Cityzen news

Like Marilyn herself, the Absolute Tower is smart, sexy, built to impress

It’s a pileup of floor plates that cavort and shimmy in and out of an elliptical tower shape. A shebuilding, with curves of glass dressed in a corset of horizontal ribs. If Issey Miyake were an architect instead of a fashion designer, he might have imagined the Absolute Tower just this way: an intelligent, shifting sheath that sashays around the body.

Architecture lives in Mississauga. At long last. In a city with a reputation for building an unstoppable dull-scape, the Absolute condominium development has created some serious architecture envy. Last week, there were fireworks exploding from the 56-storey marvel by Beijing-based MAD Architects, to celebrate the tower’s topping-off. Yes, I know. To people living in major urban centres across Canada, where architecture is increasingly understood as a civic badge of honour, the making of an icon in a fiefdom of sprawl is unthinkable – an oxymoron.

Commonly referred to as the Marilyn, the tower rotates clockwise between one and eight degrees. Supporting walls run longer or shorter depending on the configuration of the floor plates. C-shaped walls around the elevator shafts are used as key structural elements and to house mechanical systems. In the tower’s midsection, 10 floors rotate at the full eight degrees, creating the striking sashay in the building profile.

The horizontal ribs are, in fact, cantilevered balconies, which run seamlessly around the curves of the condo tower, one on top of the other all the way up. We’ve become conditioned to the architectural daring of art galleries and museums. The Absolute is a condo tower – a triumph of organic movement – brought to life by private developers.

Next to the Marilyn is another she-building, not as visually arresting, but a worthy partner to the compelling courtesan. Under serious cloud cover, when the crystal-grey glass on the buildings grows dark, they appear to be a pair of elongated armadillos. The towers are the spectacular standouts in a five tower complex called Absolute. The first three, with conventional designs, are already occupied. Marilyn will be open next year; her shapely sidekick, the year after that.

MAD Architects are significant as designers that have freed (like a handful of others) the condo tower from its slab rigidity. They know how to capture the naturalistic, irregular stacking that can occur, say, in China’s mountain ranges, while maintaining the vertical height of a skyscraper.

Architecture that pushes and pulls along floor plates (rather than the jagged volumes of a Daniel Libeskind or Zaha Hadid) has been gaining currency of late. In Chicago, there’s the Aqua Tower with its dynamic wave-like balconies, by Studio Gang. There’s the Gwanggyo Power Centre in Seoul, its mixeduse buildings shaped like cones, each floor lined with box hedges, by Rotterdam-based MVRDV architects.

Recently, MAD has taken the Absolute concept much further by proposing a heavily greened skyscraper for Chongqing, China. But, remember, all you design aficionados in Toronto or wherever you may be, the slipping, stacked phenomenon started first in Mississauga.

Whose afraid of a Philistine mayor when you have passionate builders and city staff? Serious kudos goes to Absolute’s partnership builders, the local Cityzen Development Group and Fern brook Homes. Fern brook president, Danny Salvatore, tells me that he’d grown tired of nearly 20 years of building subdivisions: “I knew that in order to put me ahead of the competition, I had to do iconic buildings.” At the same time, the Mississauga planning department, led by Edward Sajecki, made it clear that the city, which does not impose height limits, was looking for a gateway building for its downtown.

In 2005, the builders launched an open, international design competition that attracted 92 submissions. Ma Yansong, who studied at Yale, led MAD to victory with a tower of svelte gentility. The jury endorsed the design, but fretted about its buildability. So did Salvatore. To deal with that issue, he hired Burka Varacalli Architects as local design architects, and his own long-time colleague, structural engineer Sigmund Soudack, to weigh in with his 45 years of engineering experience.

Last week, when I visited the Absolute at Hurontario Street and Burnhamthorpe Road, howling winds and construction dust were blowing in fierce gusts around the concrete tower. Deep within the building, Soudack, known as Siggy, and who still speaks with an accent from his native Poland, unrolled architecture drawings in the on-site building office. With him was his colleague, Yury Gelman, an engineer, originally from Ukraine, who has experience designing gravity-based structures that sit on the bottom of the ocean within the Hibernia oil fields.

Anthony Pignetti and Sergio Vacilotto from nearby Dominus Construction Group were also there to discuss the challenges of building the tower. Their enthusiasm was palpable, and together they formed a team with cultural and professional ties from around the world.

Consensus quickly formed around the practical, lyrical properties of concrete. “Concrete is plastic,” says Soudack. “You can shape it. We love concrete.” Building a rotating skyscraper on shale required intense collaboration between architects, engineers and builders. With every step, the team had to embrace the irregularity of the building plan: that every suite on every floor was uniquely configured.

About a month after the MAD design was released to the public, the Marilyn was sold out to people who didn’t mind paying an extra 20 per cent to address the expensive building problem – a vote of confidence for architectural significance over formulaic housing.

As boulevards go, six-lane Hurontario wins a prize for uninviting and depersonalized. No café culture here. A meanness to the median and to the narrow sidewalk that runs past slab apartment towers. But streetscape improvements in the form of native grasses, benches and planters are promised for next year. And although funding hasn’t been nailed down, transit authority Metrolinx appears committed to the idea of a light-rail transit system to be planted along Hurontario and around a loop in Mississauga’s downtown.

Driving away from Mississauga, I glance in the rear-view mirror and see the Absolute’s silhouette. There she is: jutting her hip onto the horizon, pushing away from the mediocrity that lines the boulevard in an unlikely but lucky corner of the world, where banality has been trumped by a tribute to the female form.

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Cityzen news

Absolute City Centre’s elliptical design triumphs over structural challenges

Over the years, Toronto-based Sigmund Soudack & Associates Inc. has created the structural design of any number of high rise buildings. But designing the structure for a 56-storey elliptical tower at the Absolute City Centre development presented a unique set of challenges. For starters, the firm says, every floorplate in the signature building is different. Then there were inherent problems posed by concrete floor slabs extending from the interior to form balconies that wrap around the building. “They came up with a very simple, magical, ingenious solution that enabled us to treat the twisting tower like a regular building,” recalls Attila Burka of Toronto-based Burka Architects Inc.

Burka was the architect of record for the tower responsible for fleshing out a competition-winning proposal by Yansong Ma of Beijing-based MAD Architecture Studio and creating detailed working drawings for the builder. The concrete, steel and glass skyscraper, known colloquially as the Marilyn Monroe tower, was recently topped off by Fernbrook Homes and Cityzen Development Group.

A 50-storey companion is scheduled to be topped off next spring.

“This is a unique occasion for us, for Mississauga and for the entire Greater Toronto Area,” said Danny Salvatore, president of Fern brook Homes. “Working together, we defied the sceptics and then delivered a structure that many said just could not be built because of its innovative form.”

Soudack, who founded his firm in 1968 and has overseen the design of more than 400 highrise buildings, was invited to join the building team by Fern brook’s project manager because, he says, “they wanted someone with a practical sense.” He also welcomed the project for the positive effect it would have on his personnel, stimulating the creative juices.

“Structurally, every floor plate is different,” says Yury Gelman, senior structural engineer on Soudack’s team. “Whenever we design usual buildings, we have so called typical floors.

“But this wasn’t the case here. And the walls are different, too. When the ellipse turns, the walls have to get longer or shorter, or else they’d stick out.”

The second floor turns one degree with respect to the first floor. The third floor turns three degrees with respect to the second. Subsequent floors turn five degrees and then eight, whereupon the sequence reverses.

Soudack’s design team had to solve the problem of balconies wrapping continuously around the building acting as heat sinks.
“This is what makes the shape attractive,” Soudack says.

However, the constant rotation of floors complicated the engineering. Normally, columns rise above columns in a straight vertical line and they are only subject to the force of gravity. Shifting columns, however, add another kind of load called shear, a deformation that makes the columns want to bend like a bow as in bow-and-arrow.

“We had to calculate all these combinations and permutations to arrive at the maximum load on every element,” Soudack says. “This was difficult to keep track of. Thank God for computers!”

And what of that “simple, ingenious and magical” engineering solution?

Sigmund Soudack, PEng

Soudack & Associates says the inherent problem with a concrete floor slab extending from the interior to form the balcony, as it does here, is that it acts like a heat-sink or fin that absorbs the outside heat or cold.

It transmits this temperature drop to the interior, along with attendant condensation problems. A balcony that wraps the building continuously exacerbates the problem.

As Soudack recalls, “We created a new kind of thermal break that, to the best of our knowledge, hasn’t been used before.”

His team devised a balcony that appears to wrap the exterior wall continuously. Actually, it meets the wall in two-foot segments alternating with four-foot gaps. The cold or heat only travels through the two-foot segments, which affects the interior temperature minimally.

“We could have specified a proprietary, German-made stainless-steel thermal isolation joint that’s very expensive,” Soudack says.
“But I figured we could come up with a low-tech solution that works almost as well at a much lower cost. You can always throw money at a problem, but that’s not good engineering.”

The tower is being erected with the use of flying forms, a system for high-rise concrete construction that Soudack helped develop.
It uses large, truss-mounted assemblies that a crane hoists upward from floor to floor.
Residents are scheduled to start moving into the Marilyn Monroe tower next March.

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Cityzen news

Engineering the voluptuous

Last Friday’s topping-off party for Marilyn Monroe – as everyone calls Beijing architect Yansong Ma’s curvaceous 56-storey Absolute condominium tower in Mississauga – was a celebration of the many people whose energies and talents came together to realize this unusual project.

But the event also marked the completion of the Toronto area’s first residential tall building in a thoroughly 21st century style. Marilyn, as built, is more portly and less daring than Mr. Ma’s original design, but she’s still a bit sassy, sexy and irreverent toward the formal pieties of cereal-box skyscraper modernism. She talks back to Toronto developers who complain that they can’t build and sell anything except the same boring stuff we’ve been seeing since the Second World War. She has also proven to be wildly popular with condo consumers, who snapped up her suites as soon as they hit the local real estate market. (Construction of a second Marilyn tower is now under way.)

Mr. Ma won out over 91 competitors from 70 countries in a 2006 juried contest staged by Fern brook
Homes and the Cityzen Group, co-developers of the site at the important Mississauga intersection of Burnhamthorpe Road and Hurontario Street. Fern brook and Cityzen wanted a scheme that promised to pack a strong architectural wallop in the largely low-rise suburban city immediately west of Toronto and, as it was originally proposed, they got one.

But after the flashbulb hoopla of the competition passed – Mr. Ma’s capture of the prize garnered international press attention – the developers had to face the task of pulling the designer’s sinuous, sensuous idea down from the clouds and figuring out a practical, affordable way to raise it, or some semblance of it, from the Mississauga mud.
To get that job done, they turned to Toronto architect Atilla Burka and structural engineer Sigmund Soudack. Last week, I talked with Mr. Soudack and his associate, architect Yury Gelman, in their North York office.

“Marilyn really got our juices moving,” Mr. Soudack said. “It required extraordinary effort from a creative, structural aspect. We had to do a lot of pioneering. I’ve been designing for 42 years, but I had never done [a tall building] like this. There was nothing in our history we could fall back on. What’s unique about this project is that every floor is different. Each floor is basically an ellipse that keeps moving.” As Marilyn spirals from the ground, the elliptical floor-plates rotate 209 degrees, bottom to top, to generate the pneumatic profile of the building.

Because every floor of Marilyn is different, Mr. Soudack explained, the walls and columns of each had to be designed separately to bear up under the forces – what architects and engineers call “loads” – exerted on the building by nature. There is “dead load,” the immense weight of the concrete and steel of the structural fabric itself. There is wind load, which is tested on models in wind tunnels, and the load of the earth tremors that occasionally rattle Toronto-area teacups. Put all the factors together, and you arrive at the “load combinations” that every supporting element must sustain. Making Marilyn stand up and assume its proper shape involved calculating more than 200 of these load combinations. Designing an ordinary tall building entails the calibration of only 10 or 15 of them.

“If the building had been concentric from top to bottom, with columns sitting on top of each other – that’s normally the way we design buildings – it would have been simple,” Mr. Soudack said. “But in this case all the loads, the centre of gravity of each column, is constantly shifting.”

Understanding the extraordinarily complex forces at work in a tall building could conceivably be accomplished – and was accomplished, early on in the career of skyscrapers – with nothing more complicated than a slide rule, pencils and paper. But the jobs of architects and engineers have recently been made been easier and more economical by ever-greater advances in computer technology.

“Software today is very sophisticated,” Mr. Gelman said. “It can account for different phenomena, different behaviours of the structure. [To design Marilyn,] we had to learn new aspects of the software we had, and we had to master new software. When we designed some of the columns, we used software that accounts for the non-linear behaviour of materials. Because of the shape of the walls, because the column is curved, the building received additional forces [that] create tensions throughout the structure. All this was accounted for during the analysis and design of the building.”

So much for the craft of engineering. The art of it, for Mr. Soudack, consists in never losing sight of the ultimate goal: fashioning a structure that is profitable for its investors and hospitable for homeowners. He estimates the cost of putting up Marilyn at about 20 per cent above that of a conventional tower.

“Marilyn is beautiful, it’s fantastic,” Mr. Soudack said. “Luckily, it was very well received by the public, because it’s something unique. But ultimately, we don’t know at this point how it will be received when people start moving in. That is the ultimate test: whether people are happy. That’s the unknown.”

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