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.
Many prominent architects proclaimed the era of the skyscraper -- the 20th century's most distinctive form -- over. Some vowed never to build tall again. Frank Gehry, whose titanium-sheathed signature forms are sometimes thought to resemble melted skyscrapers, distanced himself from a Guggenheim Museum project in Lower Manhattan because its implicit critique of tallness was too close for comfort. Rem Koolhaas, always a self-styled renegade within the architecture world, had already designed a building for the CCTV headquarters in Beijing that looked like a tall building broken at random joints and tied into a knot, like a massive Moebius strip. Tall, it seemed, was over, and more than one observer considered that theory had violently met history when those brutally hijacked airplanes plowed into North America's most vulnerable symbolic pillars of commerce.
The obvious irony is that tall buildings are alive and thriving elsewhere in the world, especially in booming Asia, which has witnessed a race for the sky that puts in the shade those early-century contests, complete with media hype and technotopian glee that created the distinctive icons of the Manhattan skyline. The Chrysler and Manhattan Company buildings, designed by former colleagues turned rivals, riveted the attention of New York and America in the 1920s. The Empire State Building, a Depression-era white elephant erected on crazy confidence and tempered steel, stole the tallness crown a few years later, opening its modest Fifth Avenue doors exactly 75 years ago
Nowadays, the hype is diffused, the style is science-fictional rather than Deco, and the sites are distant hyperurban landscapes that merge medieval poverty with futuristic neon. But tall is still all in some places: Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower, an arrowed pagoda; the twinned corncobs of the Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur; the straining needle that is Taipei 101 in Taiwan. These unabashedly tall buildings still seek to scrape the sky, urging themselves and their occupants ever higher, straining after the transcendental empyrean, or just the strange temporary victory of superlative height. World's tallest building -- for a moment.
In Toronto, with so much current talk of cultural boom and architectural renaissance, tallness has become a debating point, an always controversial and sometimes political issue. High-rise buildings are physical love affairs with materials, making technology a formal, and hence cultural, statement. They take us into the sky, but only at the cost of understanding the earth and its materials: the concrete, glass, and steel that are celebrated with every soaring floor. Every skyscraper is an essay in optimism, even, sometimes, in utopian desire.
At the foot of the Empire State, workers installed medallions to celebrate the four features of the building they considered central: concrete, machines, elevators, decoration.
At the same time, high rises offer escape from the friction, and responsibilities, of daily life. Their inhabitants, sitting aloft as the result of the labour of others who do not rise with them, may think to outstrip the peons below, on which their shadows fall: the skyscraper as ultimate, because physical, positional good. (Even if the shadows are, in the event, far less occluding than those thrown by shorter buildings of bigger mass.)
In Toronto, this irony is highlighted, or maybe overseen, daily by a structure whose presence has, over time, acquired the peculiar invisibility characteristic of iconic monuments. Like it or not -- and for many, not -- the CN Tower is to Toronto what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Empire State is to New York. Still gamely holding its title as world's tallest freestanding structure (taller structures are under way in both Kuwait and Dubai), the CN Tower is, as it were, already overlooked by the citizens of the city. It looms but is not
seen, its summit a notional point of total surveillance that gathers the entire Greater Toronto Area
into a grid, then redeploys it out and away. We do not see the
Tower, but it sees us.
The CN Tower is a structure rather than a building because its main bulk does not house offices or residences. That is just as well, perhaps, since experience indicates that tall buildings are hard to justify in space-for-profit terms. This is true of the Empire State Building and it is true of the half-filled sci-fi towers of Asia. What has over the years often been called the "Empty State Building" currently suffers a vacancy rate of more than 18 per cent, and even with rents running at just $35 (U.S.) a square foot -- well below the $48 midtown average -- the owners cannot fill it.
It remains to be seen how well-stocked the Toronto condo towers will become over time: With semi-detached downtown brick houses going for more than $1.4-million, and exurban McMansions not to everyone's (bad) taste, perhaps a $750,000 one-bedroom closet in the sky starts to look like a reasonable option. Nevertheless, the main point about tall buildings is no longer, if it ever was, their creation of sky-borne real estate. The real appeal of tall buildings is a sense of possibility, that simple but wondrous fact that they are there, that they are tall.
It must be an uplifting tallness, however. In Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis, the young protagonist, a boom-time investment specialist who is taking a cross-town limo journey to get a haircut, considers the conflicted nature of tall buildings. The old skyscrapers, he reflects, were "arrows of desire," whereas new tall buildings like his own condo home -- possibly modelled on the West Side Trump Tower -- have only banal statements to make. Size, they say: size, size, and more size. Tall can be ugly, brutal, clotted: bigness for its own sake.
When, by contrast, is tall beautiful? When it enlarges the sphere of human aspiration, and lifts the heart as well as the eye.
When it benefits every citizen of a place, even (or especially) the ones who do not work or live in it. The Empire State Building did that 75 years ago, and still does, every day, for native New Yorkers and visitors alike. Can we find the will, the confidence, and the aesthetic gifts to create a new breed of 21st century skyscrapers worthy of the heart of ambitious Toronto?
I hope so. Let's forget our small worries and objections -- our tall-poppy misgivings -- and, in the great tradition of human wonder, draw back the bow of desire.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His book about the Empire State Building, Nearest Thing to Heaven, will be published this week.