Q&A with KPMB architects
January 29, 2020

When the Archdiocese of Toronto and St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church put out an RFP for the redevelopment of 40-44 Broadway, they were hoping, in some ways, for the holy trinity of urban development. The selected architectural firm had to have demonstrated capacity for creating vibrant and sustainable communities; they had to be adept at balancing past, present, and future; and they had to be passionate about enriching the quality of the human experience. It was a tall order, but when KPMB Architects submitted their proposal (a joint venture with esteemed community developer Collecdev), it seemed the order had been filled. Here we sit down with KPMB Partner, Marianne McKenna, and Principal, Bob Sims, to talk about the community, the church, and the plans for this unique site.

Why is KPMB uniquely positioned to bring the redevelopment of 44 Broadway to life?
KPMB has established a reputation for design excellence in a broad range of building types, from cultural and academic projects, to residential and hospitality. Each of these projects focuses on engaging the broader community with buildings that relate to context and improve the public realm beyond the constraints of the immediate property, something that is essential to the plans for 44 Broadway.

How did you approach the new design of the church - what was your inspiration?
St Monica’s Parish represents a distinctive form of Catholicism, in an urban context surrounded by tall residential buildings. Our approach to the worship space sees a distinct and scared element set within the Narthex, the parish hall, and the steeple, the program elements of this congregation.

The interior of the worship space is a private sanctuary, protected from city life on Broadway, lending privacy to the worshipers. Strategically placed openings provide natural light, which is both symbolically and atmospherically significant.  The entire congregation sits beneath a distinct roof whose design was inspired by the veil worn by Saint Monica.

How did the context of the surrounding neighbourhood influence the design?
The intersection of Broadway Avenue and Yonge Street is rapidly transforming. The traditional model of single family homes is seeing the addition of more environmentally-friendly and higher density residential communities that offer greater access and diversity in the city’s growing hubs. In this context, the church’s small footprint needed to stand proudly on its own as a strong expression of Catholicism in the city. Through the majestic steeple and eycatching curved roof, the church captures that expression, small but mighty.

What element of the redevelopment are you most proud of?
I would have to say the steeple. The design was inspired by the idea of two hands, delicately holding a cross. A symbol for the community, the steeple visibly represents the faith of the congregation, and creates a public identity on the street. It reaches to the sky as a sacred beacon and brings balance to the residential tower.

How has the design evolved as a result of community feedback and engagement?
The community is a vital source of inspiration, information, and engagement. The development of the site, and its relationship to the neighbourhood, has been inspired by community feedback. For example, based on comments and requests, the site has been designed with a public piazza on Broadway, a gathering space for residents, worshipers, and visitors to mix and mingle.

What are some of the unique challenges that emerge when designing a site that combines a residential building with a faith-based community space?
The biggest challenge is balancing scale and the different needs of the programming (i.e. both worship and residential), while building cohesion for the site. Every element - from the residential tower, to the piazza, to the church - needs to have a relationship to the other elements and to the overall site, while still maintaining a unique position and purpose.

The plans for 40-44 Broadway mention a contemporary narthex. What is a narthex and how did it become a part of the design?
A narthex is the traditional “public space” or entrance lobby in a Christian church. Typically located on the west side of the building, it acts as a social gathering space and a symbolic element that the parishioners “pass through” to reach the main place of worship. At St. Monica’s the new narthex will be a soaring, light-filled space, sheltered from the residential and urban context, marking the transition from daily life into the church.

What has been the biggest concern of neighbourhood residents and how have you addressed it?
As with many urban redevelopments, the item of biggest concern has been the height of the residential tower. While the proposed tower is the same height as several future developments along Broadway Avenue that have already received city approval, we are sensitive to the community concerns and have worked to create a design that fits within the existing neighbourhood context. For example, on the north side, the residential tower will be set back, allowing the church to provide a more human-scale transition from Broadway and maintain a welcoming streetscape that responds to the human experience.

How does the residential tower relate to the new church?
Architecturally, the organic façade of the building establishes a relationship with the church, drawing on the softly curved lines of the rooftop and existing in balance with the vertical steeple. Materially, both buildings draw from the same source, expressing warmth, quality, and timelessness. Programatically, the tower’s podium base will include residential units dedicated for retired priests, creating a natural connection between residents and the church. At the same time, both elements will have their own unique personality, striking a balance between distinct character and common ground.

Is this the first church you’ve designed?
No actually. We’ve previously developed a strategic masterplan for the St Michael’s Cathedral block on Bond Street that incorporates a new centre for Catholic community use, a new St Michael’s Choir School, and a new chapel. We’ve also worked on designs for the Bloor Street United Church and Saint Thomas Anglican Church in the Annex.

What special considerations go into designing a church? How does the spiritual / religious element translate in the architecture?
A church is a sanctuary space, balancing the sacred and symbolic, and all aspects of the design must serve those principles, creating an expression of the Catholic liturgy. For example, the placement of windows to let in the eastern light of the rising sun, the placement of the “Stations of the Cross” to create a procession, the creation of a narrative through a particular flow – these are all examples of how the religious elements of a worship space translate into architecture. Drawing on sources of traditional Catholic symbolism creates an exciting opportunity in contemporary design.

What does the new church offer the parish?
The new St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church will offer a welcoming sanctuary of warmth, abundant natural light, and great beauty. The intimate worship space will embrace parishioners in curving pews, wrapping around the altar. The parish hall will be a unique and fully accessible sunlit room with views downtown, across the open playing field of North Toronto Collegiate Institute.

How does the new plan contribute to a stronger community?
The church is not just being maintained, but reestablished as a beacon of modern faith and inclusion on Broadway. In its new configuration it will be set back from the sidewalk to create a welcoming plaza connecting to the community, a gesture of city building that aligns with the city’s recommendation for midtown streets. The three-storey scale of the church will define the streetscape and replace surface parking with more welcoming outdoor community space. The higher residential tower will be set back beyond the church, along the western edge of the property. The site as a whole will welcome residents, worshipers, and guests and invite them to mingle, creating new social networks and a stronger sense of wellbeing and home.

How can design affect the way people experience everyday life?
KPMB designs prioritize the human experience through the creation of vibrant communities, sustainable cities, and inspiring spaces. These meaningful spaces are the result of a thoughtful narrative about the experience of the space and where people want to be. Places that are warm, welcoming, and inclusive create opportunities to enrich everyday life. At 44 Broadway everyone who passes by the site, whether they’re a resident, parishioner, or visitor, will experience how the church’s presence enriches the daily composition of this midtown block. Livable cities are built on the diversity of their institutions as urban experiences for people, and that’s exactly what we’re creating here.