No outcome of the Industrial Revolution has shaped the look and sense of the city more decisively than the internal combustion engine – though the elevator, because it makes tall buildings possible, has had an impact almost equally deep and enduring.
In an interesting new book about the history and cultural significance of lifts, German journalist Andreas Bernard shows how elevators radically changed the interiors of multiunit residential structures from multifarious and haphazardly laid out to rational, ordered, impersonal.
The emergence of this novel kind of space, in turn, generated the abstract, skeleton-conscious exterior style that dominated worldwide skyscraper design from 1945 until the very recent past.
Though some local tall-building architects have risen up to challenge it, this machine-age aesthetic is surely well-rooted and vigorous in Toronto. Peter Clewes and his colleagues at architectsAlliance (aA), for example, have been expressing the classic modernist manner in one critically acclaimed high-rise after another since the onset of Hogtown’s current condo boom. The Toronto buildings by Mr. Clewes have typically been elegant, confident, sharply focused interventions in the urban landscape.
For the past 15 years, Heather Rolleston has been learning the art and business of skyscraper design at aA, where she is an associate. But the 33-storey residential block called Alter – it’s for the mammoth Tridel Group, and is slated to go up on a corner of Church Street just south of Maple Leaf Gardens – marks her debut as an original interpreter of the modernism aA has long been known for. It’s surely worth noting that this job is also Ms. Rolleston’s first step out into the world as a member of the tiny international sorority of women who design tall buildings.
Ms. Rolleston prefers (she told me) to take an “inherently simple and logical” approach to the urban tower, and she dislikes architecture that goes in for “collage.” The exterior appearance should reveal the “highly repetitive floorplates” characteristic of the tall building constructed around an elevator shaft.
Indeed, the edges of Alter’s floorplates are aligned vertically. The tower is a slender box standing atop a robust podium – a format much liked by the city’s official planners. Its individual units do not thrust out or pull back, as has been happening in other new residential projects around Toronto. There are no curves, twists or other surprises, and, in order to avoid turning a backside toward the city in any direction, the structure’s four faces are identical.
But if it breaks no new ground in terms of its overall shape, Alter is hardly devoid of artistic character or complexity. Describing the composition of the façades isn’t easy, but here goes:
Ms. Rolleston has envisioned each face as a stack of asymmetrical modules, each three storeys thick. Every module is framed by an open-jawed clamp clad with shining, opaque white glass. Between the teeth of this clamp, the window-walls of the suites gradually withdraw from one corner, angling inward until the clear glass is about 1.8 metres six feet from the edge of the floorplate.
As the building rises, the open end of one clamp alternates with the closed end of the module below it, creating a broadly dramatic zig-zag rhythm of prominent white and retiring dark passages.
I’ve probably made this sound more complicated than it is, and even a little forbidding, with all that talk of clamps and teeth. But a glance at the renderings shows that Ms. Rolleston’s art is as clear and rational as a well-made modernist high-rise should be.
If I have a problem with this building, it has to do with size. To my eye, the structure’s strongly animated surfaces want to surge higher than 33 storeys, up to a summit half again as tall. But in fairness to all parties concerned, Ms. Rolleston and Tridel got as much height from the city as they could, though, the architect said, it was less than what they were asking for. Neighbours, concerned about the shadows to be cast by Alter, opposed the scheme, and only a negotiated settlement between developer and community saved the project from being nixed altogether.
Which raises an old question that Toronto has yet to face squarely. Given an official plan that designates Church Street and other inner-city avenues appropriate for high-density residential development, how free of shadow can people who want to live deep downtown reasonably expect to be?
The case of Alter is settled, but the more general feud over shadows will certainly break out again and again in other contexts until the citizens decide, once and for all, what we think about this city’s ongoing intensification.
Follow John Bentley Mays on Twitter: