Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects and a host of artists, all Canadian, breathe new life into the longtime Toronto headquarters of Torys
David Sokol -- Interior Design, 8/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
As they like to say at the Canadian law firm Torys, "We don't moose around." And that goes not only for filing briefs but also for acquiring art. During Canada's recession-plagued 1980's, while other corporate collections folded, Torys continued purchasing the work of contemporary Canadian artists—and displaying it at headquarters in the Toronto-Dominion Centre, a complex built around two towers and a pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1960's. As the decades passed in that same location, the culture of the practice shifted dramatically. Client meetings once held in lawyers' offices, for example, now take place in conference rooms to protect the confidentiality of competitors. "Where at one time it was common to have four to eight people at those meetings, we started to need spaces that could handle video conferences, Internet-enabled projects, and functions for up to 200," Torys partner Darren E. Sukonick says. Moving could have been a solution. Instead, though, he and his fellow partners renewed their lease and retained Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects to revamp the interior.
To accommodate the lawyers' new modes of working, KPMB consolidated all reception and meeting areas in 30,000 square feet on one full floor, the 33rd, and a partial floor below. Then the architects had to figure out how to accommodate a range of uses, what Sukonick calls a "sit-down on the sofa to a cocktail party," as well as an art collection that tops 400 works. Before, they were unevenly dispersed across the office's nine and a half floors. It was a case of "not maximizing their investment," KPMB founding principal Marianne McKenna says. Assisted by associate Steven Casey, McKenna set about providing much-needed versatility while celebrating Torys's cultural patronage.
Her biggest move involved twin runs of conference spaces, hugging opposite window walls on the main client floor. Thanks to articulated partitions that fold up into the ceiling, these suites can combine as one huge, long room or split up into as many as five individual ones. When the partitions come down, they offer not only privacy but also visual interest: They're completely clad in photography commissioned for the purpose by Fela Grunwald Fine Arts. A consultant for Torys since 1995, Fela Grunwald believes that commissioning work on this scale is unprecedented for a Canadian law firm. Yet Torys partner Richard J. Balfour, who oversaw the renovation with Sukonick, argues that agreeing to the idea was simply logical: "In their natural state, these movable walls are white laminate, which feels like a bad hotel. We had to have the walls, so we had to deal with the problem."
Five Canadian artists, total, were invited to compete for one of the two conference spaces. The smaller suite was ultimately turned over to Toronto's Robert Fones, who covered both sides of three partitions in photographs of waves in the city's harbor, over which he'd superimposed translated excerpts from Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote. The typeface, Fones's own creation, is almost as liquid as the watery background. As he explains in a written artist's statement, "Surely lawyers could be driven as mad by text as easily as Don Quixote was by books on chivalry." The larger suite's partitions, four of them, feature supersize close-ups of an androgynous model in a pensive mood—photographed by Montreal's Pascal Grandmaison.
The art competition helped drive KPMB's next steps in designing client spaces. Knowing that other pieces from the law firm's art collection would supplement the site-specific works, the architects carved out unusually wide corridors to double as galleries. In some parts of the four corridors, which basically form a ring between the conference suites and the service core, drywall planes appear to float in front of walnut paneling—McKenna calls these white rectangles "easels."
Walnut paneling and bronze door frames add elegance to the conference suites. McKenna's tightly curated materials palette and subdued tones, like the folding partitions, pay homage to the Miesian pedigree of the Dominion Centre. Carpet is a subtle pale gray, tabletops a darker shade. As McKenna puts it, "We evoked the somber, cigar-smoking Mies."