In the pathologically tidy city described by Peter Ustinov as "New York, run by the Swiss", McCaul Street is notably unremarkable. It is conceivable that this strip of modest, low-rise urban decorum in Toronto may have been ruptured by one or two zeitgeist- threatening incidents of flagrant littering. And the residents of the condos overlooking McCaul Street's adjoining Grange Park have occasionally witnessed muggings. Generally, though, it's not exactly an action-stations stretch of Tarmac. Nothing much happens here, and on a very regular basis.
But, on a gelatinously hot morning, some of those residents clock a solid- looking fellow, fifty-ish, in a white jacket just purchased in Rosen's sales, downtown. He's on the pavement, smoking a B&H and smiling like an amused Buddha at the young, Stepford-immaculate interviewer from the city's Fashion TV station. He's Will Alsop, and the young, dutifully expressionless woman is interviewing the British architect because of the thing looming 100ft above them: a giant, white aluminium cigarette box, chequered with black squares and rectangles. 2-D Mondrian morphed into a 3-D Mondri-can.
They are standing by one of the six pairs of skewed, brightly coloured legs that hold the thing up - giant steel crayons anchored in caissons sunk 30ft deep into the underlying shale.
It is a defining moment in the history of Toronto's built environment. The apparently incidental scene in an apparently incidental street is one of the markers of a turning point in the city's cultural development. Within a decade, Alsop's fable in prosaic McCaul Street will be seen, quite precisely, as the post- millennial ground zero of Toronto's architectural renaissance - though that term assumes an earlier time when great buildings were regularly achieved. Mies van der Rohe may have built a couple of razor-sharp examples of mid-century modernist high-rises here, but the truth is that Toronto has generally been a font of architectural mirth.
Alsop's flotation of the extension of the Ontario College of Art & Design (Ocad) above its existing buildings is the first of three seismic architectural hammer-blows that will reforge Toronto into a branded city by setting out its considerable cultural resources in ostensibly shock-of-the-new containers. Alsop's Ocad is ready to rumble; next up, and already on site, are Daniel Libeskind's angular riffs (Thelonious Monk's fractured piano chords come to mind) for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and finally, there's Frank Gehry's makeover of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), currently premiering a wonderfully curated Turner-Whistler-Monet show that will move on to London and Paris (it's a must-see, incidentally, for Whistler's Nocturnes and Monet's Charing Cross Bridge views alone).
In the case of the Gehry and Libeskind buildings, it's rather more a case of the schlock-of-the-known. As for Alsop, he is currently of considerable significance in England and Europe, but Ocad is his first completed commission in North America. This gives his building, with its hint of Archigram's Walking City about it, an aura of strangeness and risk for Torontonians.
Except that Alsop's building is not risky. Its drama arises from an exercise of the greatest simplicity. Ocad represents the first time Alsop's profoundly personal meta-form, the ingot at the heart of his creativity, has materialised. Yes, his Peckham Library is gripping in concept and detail; yes, his "Grand Bleu" government headquarters in Marseilles are an immensely powerful presence; yes, his new building in Wolverhampton will soon kick out the jams as far as the design of arts-based community centres are concerned; and, yes, his tower in Dusseldorf fused vibrant colour-theory into vertical architecture. But it is Ocad that is the purest expression of Alsop's post- post-Corbusian modernism. In Toronto, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie has experienced the ultimate strip-down and lift-off. …