Libeskind Tower to Perch Atop Hummingbird Centre

How do you build an icon on top of an icon? That’s the thorny question posed by Studio Daniel Libeskind’s new residential and arts complex in Toronto. At 50 stories and 550,000 square feet, the planned tower aims to be a major addition to a theater that's a local Modernist landmark.

The Hummingbird Centre, completed in 1960 by English-born architect Peter Dickinson, is a limestone-clad, fan-shaped theater that has often been compared to London’s Royal Festival Hall. The Libeskind design wraps a curvy, L-shaped volume around two sides of the existing structure. Its base will expand the city-owned center’s cultural programming with multipurpose performance spaces, while the tower will hold 300 apartments, mostly market-rate condominiums with some artists’ housing.

Images courtesy Studio Daniel Libeskind

Libeskind has cast his design as a contextual response to the rounded facade and jaunty, cantilevered canopy of Dickinson’s building. But the consensus among local preservationists is less enthusiastic. Catherine Nasmith, vice-president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, contends that the new tower—which replaces a series of sunken, terraced gardens—is an affront to a “wonderful,” late work by a major local figure. (Dickinson died in 1961.) “Most of the original building is being kept, but it’s lost a lot of its dignity,” she says.

The tower’s developer, Castlepoint Realty Partners, will begin selling the condos this month and, with planning approvals in hand, hopes to break ground in 2008. Principal Alfredo Romano expects the Libeskind name—and the building’s anticipated LEED Silver status—to command a large premium. But he also casts the development as a saviour for the theater, which recently lost its major tenants, the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company, to a new purpose-built theater. “There were a lot of people who viewed [the site] as a demolition opportunity and a windfall for the city,” he says. “We took a different approach—that it could have another life.”