Kerwin designs buildings all over the world and was the coordinating architect of Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid. His previous Toronto projects include the expansion of the Direct Energy Centre and the Minto Towers at Yonge and Eglinton.
We caught up with Kerwin at the Cityzen headquarters on his only day in Toronto to talk about his latest project.
Let's talk about why you're here. How far into the design process are you with the Selby?
We're at an advanced conceptual stage. We have a strong idea about the concept for the building, the materiality and the massing. We're going to the City to seek approval for the density, height and general arrangement that we hope to achieve.
What can we expect to see?
We are looking in terms of materiality to do something different to make the new building stand out. The building sits in a neighbourhood that is changing in terms of density, but there is a predominance of masonry buildings. Perhaps with the use of colour we might distinguish the project architecturally within the market place for the developer while also having it serve as a contextually interesting structure. The idea of notching the building with a cantilever is really important. [We're trying] to respond to the adjacent properties and what is best for the residents that will live in this tower.
You mentioned the use of colour. Can you elaborate?
We really want to embrace the use of colour, and we're doing it on a couple of projects right now. I don't know if we've found the right colour for the Selby project just yet but we are excited about using new materials and colour. We think it will be unique and it will distinguish itself. Doing something elegant, modern and progressive will appeal to people who appreciate design.
What influenced you for this project?
There are a few things that influence us. Architecture is an extremely collaborative process so I want to make sure that our team works hard to observe what is happening in Toronto and to think about how the building might fit into this context properly.
The site is very influential on the approach my team and I took. How we dealt with the massing of the building and the cut-out we proposed at the base is ultimately all about the site. We are trying to do what is best for our project in terms of establishing the greatest views, while also being respectful to the project adjacent to us by doing what we can for their views by carving out the lower floors.
What is your design philosophy?
My team and I all come from modernist roots. Most of us grew up working at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) during a period where we caught the tail end of some of the great modern buildings that SOM completed. Then we went through a period of architecture where some of those ideals were not really embraced.
A lot of us have cherished those roots of modernism and believe in an architecture that is rooted in systems that are rational but also beautiful. Rooted in structural and environmental systems, rooted in the context in which the building sits...
You've worked on two Toronto-based projects already. What's your take on architecture in this city?
There are several great new projects here with a considerable amount of talented architects, no question. There have been some really jewel-like buildings completed in Toronto. What is most noticeable is how the skyline has changed, particularly with high rise towers.
I started working in Toronto in the early 90's but I first came here 30 years ago as a freshman in architecture school. It was our first school trip and I have been fascinated by Toronto ever since. It was a wonderful experience. Toronto has changed quite a bit! It is an extremely vibrant city.
You were the coordinating architect of the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid. Can you speak about that experience?
The bid experience was a very positive thing, especially for the city. It gave Chicago terrific international exposure and provided an enhanced awareness of the numerous attributes that the city has to offer, several of which people were previously unaware.
Not winning the bid was a serious disappointment for reasons beyond much of our control. It had nothing to do with the physical plan, but with the geopolitical situation between the US and other countries and components within the Olympic movement itself.
Having said that, a lot of things came out of the bid were extremely positive for the city. I think many of the tenets of the physical plan could still be executed down the line should the city try to attract the games in the future.
It has always been part of my DNA to be involved in civic endeavours. The bid process was a case where thousands of professionals from all walks of business came together with the common goal of trying to get the games. The Olympics touches so many different pieces of commerce.
Also, the architectural community was extremely collaborative throughout the process. People who normally compete with each other were able to work alongside one another, contributing to some incredible results.
Are there any similarities or differences you see between Toronto and Chicago?
[Both cities] are urban environments on major waterfronts, comprised of neighbourhoods, both very walkable, and both very diverse from a density and ethnicity perspective. The people have similar mindsets and the climates are very comparable – there is a bit of a symbiotic relationship between the residents.
A lot of us in the US are envious of Toronto and Canada because of the growth that has occurred and the stability of the economy. Canada has continued to embrace different ethnicities and more open immigration laws. It is a problem we have in the US right now because immigration breeds innovation in all fields. It is for that reason that Toronto is an exciting place, and it has bred the need for housing, which is a big component of what is happening here architecturally.
"A lot of us in the US are envious of Toronto and Canada because of the growth that has occurred and the stability of the economy"
There appears to be a real commitment here in terms of quality of buildings. Quite frankly, Chicago has some things to learn from Toronto in that regard. There are a number of prominent architects who have designed outstanding buildings here and there seems to be particular attention paid to the exterior envelopes and massing of the buildings, which is impressive.
Chicago is a great city architecturally but it went through a period where the city constructed some buildings that were not particularly attractive, especially in the housing realm. There is a renewed interest in Chicago to create quality residential buildings and we are fortunate to be involved in a few of them.
A wise man once said that good design not only sells, but it sells at a premium. Do you agree?
I definitely embrace that. It is interesting – in the high rise residential market around the world it has kind of been slow to the forefront. If you look at other building types, residential or not, good design is good business, and the residential sector seems to have been slower to the race.
Developers like Sam who embrace great architects are fantastic. It has been quite evident in the US as well – good design has been the difference between projects succeeding and failing in this difficult marketplace. In other parts of the world, Asia in particular, there have been a select few places where design has been embraced for high-rise housing, and it is becoming more and more prevalent now.
What are some of your favourite buildings in the world?
I appreciate architecture all over the world. One architect I find fascinating today is Bertrand Goldberg. He was a modernist architect who was based in Chicago and did beautiful buildings using form in a very modernist and elegant way.
What makes a city a good candidate for cutting-edge architecture?
Really good question, I think you have to have a client base that is willing to experiment and push the envelope. Creating good or great architecture takes time and energy and you have to be committed to doing it. The key is finding those types of clients who have that commitment, no matter the place.
"I do not think architecture is about this idyllic place or idea, it is truly about working with people and working with constraints"
One of the beautiful things about architecture is that you get inspired by the place you are in – the constraints that the site offers, the program, the client wishes, etc. I do not think architecture is about this idyllic place or idea, it is truly about working with people and working with constraints and opportunities to make something special.
When you're not at bKL Architecture, where can we find you?
I love to travel. I have young children so I love to bring them and show them the world. I love to explore cities. We just got back from Paris and London, and we are going to Italy in a few months. We have traveled extensively throughout Asia. Showing our kids those cultures has been an incredible experience.
I spend a fair amount of time away from my family and I like to get as much time with them as I can when I am not travelling or working. I am going white water rafting with my son in the Grand Canyon soon, which will be the first time in I do not know how long that I will be completely disconnected – it is going to be a challenge.
You're only in Toronto for a day. Anything in particular planned?
One of the critical elements of this project that we are working on is the integration of the heritage building that is on site. The Gooderham mansion, which is the front part of the hotel and the original mansion, is being retained but we are moving it.
We are taking a tour of other projects in Toronto that have incorporated a heritage piece in the design of the project and looking at some of the best examples of how it is done. It is really important as we want the new and old building to work together.
And I am going to Absolute – I have been dying to see that, so I cannot wait.
Finally, Cubs or Sox?
That is so funny. I am a huge baseball fan and I love both teams but my allegiance is to the Sox. When I first moved to Chicago from Indiana I hung out at Sox Park. My son's allegiance is to the Cubs.