mortgage offer. The more you shop around, the better deal you’re liable to get – and it may save you thousands of dollars.

7. Get Preapproved First

Getting a mortgage preapproval (in the form of a letter) before you begin hunting for homes is something else to put on your checklist. A lender’s preapproval letter states exactly how much loan money you can get.

Learn more about the preapproval process and how preapproval provides you with a significant competitive advantage in our article How Preapproval Gives You Home Buying Power.

8. Pick the Right House and Neighborhood

Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of the different types of homes based on your budget, lifestyle, etc. Would a condominium or townhome fit your needs better than a house? What type of neighborhood appeals to you?

9. List Your Needs and Must-Haves

The home you purchase should have as many of the features you prefer as possible. List your needs in order of priority; some things may be non-negotiable to you personally.

10. Hire an Inspector

Hiring an inspector is another crucial step in the home buying process. An inspector will tell you about existing or potential problems with the home, and also what’s in good order. You can learn more about home inspections and how to find a home inspector through the American Society of Home Inspectors website.

Buying a home for the first time is a challenge, but it’s one you can handle with the right planning and preparation.

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