It’s finally going to happen: after years of seeing challengers boast of their aspirations only to fall short, in a matter of days or weeks, the CN Tower will be surpassed as the world’s tallest free-standing structure by the Burj Dubai, an office and condo tower in the United Arab Emirates. The 553.3-metre-tall tower has held the distinction for the last 31 years, making this the perfect opportunity for Torontoist to reflect on its history and ambiguous place in the collective imagination of the city. Will Torontonians be struck with a collective identity crisis, or will the occasion pass largely unnoticed by locals, who long ago relegated the spire to afterthought status?
The original idea for building the tower arose out of necessity. The booming growth of steel-framed skyscrapers in late 1960s Toronto interfered with the city’s already poor television and radio signals. CN Railways proposed to erect a massive communications tower as a solution. The design evolved between 1968 and 1972—its function dictating height—and as it became evident that the tower might challenge to become the world’s tallest structure, plans were altered towards this goal. The tower became wrapped up in the burgeoning city’s edifice complex and search for “world class” status. Today, Toronto may be the largest and most bustling Canadian city. But during the renaissance of Canadian nationalism of the late 1960s, the world’s attention was focused instead on Montreal and Expo 67. Toronto needed a grandiose vision to define the city to the outside world and to its own citizens.
In the 1970s, the CN Tower became a symbol of the incredible future and promise of the city as a vibrant commercial centre: the city’s aspirations molded in concrete and steel. The tower provided a collective effort for the entire city to rally behind. The construction site became an attraction in itself—does anyone marvel at construction sites nowadays?—as citizens saw the structure rise little by little each day and month. The main concrete portion of the tower was laid in a continuous pour, requiring 40,523.8 cubic metres of concrete. During this time, workers agreed not to strike for fear of interrupting the massive task, and having to start from scratch. During the final phases of construction, many workers and members of the public signed their names on pieces of the antenna mast lying at the base of the site before they were raised atop the tower by helicopter. Whether the signatures have been faded by the sun or remain there to this day is anybody’s guess, but countless Torontonians literally marked the tower as their own during its construction.
The CN Tower became an icon of the city as a whole through the very anonymity of the design. Where most of Toronto’s landmark architecture is immediately identifiable with its creator—Viljo Revell’s new City Hall, Will Alsop’s OCAD, Daniel Libeskind’s Royal Ontario Museum, or Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto Dominion Centre—few know who designed the CN Tower. It was, in fact, designed by John Andrews, a transposed Australian who had risen to prominence as a finalist in the New City Hall design competition, and as architect of Scarborough College. The CN Tower, typical of Andrews’ work, was concerned more with overcoming specific engineering problems or site conditions than with establishing a distinct architectural style.
It’s no wonder then that the Tower’s beauty lies in its remarkable engineering achievements rather than architectural flourishes. As Christopher Hume has said, Andrews “came up with a masterpiece, a structure that is somehow quintessential, not compromised by design trends or architectural fashion. It is elemental; this, we feel, is what a tower should look like.” Of course, not everyone would agree with Hume’s assessment of its beauty. According to Mark Kearney and Randy Ray’s Whatever Happened To…?: Catching Up With Canadian Icons, even Andrews didn’t consider it his favourite work.
Upon its opening on June 26, 1976, the CN Tower dwarfed all that surrounded it and transformed how Toronto was perceived. Whether from the glass floor at 342 metres, or the Sky Pod’s observation deck at 447 metres, on a clear day, the view could stretch for more than a hundred kilometres. This let Torontonians mark the boundaries of their ever-expanding city from above without ever having to map them with their own footprints. In addition, the tower, originally isolated in the extensive railway yards below Front Street, also catalyzed the redevelopment of the entire area into a tourist mecca with the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, SkyDome, SkyWalk, and Roundhouse Park. Even today, condo towers continue to sprout in its shadow.
The tower succeeded in giving Toronto an international profile and identity. Postcards turned it into the iconic image of the city. In addition to its many movie appearances, the tower even shows up in the SimCity computer games. With commercialization came schmaltzy tourist-trap publicity stunts, like when a 200 kg piano was lugged up the stairs in 1979, or when a stunt man fell 1,170 feet in the highest fall in motion picture history for Highpoint, or for the countless records for the fastest man, woman or pogo-stick rider to reach the top. No tourist’s itinerary, it seems, could be complete without a visit to the top or a stop at the souvenir stand.
For locals, the CN Tower has a contradictory cultural presence. It can be written off for its high prices and cheesy entertainment, yet also remains oddly comforting. In his introduction to Geoffrey James’ Toronto, Mark Kingwell likens the relationship between Torontonians and the tower to that of “forgetful lovers.” We do love the tower in our own way, but in a different way than tourists, and in a much different way than we did in decades past.
At Reading Toronto, Amy Lavender Harris has written of the CN Tower’s place in the city’s literary imagination. Although present in the Toronto-focused literary works of B.W. Powe, M.G. Vassanji, Nalo Hopkinson, and Darren O’Donnell (as well as the music of Final Fantasy and videos of the Barenaked Ladies), the tower is often dismissed. This literary feeling is epitomized in Gwendolyn MacEwen’s description of the tower as a lonely “monument to nothing.”
Locals don’t really think about the tower much. Its claims to “world’s tallest” seem both boastful and insecure, out of step with contemporary visions of the city as a collection of multicultural neighbourhoods. We don’t ascend it, and we often encourage visiting friends and relatives to avoid it. NOW’s Essential Guide to the Best of the City even advises visitors to “save your money—skip the CN Tower.” Yet, even this guide book can’t escape the tower’s influence and features the familiar spire prominently on its front and back covers.
It is a constant presence in our lives—even comforting. Wherever we go in the city, it rests in the background, visible from countless high-rise windows, or suddenly popping into view around a street corner. Even when it isn’t visible, we can often feel it looming above us. The tower may be an afterthought to us, but it is always there. Mark Kingwell describes the tower’s continued presence this way:
It follows that if we can see it, it can see us. The tower, dominant and unmovable on its commanding lakeshore site, is thus forever gathering up the city into its gaze and spreading it out again, redeploying it. The tower holds the city together, its horizon of vision a notional dome of possibility that, more than any geographical or political boundary, marks the edges of this place.
Its role has evolved from one of civic pride to personal achievement: the site of weddings and first jobs, or the personal accomplishment of climbing the thousands of stairs in a charity fundraiser. From a plane window, the CN Tower is a beacon of arrival home. Every so often, it reminds us of its presence with moments of danger—like the chunks of falling ice that closed nearby streets and the Gardiner Expressway in early March 2007—or with moments of awe, like seeing the CN Tower struck by lightning (something that happens forty or fifty times each year). The CN Tower can indeed continue to be re-invented in ways that stimulate the imagination, such as the recent addition of colourful LED illumination in the summer of 2007. For locals, then, the tower continues to act as a potent symbol when we gaze up from below, reminding us of a previous generation’s aspirations for the city.
So, will the CN Tower being eclipsed by the Burj Dubai be a serious blow for the city? Not likely. Toronto is maturing and its civic identity can no longer be simplistically conflated with the tower. As Christopher Hume argues, the CN Tower will always retain a place in our collective imagination much the way the Empire State Building does for New Yorkers. Unlike the Burj Dubai’s bare ambitions, the CN Tower’s meaning for Torontonians surpasses mere height.
Top photo by neuroticjose; middle photo by News46; bottom photo by BigNasty1974; all from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.