by Jincy IypeJul 12, 2022
The Stormwater Facility by Canadian architects gh3* distinguishes itself as a minimal concrete monolith of Toronto’s civic infrastructure, a stormwater treatment plant that is poised as a “landmark building that would help signal a new and distinctive city precinct,” according to the clients, the Waterfront Toronto and Toronto Water. With its succinct angularity crowned with a geometric skylight, the sculptural form may as well be perceived as an art gallery or a museum, with “an architectural character that expresses the contemporary zeitgeist,” according to Pat Hanson, founding partner of gh3*.
“Pragmatic and poetic”, the Stormwater Facility sits on a svelte, irregular site, and was completed under a modest budget, to treat urban run-off from the new West Don Lands and Quayside neighbourhood developments in Toronto, Canada. “The fundamental intent of Stormwater Facility is to contribute to a more sustainable model of city-building. In treating urban stormwater, the facility speaks to a future in which dense urban development and healthy natural ecosystems are integrated and mutually beneficial,” the firm shares.
“Architecturally, it adds to a list of Toronto’s historic infrastructural works such as the R.C. Harris Treatment Plant, the Bloor Viaduct, and the Hearn Power Station - whose architectural character has helped to both express and define Toronto’s identity at a given moment in time,” they continue.
Such typologies often are cubist, linear and rectangular, which was something gh3* wanted to contrastingly, embody, elevate and shift away from, albeit softly, and a bit differently. The cast-in-situ concrete architecture’s appeal lies in its manifestation as a complement and a striking counterpoint to the infrastructural and aesthetic complexity of its context, as a simple box pushed down and pulled up at all corners, and frozen at varying levels. Its brutalist yet airy design ensued with conceptual clarity and rigour that would embody and reflect the strong character of the landmark architecture’s surroundings, with railway yards to the north, ramps and roadways of Lake Shore Boulevard and the Gardiner Expressway to the south, and the industrial Port Lands across the Keating Channel.
The Stormwater Facility stands proud and compelling at the intersection of technological and architectural advancement, expressing a civic responsibility towards ensuring safe and clean water ecology via state-of-the-art treatment systems replete with hefty tanks, machinery, pumps and pipes. “Even at speed from the Gardiner and Lake Shore Expressways, the building registers as a poetic ellipsis amid the intensity of its surroundings,” the Canadian architects add.
The monumental volume is also successful in integrating clear statements of urban, architectural and landscape design with three major elements – firstly, with its primary function as a stormwater reservoir, a 20-metre diameter shaft covered by a radial steel grate that acts as an inverted siphon to receive untreated stormwater from the surrounding development. “While many cisterns are rectangular pits, the Stormwater Facility (SWF) is instead a rectangular extrusion, like a well turned inside out. It also has the opposite function. Rather than drawing water from the ecosystem, the water is collected, cleaned and safely returned,” says Hanson.
A working ground plane of asphalt and concrete with channels and gutters stay directly overhead, connecting the reservoir shaft to the treatment plant. Lastly, the stormwater treatment plant itself, the most prominent element of the facility. gh3* amalgamates these constituent parts as a cohesive whole, making the “infrastructural function legible, didactic and aesthetically compelling,” the practice says.
The 600 sqm Stormwater Facility features a strategically placed opening in the facade that showcases fleeting glimpses of its insides while remaining mysterious otherwise. The triangular sky window adorning the south facet of its roof becomes a luminescent beacon to the city at night. These apertures are intentional in cooking up curiosity about the expanding city and its supporting infrastructure, “specifically the work being done to keep urban water clean and safe and is an important catalyst for increased civic engagement and pride,” shares gh3*. These strategically placed façade openings make sure that natural light infuses the mechanical facility and also invites curiosity from passersby, helping them recognise that urban water is clean and safe.
According to the firm, the Stormwater Facility tells a story of water, in specific, the everyday experience of stormwater. Its main enclosure references the architecture of stone wells and reinterprets the vernacular in the modern sense, and is inverted to emerge as an intriguingly sculptural and industrial being growing out of a dystopian ground. This is augmented by the etchings seen on the concrete’s surface, transformed into a system of rain channels that run from roof to wall, to the ground plane and into the shaft, as a “narrative of the larger system of urban hydrology in which the building is embedded”. The movement of water across the building itself was kept deliberately visible to help create a connection with the plant’s purpose, increasing hopefully, the public’s engagement with the civic beings of the city. Water trickling and sauntering down the roof of the building can be witnessed from surrounding buildings, apparent, especially during rainy days. The Stormwater Facility is thus able to visually depict, via the built, how water is a precious commodity and how the building manages and treats water.
Both the structure and its contextual landscape are sculpted in concrete, resulting in the abstraction of ground and wall, environmentally mitigating solar heat gain and extending the service life of the facility in the long run. Hanson relays that gh3* originally envisioned the building to be clad in limestone, with a matching plinth around it, but because the material was expensive, concrete was chosen to replace it.
The highly insulated skin ensures low energy inputs, furthered by daylighting, passive cooling and ventilation, the structure’s performance matching its contribution to the broader project of sustainable development in the West Don Lands. “SWF is part of an emerging new face of Toronto, in which leading environmental performance, award-winning urban development, and world-class design operate together,” concludes gh3*, who believe and reiterate with their works that excellent design is necessary to the enrichment of everyday life, and no matter the scale or complexity of a program, there is always an opportunity to create places that elevate the human experience.
The recognition received on social media and online platforms for the project is a stark reminder of how the public prefers architecture that is not just a hunk of materials but visually and emotionally engage, however simply, abstracting or literal. It's also a built sample of the potential that lies in store for our cities’ infrastructure, how interesting, emotive and memorable it can be, when government and municipalities thoroughly and genuinely invest in it, garnering the public’s interest and beautifying parts of the urban fabric imperceptibly, with intention.
Name: Stormwater Facility
Location: Cherry Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, Toronto, ON, Canada
Area: 600 sqm
Year of completion: 2021
Client: Waterfront Toronto and Toronto Water
Architect, Landscape Architect: gh3*
Prime Consultant: RV Anderson
Structural, Mechanical, Electrical, Civil Engineering: RV Anderson
Contractor: Graham Construction