Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Mirror, mirror: What happens when a brand new building looks very familiar?

Mirror, mirror: What happens when a brand new building looks very familiar?

Graziani and Corazza say that all they want is a simple acknowledgement that their design for a Toronto condo inspired one in London, Ont.

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In 2014, Toronto-based architectural firm G+C Architects proudly completed an unusual project: a Jenga-like condominium tower on the city’s Etobicoke lakeshore, with alternating black and white balconies that seem to wrap around its centre.

The 50-storey residential building, named LAGO, was a fitting addition to G+C Architects’ roster of one-of-a-kind, skyline-shaping buildings across the GTA, which already included the Residences of College Park, and now boasts Yonge Street’s acclaimed tallest residential building in Canada, Aura. The founders of the company, Barry Graziani and Enzo Corazza, said they gave LAGO its twisting appearance to match the lakeshore’s curving landscape. They were especially proud of their design because, like Aura, no other building in the country would look like it — or so they thought.

Five years after LAGO’s completion, Graziani received an email from a former colleague. Fellow architect Tom Tillmann had noticed that a new building with black and white twisting balconies was taking form 200 kilometres from Etobicoke, in his hometown of London, Ont. He sent Graziani a note of congratulations for landing a new building contract on the London skyline. The twisting balconies and colour patterns, said Tillmann, was “classic Graziani.”


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Except, it wasn’t G+C Architects’ design.

The building Tillmann saw is called One Richmond Row — named after its address in downtown London. It is designed by SRM Architects, a firm based out of Kitchener-Waterloo, and is developed by Old Oak Developments of London. Neither company has a relationship with G+C Architects.

You build your career as an architect through all these little steps to become what you are, and then once people start to copy you, you should get that recognition

In their 24 years as partners, Graziani and Corazza both say they have never come across a building that looks so much like one of their own.

The new building in London is known around the city as the “Jenga tower,” and was profiled in local media for its “decidedly un-London design.

The London Free Press called it “downtown’s coolest-looking high-rise.”

One Richmond Row is not a replica of G+C Architects’ LAGO. It stands at 40 storeys tall — 10 fewer than LAGO. Its balconies are skewed in groups of four, while LAGO’s are in groups of five. The London building has larger residential units, and fewer per storey. But Graziani and Corazza both contend that the black and white colour pattern, the constant twisting of the balconies, and the colourment of the base of the building appear to be inspired by LAGO.

Toronto-based architectural firm G + C Architects designed the jenga-like condominium tower on the Etobicoke Lakeshore, centre. Photo by Peter Thompson / National Post

Graziani said the new building’s likeness to theirs feels uncanny. It frustrated him that G+C Architects received no acknowledgement of inspiration from the new building’s architects or developers in any press surrounding their brand-new project.

“You build your career as an architect through all these little steps to become what you are, and then once people start to copy you, you should get that recognition,” said Graziani.


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Both SRM Architects and Old Oak Developments said they were unavailable for comment for this story. But experts say that neither company necessarily owes anybody an explanation for how closely their new building might resemble an already existing one.

It’s an issue that frustrates many in the industry — buildings are rarely copyrighted by their designers (doing so is possible, just infrequent), so when a new building or design closely resemble aspects of existing projects, no obvious rules are broken. In fact, says building scientist Ted Kesik, the common saying goes; “good architects copy — great architects steal.”

Kesik, also a professor at the University of Toronto, said the line between appropriate and inappropriate influencing of ideas is blurry in architecture. It’s much like in music, where what is considered an acceptable level of inspiration seems to change with time, and depends on who you ask. Like music, architecture has a long, rich history — it makes the borrowing of elements inevitable, difficult to regulate, and almost impossible to prove.

“A person who claims their idea was stolen would have to demonstrate that such an arrangement never existed before anywhere in the history of buildings,” said Kesik. “Even if the dimensions are slightly different, they don’t have to be different by much. Then it’s really hard to prove that a person stole your idea.”

It’s really hard to prove that a person stole your idea

Chloe Town, an adjunct professor in architecture at the University of Waterloo, said that emulating the work of others has seeped inside the foundation of architecture, but that it’s not always a bad thing. When done with tact, it can be the ultimate gesture of respect and admiration for the original designer.


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“When you and I look around cities, the majority of buildings we look at are based on copying of another building,” she said. “All architects copy — but it’s uncool to claim novelty of an idea that isn’t, in fact, novel.”

Graziani and Corazza are not the first architects to feel robbed of acknowledgement — it is in fact quite common, and even happens in some high profile cases. When world famous British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid unveiled designs for the Wangjing Soho Complex to be finished in Beijing in 2014, they were allegedly copied by other architects, who replicated the building in the Chinese city of Chongqing. Chinese intellectual property law stated that there was, “no special law in China which has specific provisions on IP rights related to architecture.” The developer of the Chongqing building refuted the accusations. A race for completion of both buildings ensued.

In the United States, architect Jeehoon Park sued the designers of the One World Trade Center Tower in New York City, claiming it was a copy from a design he came up with when he was a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1990s. The designers of One World Trade Center Tower have disputed the claims and as of 2019, the case is still in the discovery phase. 

James Macgillivray, a designer and lecturer at the University of Toronto, said that cases in which architects feel mimicked by competitors around the world will probably increase with the advent of social media and image culture. Architects are becoming privy to more buildings and designs, which makes the same global inspiration available to everyone.


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Yet, said Macgillivray, the same connectivity should make it harder to get away with relying too much on an existing building design with no acknowledgement of the original.

“The way that images are circulating, I think everybody would find out about that,” he said.

Like other architects, Graziani is also privy to buildings across the world, but he said he has yet to see another project resemble his own as much as One Richmond Row when it was featured in the London Free Press.

Graziani and Corazza contacted the Ontario Architects Association. The OAA admitted in an email that they did see a resemblance between buildings, but also wrote that unless there was a special quality or patent that made the design exclusive and forbidden for use by other architects, there is nothing they could do.

The partners felt wronged, but concluded they must accept their industry’s current reality. It’s a reality that frustrates many, and one that Architecture Now writer Justine Harvey hopes will change. She suggests in a column that, in order to reduce instances of perceived copying, the industry could start normalizing the copyrighting of buildings, so that other architects pay copyright fees for design usage. Yet, in the industry’s current state, continues Hunter, “a simple declaration or dedication is sometimes all that is needed.”

That’s all that Graziani and Corazza want from SRM Architects and Old Oak Developments — a simple acknowledgement. Graziani said that all architects — himself included — design buildings that are inspired by aspects of others. The material colours and arch forms of his own design for the Residences of College Park on Bay Street, he said, were inspired by the Eaton’s College Street building, a retail space built in Toronto in 1928. He said he made the source of his inspiration clear in that building’s marketing, as a tip of the hat is the ultimate sign of respect between professionals of their world. And for Graziani, a London, Ont. native, that kind of acknowledgement also would have served as confirmation that an idea of G+C Architects inspired the skyline of his home city, where several of his family members and friends still reside.

“You get inspiration from many different things,” Graziani said. “If there is something that specifically inspires me as an architect when I’m creating a design, if someone asks me about the design, I state what inspired it.”


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