Christopher Hume: How condo towers are redrawing the Toronto skyline
A skyline is to a city what a face is to a person — every one is the same, but different.
Toronto is no exception. Its skyline tells the story of a city that has many towers but which rarely goes out of its way to impress. Still, it is a city that has reached the point where what you see is more than what you get. Though few of Toronto’s towers are the least bit interesting, they add up to a critical mass of urbanity almost poignant in its longing for something greater.
The exception, of course, is the CN Tower. It ranks among the most elegant of phallic symbols, um, communications towers, anywhere. But unlike those in, say, Barcelona, Seattle, Calgary and cities across China, its proportions are harmonious, its esthetic restrained. Though no longer the world’s tallest free-standing structure, the CN Tower remains a worthy architectural icon of Toronto. Except for city hall, nothing else comes close.
But the CN Tower is a structure, not a skyscraper. And because Toronto missed out on the Golden Age of Skyscrapers, it has no Chrysler Building, Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center, the Art Deco masterpieces that make Manhattan’s skyline the most spectacular of all. Toronto does have its Deco classics, the Canada Permanent Trust Building, Concourse Building and the 1929 Bank of Commerce included, but they are overshadowed by the forest of glass-and-steel towers of recent decades.
Toronto didn’t get serious about its skyline until the 1950s when the Toronto-Dominion Centre began to take shape. It was the project that announced Toronto’s desire to become a global city. Then came First Canadian Place, now reclad, and the evanescent Commerce Court. All continue to play important roles on the skyline. Some have aged better than others, but together they transformed the Financial District, while setting the stage for King and Bay to become an international destination. More recent corporate towers have not lived up to their predecessors’ ambition. With the exceptions of Telus Harbour and Bremner Tower, few 21st-century additions stand out.
The big shift on the skyline came about with the advent of the residential tower, such as the highrise condo. These can be distinguished from their corporate cousins in various ways, some subtle, some obvious. Residential towers tend to be less formal, more playful and occasionally adventurous.
Though the typologies of residential and commercial towers overlap, the biggest difference is the balcony. Balconies, and more recently the floor plate, are what enable architects to express themselves. The masterful Absolute Towers, nicknamed the Marilyn Monroe towers, in Mississauga are an excellent example of the dramatic effects that can be created by playing with floor plates. These two buildings surge and swell, twist and turn, one responding to the other.
Architects have learned how to use balconies as a means to manipulate facades in any way they like. One Bloor East is a study in how balconies can be arranged to produce sculptural effects so distinctive they virtually define a tower. The balconies at Market Wharf condo on Jarvis St. move in and out to evoke a sense of the waves one might see in Lake Ontario down the road.
Even more dramatic are those towers whose unusual, even eccentric, shapes are clearly intended to rise above the clutter of Toronto’s skyline. Think of the L Tower at the corner of Yonge St. and The Esplanade. Not only is this skyscraper clad in blue steel, it bulges and curves before it comes to an abrupt peak that makes it strangely like a 57-storey electric razor.
Then there are the duds, those reminders that even at the highest levels architecture can be hit and miss. Think of Brookfield Place with its twin towers looming ominously over the corner of Yonge and Front Sts. The drab exterior conceals a magnificent arched galleria that ranks among the most photographed indoor spaces in Toronto. But as an object on the skyline it remains resolutely earthbound.
Compared to the Aura, however, Brookfield Place sings. The huge condo tower at Yonge and Gerrard Sts. is as clumsy a building as any in Toronto. The fact it’s one of the tallest only makes things worse. Even at night, when Aura lights up, it still disappoints.
Above all, Toronto’s skyline illustrates the growing desire for city life. The proliferation of residential towers speaks eloquently of urbanism’s new power to draw people back downtown. Where once we only worked in towers we now live in them too.
Christopher Hume is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @HumeChristopher