A shimmering slab of brick and glass rises at the corner of Brant and Camden streets. Thirteen stories tall, the structure is easy to overlook – until you notice the long ribbon of steel and Douglas fir that winds its way down the main facade and spreads like a carpet over the entrance.
The other day, I walked under that tape, pushed open the revolving oak doors, and walked into the Ace Hotel Toronto. I walked on the end-grain Douglas fir floors, ran my fingers over the porcelain bar top, and sat with a friend under a Venetian plaster finished ceiling. The morning sun filtered through the oak framed windows in front of me. I ordered a coffee.
For an Ace Hotel, it was a normal scene. The 123-room property, which opened July 26, is the stylish American hotel chain’s first property in Canada. But it’s also a Shim-Sutcliffe Architects building, which makes it architecture of the first order — and not typically the kind of place you can walk in and grab an Americano.
As much as architecture is an art form, Shim-Sutcliffe are artists. Led by the husband and wife team of Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe – she small and talkative, he lanky and quiet – they have spent 25 years creating some of the finest architecture in the country. Or anywhere. Historian Kenneth Frampton recently called them “among the top 20 architects practicing in the world today”. When the Governor General’s National Medals in Architecture are announced, they inevitably win one.
But they almost never build for clients who have a bottom line. So for the design-conscious Ace Hotel, they’re both an obvious choice and a total wildcard.
When this project started half a decade ago, I wondered how the sensibility of the architects would mesh with the budgetary demands of a hotelier and developers; the project is a partnership between Ace and local real estate companies Zinc Developments and Alterra.
Through a seven-year process, slowed down by the pandemic, they found a way to make it work. The result is extraordinary: the building is of its place and its time, and yet it reflects a unique sensibility and a rare know-how.
During a recent tour of the building, Ms. Shim pointed out the large brick-clad pillars on the front facades. “The building is an urban manifesto,” she explained. “It means we believe in the built fabric of Toronto. In this neighborhood we have seen so many large brick warehouses demolished. We don’t want to impersonate that, exactly, but we want to talk about it. Brick is “the material that defines Toronto,” added Mr. Sutcliffe.
The architects therefore wanted a building with weight. This required making the front facades unusually thick. Typically, Ms Shim points out, a developer wants the skin of a building to be as thin as possible, so that the interior floor space – which generates revenue – can be as large as possible. But on the Ace, it was never discussed, she says. (“It’s possible they didn’t notice,” Mr. Sutcliffe retorts with a chuckle.)
In the end, the facades of the hotel have a remarkable depth of four feet. In the lobby, this makes the building feel – as expected – of being a relic of a bygone era.
The same goes for bed and breakfasts. Here, an assembly of Douglas plywood frames the windows and the office, between architecture and furniture. Listen to a song by Joni Mitchell Hegira on the turntable, a visitor might feel they have captured a certain image of Canada, sophisticated and a bit rustic.
Down in the lobby, an art installation by Mr. Sutcliffe, skyline, renders afternoon sunlight on Lake Ontario with plywood triangles. It is a discreet sign of the affinity of the architects with their native city.
“We are Canadians and we work to create a sense of belonging,” said Ms. Shim. “In this case, that means talking to the neighborhood, the shape and the materials of this place.”
The greatest architectural movement, however, is a pure exercise in space and structure. Stepping through the front doors, you see the lobby lounge spread out before you; this one rests on a concrete tray suspended from the ceiling by incredibly thin steel rods. Concrete arches start from the left, cross the ceiling and then descend, after a long descending staircase, to be anchored in the earth. Stairs go down and up on each side, themselves rich in small fantasies in metal and ceramic framework.
These concrete members are Shim-Sutcliffe at a tee. They follow a classic precept of modern architecture in exposing the bones of a building, but they are also deeply finicky. They bear the marks of the wood used to form them, adding a human touch to a hard surface. And they connect to the rest of the building with oversized steel joints that evoke, depending on your point of reference, Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa or steampunk.
This slightly mannered but hospitable vibe puts Shim-Sutcliffe on the same page as Ace, who generally works with existing buildings and vintage furniture.
“We’re aiming for it to look a bit like your cool friend’s apartment,” said Little Wing Lee, design director of in-house agency Atelier Ace. “You can’t tell if this particular item is from 1963 or 1971. It’s timeless.”
In this case, the lobby features a new table by Toronto designer Shaun Moore and a fiberglass lampshade by classic local brand Lotte.
Since the Toronto Ace is new construction, the architects and designers had to create a soul feeling from scratch. Working on a budget and in a tight downtown location – only 24 meters on each side – they managed to pull it off.
“Five years from now,” hotel manager Lyle Pauls told me, “you won’t be able to tell if he’s five or 55. Which is perfect for us.”
Ms. Shim reports that the relationship with Ace was “sympatico”. But she also points out that her company was involved in all aspects of the design. It’s unusual. Boutique design firms such as Shim-Sutcliffe typically entrust their work to colleagues, the ‘reference architects’, who solve the endless construction problems.
Not here. Shim-Sutcliffe generated thousands of drawings and saw them. “Usually when you hire an architectural firm, you don’t have access to directors,” says Rob Cooper of Alterra, one of the hotel’s co-owners. “Here, when we needed to solve something, Howard showed up in an hour with a notebook.”
This commitment has enabled Shim-Sutcliffe to innovate within commercial constraints. For example, with the brick skin of the building. “We wanted to use hand-laid bricks, of course,” Mr Sutcliffe said. But it turned out to be too expensive; instead, the facades are precast concrete panels with a thin layer of brickwork. This is a common technique that usually looks like a poor imitation of a brick wall.
Mr. Sutcliffe chose to accentuate the fragmentary nature of the panels, leaving spaces or “revelations” between them and sculpting the facial motif into syncopations and curves. It doesn’t look exactly like a brick wall, but it looks fantastic.
The hotel provides a rare opportunity for Shim-Sutcliffe to show off that kind of flair. The couple have long been picky about their clients. All over the world, their buildings – mostly private homes, although there is also a home for an order of nuns – appear in architectural journals and glossy magazines. But good luck getting an invitation to see one.
“It’s a problem,” admitted Mr. Sutcliffe. “And now we’re really happy that people can just come in here, have a coffee or a beer. It’s pretty good. Hope people will enjoy it. »
They go. The Ace is an upscale hotel, and that’s not going to change the world. But it is a distinctive and beautiful place, and it will change the culture of where it is. With any luck, other dreamers, designers – and promoters – will come for a drink and leave with their own plans for the city.
Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theater critic J. Kelly Nestruck in Nestruck on Theatre’s weekly newsletter. Register today.