Three unlikely design concepts actually get built in Toronto. Are the wavedecks a hazardous, inaccessible flight of fancy or good public space?
There are design ideas that seem like they could never be implemented. This has been the case in recent years in architecture, where each new computer-generated fantasy by any of the big names gets everyone’s head scratching in a collective ‘How are they going to build that?’ Such ideas have been less the case in landscape architecture, where form tends to follow function by necessity. While architecture can still hide level floors, elevators, and ramps within a skin of just about any material and design, landscape architecture’s surfaces tend to be both for looks and actual use.
So when the landscape architecture firms West 8 of Rotterdam and du Toit Allsopp Hillier (DTAH) of Toronto, as part of their winning competition entry for Toronto’s central waterfront in 2007, rendered a series of crazily undulating wooden decks spanning harbor boat slips, it honestly seemed a bit unlikely they would ever get built. How would people walk on those plank roller coasters? Wouldn’t the liability exposure be extraordinary? How do you make wood do that?
“We sit in our studio in Rotterdam,” admits Marc Ryan, a native Torontonian now with West 8, “and dream up crazy stuff.” Which is what it seemed like at the time, but that’s how you win competitions. Waterfront Toronto, the semi-public agency responsible for the re-invigoration of the entire waterfront (see “Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront,” Landscape Architecture, December 2008), shockingly held them to the idea.
Today, three so-called wavedecks are in place and open to the public. Each has its own personality, but they are remarkably similar to the original renderings prepared by West 8 + DTAH (the official name of the joint venture that is designing the waterfront). Standing on the Simcoe WaveDeck – the most improbable of the three – Ryan himself seems incredulous they got built. He even looks a little embarrassed, as if the designers got the last laugh, pulled one over on the public and the funders and did whatever they wanted, just as the star building architects seem to.
But the last laugh goes to the public itself. On that gloomy late-summer day, Ryan was witness to kids exploring Simcoe’s humps as if they were an adventure playground, out-of-town tourists posing for pictures on the ipe decks, and average Torontonians sitting and reading and watching the boats bob in the harbor. Had he ventured out ten hours earlier, at nearly midnight, he would have seen small clutches of twenty-year-olds engaged in deep and not-so-deep conversation on the benches, just out of sight of couples cuddling down by the water’s edge.
As fantastical as the wavedecks are, they provide public space that is both engaging and relaxing – not an easy combination to pull off. And since the wavedecks are built out over the water, that public space is reclaimed literally from thin air. Getting here, of course, wasn’t easy. It also wasn’t cheap: Rees had a construction cost of about $2.7 million U.S., Spadina was about $3.4 million U.S., and Simcoe ran about $4.8 million U.S. But the story of the wavedecks -- how they deal with accessibility and safety, how they were actually constructed, how they create both public space and natural space – is the story of how crazy ideas get built.
The three wavdecks were completed from west to east, with Spadina the first done in September of 2008, followed by Rees and Simcoe in 2009. One more is planned at Parliament. Each one is named for the nearest perpendicular street, and all are meant to widen the pedestrian route along the waterfront and the Queens Quay road and transit-way at the places where Toronto’s harbor slips pinch inland toward the street. Essentially, they are undulating wooden boardwalks of ipe and cedar, with stainless steel accents in the form of guardrails and bench supports. Each has its own personality. “Spadina is the classic,” says Ryan, describing the quite formal, symmetrical, high-in-the-middle promontory, which won a 2009 ASLA Honor Award. Rees is the quintessential expression of how Adriaan Geuze, West 8’s founder, describes his plans for the waterfront: as a place where the city kisses the lake. The Rees deck dips in the middle, coming to within 35 inches of the water. Simcoe, says Ryan, “is a smile; it’s for fun.” It’s a rumpled wooden carpet, with two tall hills that rise to more than eleven feet above the harbor.
Despite their different personalities, though, they have deliberate commonalities in their structure and aesthetic. “The wavedecks establish a powerful language that repeats,” explains Ryan. “As you walk the street, you’ll have encounters with different but familiar elements.” That coherence is a critical aspect of the entire waterfront project, which will eventually create a wooden boardwalk along five miles of Lake Ontario. The wavedecks are one aspect of that theme, and they reinforce several existing stretches of very popular boardwalk, and will be later joined by wooden bridges at the mouths of the slips.
The best way to think of them structurally is to envision seven long ribbons of glue-laminated untreated coastal yellow cedar. Between the ribbons is ipe planking. The space between the ribbons varies by wavedeck, but is generally just over four feet. Each beam has a small shelf on each side that carries the planking. These ledges undulate differently than the tops of the beams, and this creates steps and side slopes as the deck rises and falls. Every element serves both structural and aesthetic purposes. The glue-lam beams carry the majority of the weight, but their faces are visible wherever there are steps. The distance between the beams is narrow enough to allow the ipe to remain supported only at the shelves (except for the outermost spans, which have additional steel under them). The whole structure is supported from below on perpendicular steel beams reaching out from the harbor wall and sitting on concrete columns set into the harbor floor. The decks are beefy, designed to resist the lake’s ice uplift and wave action, and to support, says Ryan, “1,000 people or a fire truck.”
Vertical elements are subtle compositions in steel and wood, and, as with the structural elements, everything does double duty. Low steel rails seem purely ornamental, but are carefully placed relative to slopes and drop-offs. Benches have steel bases with ipe cladding and provide a safety function in addition to being comfortable for sitting or reclining. “There was always a desire to keep the wavedeck edge open and free,” says Ryan, “but you have to mark that edge. [The benches] are our answer to a toe rail.”
The decks were designed in a complex interplay between computer modeling and full-scale mock-ups built in West 8’s office. This combination allowed the designers to test what it would feel like to walk on certain slopes and cross slopes, but to also achieve precision to within one-sixteenth of an inch. The approximately 20-inch thick beams were constructed off-site from one inch thick strips of wood in 65-foot sections (except the most severe undulations at Simcoe, where the sections are much shorter and the wood strips are one-quarter-inch thick, to allow for tighter curves). The off-site construction reduced the amount of precision construction required on site, where it would be far more difficult to achieve. Essentially, the structure (steel supports and glue-lam beams) of each deck fits together like a puzzle, and then the ipe planks are screwed into place on the ledges that are an integral part of the beams. The vertical elements, likewise, sit on the ledges and the planks are cut around them, giving the appearance that everything rises from beneath the deck.
This structural purity is a perfect reflection of the aesthetic purity. It actually conjures modernism, though in a naturalistic, non-rectilinear way. Form and function are inextricable, but here form is driving function, and then function becomes form.
The wavedecks, however, despite their satisfying elegance and strangeness, don’t seem to follow the regular rules for plazas and streetscapes. They are wholly public spaces, and they are well used, but there are no apparent ramps, no obvious division between flat areas and steeper slopes. They are more landform than plaza, and that raises some questions about accessibility and safety.
“This is like a double black diamond ski run,” says Ryan, referring specifically to Simcoe’s precipitous slopes. “But we’re taking people’s common sense into account, just like if they were hiking.” Though Simcoe’s hills constitute the most abrupt topography on any of the three wavedecks, each has its slopes, steps, and traction concerns. The magic of the design is the fact that even though each deck looks like (and in fact is) a single monolithic composition, the designers know, and have marked, exactly where the differences in slope occur. That notation is not done with garish yellow striping or incongruous texture changes, but rather with small raised metal discs. These discs occur at the outer edges of the decks (here accompanied by textured yellow dots and steel bollards), to generally warn users that this is not a uniform plane. They also trace the accessible pathways across the decks, with wheelchair icons placed at the edges of the routes.
West 8 +DTAH have also allowed for universal accessibility through the shapes of the decks themselves. Spadina has a central rise that is slightly higher than the adjacent street, while its outer corners plunge down toward the water. From the harborside corners of the deck, there are diagonal parkwaysthat rise, step free and less than 5 percent, to the central high point. From there, it is possible to move downslope in either direction along the water to the low points. The slope here is between five and eight percent, and a handrail and grippy treads are on the planking. Despite the undulations and steps, there is a fully accessible route here, but it’s subtle.
Likewise at Rees, the center of which dips down to the water, the accessible route is present but understated. Metal disks mark a pathway from the Queens Quay corners down to the center, creatively dodging steps on either side and never getting steeper than five percent. The Rees slip is home to a sailing program for persons with disabilities, so the steel rail at the center of the wavedeck is removable to allow easier access to boats than exists anywhere else in Toronto today.
At Simcoe, accessibility and safety are more complex, namely because the slopes on the big hills well exceed eight percent. Two step-free accessible routes down to the water slip between the hills and steps. They are either marked with the usual metal disks or flanked by a curvy steel rail that winds around both hills. The rail is low, about knee-height, and easily stepped over, but it is meant to signal the adventurous part of the deck. On the hills, the ipe planks are beveled, so they create a sawtooth surface to the walks, which helps with traction. A taller steel railing separates the hill area from the water, though it has horizontal cable rails, which are climbable and likely unsafe.
Ryan admits that the Simcoe hills were a bit of a stretch for Toronto, even coming on the heels of the very successful Spadina deck. There haven’t been any major incidents, though, even though a favorite local sport has been to slide down the beams. Since each successive beam is taller and steeper than the next, users can choose their level of comfort. Ryan and Waterfront Toronto are subscribing to the idea that if people actually are given less information about the hazards of a place, they will be more alert and more careful. That’s an idea, of course, that is hotly debated in North America, but it expresses the European sentiment that people need to be responsible for their own actions when in unfamiliar environments.
A more difficult discussion is whether the accessible routes are marked effectively enough. For someone with limited mobility or sight, those little metal disks might be hard to identify quickly. To improve safety, the stair nosing detail used at Spadina – a stainless steel strip with a textured grip -- was modified at the other two wavedecks. Rees and Simcoe have white stripes, which are much more apparent in the all-wood landscape. It could be suggested that brighter markings would help with accessibility, but then that kind of striping would have marred the aesthetic of the decks.
Underneath each wavedeck is another world. Toronto Harbor is a tough place for aquatic life: lots of boats, lots of stormwater runoff, not much habitat. But the wavedecks are trying to remedy that, by restoring habitat in the slips they bridge. “Every time we build a new human public space,” says Ryan, “we’re also building these biotopes.” During construction of the decks, contractors recontoured the lake bed, built shoals with river stones and attached tree root fans to concrete on the harbor floor. Some of this was done randomly, by just tossing stuff into the water, and some more carefully by construction workers in scuba suits.
Though perhaps a small gesture, this habitat creation speaks to some of Waterfront Toronto’s sustainability goals. Many of the organization’s projects are restoring degraded landscapes and creating new communities with high-efficiency buildings and walkable neighborhoods. In fact, the last remaining wavedeck, Parliament, will actually be a long boardwalk and plaza that will collect and treat stormwater from an adjacent condo complex. The water will drain to tanks at the dock wall, and those tanks will be the base for the boardwalk. The water will flow to a larger holding area, over which the wavedeck will be built. The required size of this last tank determined the size of the wavedeck, and the undulating wood theme will have its expression as a series of biomorphic windows down into the tank. The wood will bulge upward at the windows, almost as if something had been pushed through from beneath. The windows will allow in sunlight for ultraviolet light treatment of the stormwater, and will make the treatment process visible. Current plans are for three holes and two sculptural towers. The project is currently in schematic design and has no set implementation date.
Encountering the wavedecks for the first time is a complete surprise, especially Simcoe, with its, well, waves that tower more than head high. They are completely out of the ordinary, redefining what a plaza surface can be. They actually, in photographs, look a little like the photorealistic renderings from West8 + DTAH’s original competition entry, which is a good thing because it means the designer and client invested the time and money to realize the vision. In both architecture and landscape architecture (especially the latter), wild ideas tend to get watered down. It’s easy to back away from some of the more grandiose schemes by citing liability concerns, constructability issues, and accessibility rules. The wavedecks could easily have become flat or stepped plazas with custom benches and sleek steel railings. They could have easily become three of the same, for the sake of greater continuity and lower design and construction cost. What got built is probably the most difficult way to cross a boat slip.
Some cities build unexpected, love-it-or-hate-it works of architecture to put themselves on the map (actually, Toronto has done that, too from the 1965 New City Hall, known as the “flying saucer,” to Will Alsop’s Ontario College of Art and Design to recent works by Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry). The waterfront wavedecks are the landscape architectural equivalent of that: a bit sensationalist, highly photogenic, and completely new. But Spadina, Rees, Simcoe, and the forthcoming Parliament go two better. They create new public space and they help activate miles of existing lakefront. They might be a little hazardous, but they’re a lot of fun – and not easily forgotten.