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Urban Experience

Mississauga wants its architectural props

Design competition, new condo tower could raise city’s profile

By Stefan Dubowski

At a glance, Mississauga is no architectural powerhouse. This city west of Toronto is covered in wide main streets and nondescript apartment and condo buildings. Its “downtown” is a shopping mall.

Sure, Mississauga has some architectural gems, such as the startling slab-faced civic building and Microsoft Canada’s peaceful headquarters. But on the whole, little about Mississauga indicates that it cares very much about architecture; the city seems nothing more than a functional, boring, bedroom community for its eastern neighbour.

But a new condominium tower destined to enliven one car-busy corner might help the urb shed its homely reputation. On March 28 Mississauga civic leaders, developers and urban planners unveiled Yansong Ma’s “360,” a curvaceous 50-storey stunner of construction with hips like Marilyn Munroe, slated to grace the corner of Burnhamthorpe Road and Hurontario Street – a stone’s throw from Square One, the mall that counts as Mississauga’s core.

The building is unique not only in shape, but also in the way it came into being. It was chosen as the winner of a highly publicized international design competition that saw entries from 70 countries. And unlike many of the other international architecture endeavours in and around Toronto — such as Daniel Libeskind’s explosive Royal Ontario Museum redux and William Alsop’s looming Sharp Centre for Design — this is no public-purse pursuit. Two private land developers, Fernbrook homes and Cityzen Development Group, are behind the effort.

It’s unusual for private residential developers to seek so far and wide for an architect. But according to Frank Salvatore, Fernbrook’s president and CEO, global scope was the best way to ensure the resulting building had character, which is becoming more and more important. In the “mature” condominium market — read: crowded — it’s difficult for developers to stand out. Unusual designs might help Fernbrook and Cityzen differentiate themselves from competitors. “Great design…makes sound business sense,” Salvatore said.

Sam Crignano, president of Cityzen, said nine panel judges — including architects, urban planners and academics — decided which of the submissions should win. The judges whittled an original list of 92 potentials down to six, and ultimately chose Ma’s work. But the judges didn’t operate in a vacuum: the competition also included a kiosk in Square One where Mississauga residents could have their say.

Ma’s tower will be the fourth in a series of condo buildings knows as the Absolute Community. The new neighbourhood’s backers — Cityzen and Fernbrook — as well as urban planners and Mississauga’s politicos, seem to hope the latest addition will spur a building renaissance. Antonio Gomez-Palacio said the 360 should be “an architectural watershed” — something to transform Mississauga from a bedroom community into the Canadian nexus of built form and function. The project is attracting the right kind of attention. “Other developers in the area have been on their tip toes, wondering what the hell is going on,” Gomez-Palacio said.

Mississauga isn’t a complete stranger to interesting architecture. According to Mayor Hazel McCallion, her town has held a series of urban design awards for more than 20 years, recognizing the city’s best buildings. But that’s a little-known fact, and Mississauga could stand to pay more attention to the built environment. Absolute’s backers seem to think this competition is one way to help.

Ma, the winning architect, runs MAD Office, a firm with bureaus in China and the U.S. He graduated from the Yale University School of Architecture and has won numerous awards for his work. Now that the competition is over, Ma will turn his attention away from the artwork and towards structural aspects.

Although the 360 tower resembles a woman’s figure, Ma insisted that his thoughts were pure during the project’s conception. “We didn’t really want to do a ‘sexy’ building,” he said, explaining that the twisting, curving lines result from his team’s attempt to ensure every unit in the edifice has a unique view from the windows. Only after public feedback suggested his work had a certain feminine flair did he realize how seductive the building had turned out, he said.

Absolute’s organizers said they would break ground on Ma’s tower in late-2006 or 2007 and aim to complete the building in 2008 or 2009. It will house about 450 units ranging in size from one-bedrooms to two-bedroom-plus-dens. Starting prices will be near $200,000, which is on the high side for this neck of the woods. Nonetheless, the organizers seemed convinced that the 360 would sell out fast, thanks to the high buzz factor about the project. Sales will start in May. The builders expect to spend between $110 million and $130 million on the undertaking.