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Old October 13th, 2006, 09:07 PM   #1
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Will Toronto Rise to the Skyscraper Challenge?

Will Toronto rise to the skyscraper challenge?
13 October 2006
The Globe and Mail

Developers like putting them up.

Many young professionals and empty-nesters are prepared to line up around the block to get homes in them.

And though citizens regularly take to the barricades to protest them, and Toronto city planners are inclined to lop off their too-high tops, tall residential buildings are steadfastly here to stay. But is there a common meeting ground for the various combatants in Hogtown's ongoing, fitful skyscraper wars? Is there a tower style that best suits our city, and our idea of the city we want?

To get at these and other pressing questions about high rises, the planning department at City Hall is sponsoring a public discussion next Thursday. The all-day Higher Learning Symposium (as this promising event is called) will be held at the Westin Harbour Castle. It will feature a wide variety of expert and lay opinion, from across Canada and abroad, about the place of skyscrapers in our city, our lives, our imaginations. Scheduled speakers include William Thorsell, chief executive officer of the Royal Ontario Museum; Mark Kingwell, author of an excellent new study of the Empire State Building; Manhattan urban planner Edith Hsu-Chen; Paul Katz, senior partner with the New York-based architectural giant Kohn Pedersen Fox, and others from London, Chicago, Waterloo and Vancouver. There will be workshops, talks and panel discussions. (For further details, visit www.toronto.ca/planning/higherlearning.htm .)

Why this high-powered civic discussion now?

“It boils down to people saying we really should get a handle on tall buildings,” Robert Friedman, city head of urban design, told me. “We have architects, city staff, writers, talking about what we want tall buildings to do. What do you want the skyline to be? We are hoping to get some conversation about the poetic qualities of tall buildings, the way high density brings vibrancy to the street. Are we building vibrant places, or high-rise ghettos? Can you create real communities in the Jane Jacobs sense?”

Among other matters Mr. Friedman expects the speakers to address is the future of the family-oriented condominium. “Reacting to a demand” from families, he said, New York developers are furnishing apartment buildings with such amenities as playrooms, babysitting services and lessons for children. Though this market trend has not taken off in Toronto, it still could — thus becoming one of many demographic and cultural pressures shaping the city's tall building of the 21st century.

The lineup of Thursday's speakers and topics tends to be socially earnest, as it probably should be — up to a point, anyway. But what attention will be paid to beauty? Any survey of recent tall buildings around Toronto would suggest that we're coming up notably short when it comes to skyscraper aesthetics. That's something we need to talk about. Fortunately, few cereal-box slabs have gone up during the current wave of residential tower construction. The point towers being encouraged by city planners look better and work better on the skyline. But how many of these newer Toronto high rises have the artistic power to stir the heart and imagination?

The answer: very few. Other large cities, similarly caught up in a skyscraper building boom, are getting remarkable new tall buildings. Here follow some excerpts from my scrapbook of high rises — a few architectural designs that sing, celebrate new technologies and sound urban ideals and provide models of what's possible here in Toronto.

• The Fordham Spire, Chicago, by Santiago Calatrava. This marvellously graceful tower, designed as a hotel-condominium complex, will spiral upward around a central core to its full 2,000 feet. It's a notable rejection of the Modernist box, a form that held an honourable place in the history of construction, but whose era is now past. Mr. Calatrava's Fordham Spire speaks with full-voiced optimism about the dynamic future of cities.

• 8 Spruce St., New York, by Frank Gehry. A 74-storey masterpiece that harkens back to New York's romantic skyscrapers of the 1920s, including (and especially) the Empire State Building. Mr. Gehry's titanium-sheathed scheme springs up from a broad podium and rises through smoothly waving setbacks to a strong crown. It is nostalgic for past glory, in an entirely good sense, but its expressive architectural vocabulary belongs entirely to our time.

• Maashaven Towers, Rotterdam, by Winka Dubbeldam. These three apartment buildings stand like tall, shining blades, cantilevered over the Maas River in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. They suggest what an urban waterfront should be: boldly engaged with sea, lake or river, energetically bringing the city to the water's edge.
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