Accidental Activist

The Middle Finger of Progress

If high-rise towers are building for the future, what kind of future are we building?

By Ben Bull
Published October 20, 2006

I've got my head in the clouds. Ever since joining the ranks of RTH and becoming their Accidental Activist I've been soaking up the architectural insights of Messrs Leach, McGreal and Shaw. As a result, I've been able to take a long, hard, and relatively informed look at the world around me.

For some reason, recently, I've been looking up at Toronto's towers and asking myself, "What place do they have in our urban fabric?" and "Why do I hate them?"

I'm surrounded by towers. Ever since moving to Toronto's Esplanade neighbourhood, on the wrong side of the waterfront condos, just a ten minute walk from the Bay Street skyscrapers, I've been feeling small.

It's not the first time I've thought of towers.

A few issues ago RTH's Jason Leach called for a "major shakeup of our [Hamilton's] skyline."

"Hamilton needs a new signature tower," he wrote.

I wasn't so sure.

A few years before that I attended a presentation by Ontario Nature at the Hamilton Public library. The talk was about how to build density and vibrancy into our neighbourhoods. The speaker recounted the example of an unpopular condo development in Toronto's Yonge and Eglinton district. Apparently this was one of the first towers to go up in the neighbourhood and the councillor who pushed for it subsequently lost his seat at the next election.

"He took the fall for his foresight," explained the presenter.

Talk of infill today and thoughts of five, ten, and 50 storey condos going up down the street typically brings howls of derision from the NIMBY neighbours.

Who can blame them?

Take a look at all the new towers in Toronto's newest urban infills. A short drive west along the Gardiner, from Islington to Broadview, features fistfuls of 'fingers of progress' reaching for the sky, waving to greet you and blocking the view. Some of the newer high-rises in TO - at High Park south, and Lakeshore and Jameson (planned for 2007) look hideously out of place next to their low-rise neighbours.

Condo developers might argue that we need to "build for the future" - just look at all those Towers at Yonge and Eg right now - but, again, I'm not so sure. If this is building for the future, what kind of future are we building?

I'm not the only one with doubts. One of the hot issues in the upcoming Pickering municipal election is the proposal to throw up a 140 unit blob at Bay Ridges Plaza. Back in Toronto a recent waterfront makeover along Queens Quay prompted the waterfront redesign committee to reflect on the "virtual gated community" effect that tall residential buildings create: "Once condo residents go past the front desk," they explained, "they leave the neighbourhood behind."

Another architect, Toronto's David Peterson, commented in a recent Star article that residential towers are an "almost lazy approach to making housing," especially when compared to more imaginative low rise developments.

The idea that all new development should be "in keeping with the area" is not new. In some of the smaller towns in England new structures are subject to all manner of height, type and architectural design specifications - in some cases right down to the slate on the roof. Thus the argument that a 50 story building on a three story street is inappropriate seems pretty reasonable to me.

I have never experienced condo living for any length of time, but a friend of mine recently bought, and then sold, a Queens Quay condo.

"I hated it," he told me. "There was nothing to do, no people, no services - no nothing."

High-rises are a fact of life in Toronto and, as Hamilton starts to face up to its infill obligations, I expect we will see more going up there too. While I've no doubt there is a place - and a case - for high-rises, I just don't know what it is.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 23, 2006 at 12:34:21

Ben, I disliked high-rise buildings until I went to New York last year. I think the problem is not how tall the building is, but how it interacts with the street. NYC towers generally have the following criteria:

  1. They start at the edge of the sidewalk, not set back behind a parking lot, useless greenspace, or clumsy terraced parking garage.

  2. They tend to be richly articulated at street level, so pedestrians find themselves standing next to a detailed, human scaled building.

  3. They open up onto the street, with some kind of public amenities accessible from the sidwalk.

By contrast, the hideous condos going up in Toronto's waterfront violate all three of these principles. At street level, they're an impassible mess for pedestrians, making them a kind of vertical sprawl. The problem is their poor integration into their surroundings, not their height per se.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted October 23, 2006 at 14:31:12

Hey Ryan,

Perhaps this is just a personal point of view type of thing. Chris Hume would agree with you (see his article today "City's fear of tall buildings silly" http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/Content... )

but I don't!

I dislike working in high rises, and the 4 months I spent living in one several years ago was not fun either. In high rises I feel disconnected, I hate the elevators, everything about them is uncivilized.

In terms of density I disagree that they are essential components of an urban neighbourhood. You can achieve suitable density targets with low rise developments and good planning (see Paris and lots of other 'efficient' European towns).

Your point about tower placement etc is well taken, but this doesn't address the isolating impact of residing/working on the 40th floor.

I still fail to see why we need them and I firmly believe they isolate the people who reside or work in them.

Cheers

Ben

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By adrian (registered) | Posted October 23, 2006 at 16:32:50

There's more than one way to build a condo. When I was in Holland a few years ago, I visited my aunt. She lived in a multi-story condo, perhaps 6 or 8 stories high.

The elevator was enclosed, of course, but when the top doors opened I was surprised to find that we were outside. There was no interior hallway in the building. Rather, there was an outdoor "hallway" - more like a good-sized sidewalk - that went around the outside of the building.

It ran just past people's balconies. The balconies themselves had small fences (the size of a white picket fence), but that was it. Going to her place was like walking down a sidewalk past other people's houses, except we were six stories up.

This has the effect of creating a real community, because all of the things that are good about living in a neighbourhood - sitting outside and seeing your neighbours, chatting over the fence, saying hello as you walk by, helping people shovel some snow, commenting on their flowers or the weather - were still there.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 23, 2006 at 21:02:26

Ben,

I used to live on the 16th floor of an apartment building, and I absolutely hated it, so no arguments on that count. However, I know people who live in similar arrangements and love it. I guess my point is that there's room for tall buildings in a city, as long as they are urban in character: porous, street-facing, and densely placed among similar buildings.

The problem is that too many high-rises have ended up like the bastard children of Le Corbusier's tower in a park: grim, surrounded by dead space, and isolated from their surroundings, and hulking over their much lower neighbours.

Now, I don't think a city has to have high-rises. Paris definitely springs to mind, a city whose downtown core is almost uniformly six or seven stories tall; beautifully articulated buildings with mansarded roofs and no setback, opening onto beautiful boulevards with wide, tree-lined sidewalks and copious amenities.

(In fact, Paris does have a few tall buildings, but they're all in the periphery: banal, hulking post-war boxes that mimic the soul-atrophying projects of American cities and herald one's arrival into the grim suburbs of Paris, recently host to a wave of riots of the frustrated and disillusioned.)

As Adrian points out, "There's more than one way to build a condo." The problem with most towers, as you note, is that they're isolating and they break the "eyes on the street" model of social interaction (Jane Jacobs writes about this extensively in the persistently helpful Death and Life of Great American Cities).

I'm still not a big fan of high-rises, but after going to New York I discovered that they can play an important role in creating a vibrant urban core.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 25, 2006 at 00:02:46

Ben,

I just came across this essay co-authored by Jim Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros (both of whom have written for RTH), titled "The End of Tall Buildings":

http://kunstler.com/mags_tall.htm

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