Canada is not a nation known for its skyscrapers, despite our wealth of homegrown talent in Arthur Erickson, Douglas Cardinal, Ron Thom, Raymond Moriyama and a dozen others. While most of us live in cities, few of those cities can boast tall buildings of any distinction. Vancouver's glass-tower confections are often gorgeous, but not one dares to stand up to the Coastal Range backing the city. Montreal and Toronto can rival Chicago and New York for culture, perhaps, but not for urban architecture. Our best buildings, for good reasons, tend to negotiate their relationship with the natural environment rather than defy it, the way the 20th century's greatest buildings did. Tall does not come naturally to us.
This may be changing. Interest in the new Absolute condominium tower in Mississauga -- the so-called "Marilyn Monroe" building, with its curvy soaring pillar of some 50 irregular storeys -- has prompted a new round of fashionable talk about an architectural renaissance in this country. Is tall back? Is it commercially viable? A more important, and more difficult, question lurks in back: Is tall still beautiful?
Even in boomtown Toronto, the main focus of Canada's current architectural buzz, the projects that have garnered the most attention in the past few years have been, however innovative in design, almost without exception low-to-the-ground renovations of old cultural institutions: Daniel Libeskind at the Royal Ontario Museum, Frank O. Gehry at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Or they have been uninspired constructions of new cultural institutions: the long-delayed Opera Hall on University Avenue. The exceptions are mostly academic, in the factual sense: the University of Toronto's Graduate House and Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building, and the Sharp Centre for Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design. The Pharmacy Building, designed by London's Norman Foster, is a tower of a kind, robust and slickly mechanical, and Will Alsop's slab-on-stilts at OCAD is a kind of horizontal anti-tower; but none of these projects is much concerned with height as such.
The same cannot be said for the small forest of condo buildings that is quickly, and quietly, plotting itself along the city's lakeshore or colonizing the forgotten near-suburbs north of Highway 401. Meanwhile, the public debate about tall buildings is, like so much of citizen activism, skewed and selective. For every protest of a midtown condo tower at the ROM site or on the Annex's Bedford Street, with the usual worries about shadows and elite residents, a dozen more rise unobjected into the sky, sometimes in apparently deliberate mockery of all aesthetic sense, festooned with neo-classical doodads and bearing embarrassing names such as "Newport Beach" and "Players Club." In other cities -- I think especially of Calgary -- the suburbs sprawl away in ever-larger spans, never tall but eating up the countryside and the city in a car-based metastasis.
I hold no brief for the Absolute building, whose design by China's Yansong Ma seems rather derivative and gimmicky, a sort of computer-generated Calatrava Lite for the Port Credit set. But I love tall buildings, with their stout challenges to gravity and scale. A bold new tower challenges the citizens of the country's cities to face a long-standing issue. When, and how, can we get the tall skylines we deserve?
The common sentiment in the immediate wake of the September, 2001, terrorist attacks was "everything has changed." Notwithstanding the falsity of that claim in the realm of politics -- more than four years on, it seems that everything is the same, only more so -- one small consequence was a shift in architectural self-confidence.