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Public Works: Let’s Build Some Pyramids on King Street

Is it time for Toronto to build some new monuments?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Last week, architect Frank Gehry and theatre impresario David Mirvish announced a plan to build three massive 80-plus storey condo towers near King Street West and University Avenue. This is Frank Gehry, so we’re not talking glass econo-boxes: the preliminary models were appropriately offbeat, with each massive tower unique, and the podium beneath resembling a crumpled Metro tossed by a sloppy commuter.

Despite fanciful exteriors, Gehry structures aren’t full of tesseracts and staircases to nowhere. They’re actually pleasingly functional. The proposed Toronto towers would include not only condos, but an art museum, a new OCAD facility, green terracing, and features intended to integrate the buildings into the street and the city.

Nevertheless, the Gehry towers can be considered one of those class of structures intended not just to serve a purpose, but to draw attention, to start conversations, and to be tourist attractions in their own right. They would be, in part, spectacles.

Showpiece buildings, as a concept, have a long history. Consider the iconic Eiffel Tower, the railway bridge tipped skywards that was once considered a monstrous scar on the face of the City of Light. Or, more recently, the giant Ferris wheel that is the London Eye (you’ll recall a similar idea for the Toronto waterfront, hatched in a fit of originality by Councillor Doug Ford).

Or for that matter, the Pyramids of Egypt. There’s no reason the Pharaohs couldn’t have parked their mummies under a simple-yet-elegant headstone.

All of the above have long since returned their investment in hype and tourist cash.

But for the price of a single Gehry building, you could probably throw up half a dozen Lake Shore-style clone condos to further monotonize the Toronto skyline. And what if everyone hates the Gehry complex?

Is betting the farm on attention-grabbing architectural marvels a good idea?

We used to think so.

Toronto’s claim to fame was once the CN Tower. For 30 years, it was The World’s Tallest Free-Standing Structure, until a younger, taller competitor pushed it from the number-one spot. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai achieved full erection in 2010, leaving our Tower little more than a massive phallic anachronism, yin to the open-roofed yang of the Rogers Centre next door, their never-to-be-consummated yearning destined to be pondered by an ever-dwindling number of jaded, Burj-diverted travellers.

Dubai, of course, is the king of architectural bling. That’s its thing. It lacks oil wealth, and until the 21st century, it was principally known for its high-end airport mall, and for governance slightly less misogynistic and repressive than that in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Unsatisfied with being the place where Russian tourists bought their Rolexes on the way home from elsewhere, Dubai went deep on wondrous mega-projects designed to lure travellers out of the departure lounge.

Apart from the Burj Khalifa, there’s the Dynamic Tower, an 80-storey rotating skyscraper; the World Islands, a group of artificial islands roughly shaped like the world; and Dubailand, an ambitious complex of shopping and theme parks the size of a city. There have been a lot more huge projects there, besides. Too many to mention.

Alas, hubris, mismanagement, and the 2008 financial crisis have left Dubai, for all practical purposes, bankrupt. Most of the mega-projects have gone quiet. Not a shovel has been lifted for the Dynamic Tower, and the World Islands are uninhabited, a single show home occupying the global archipelago.

While this cautionary tale is worth noting, Toronto is not Dubai. Any undertakings of such scale will be, like the Gehry proposal, driven by the private sector, and funded with care by cautious silver-haired Canadian bankers. There will be no gravy trains taking us down the track to ruin.

So yes dammit, bring the towers and a dozen more. We Torontonians deserve our own icons, our gigantic steel and glass fetishes, monuments to our collective creativity and daring, and magnets for the awestruck yokels of less-favoured metropoli.

The days of timid deferential Canadianism are long gone. Let’s build the absurd, beautiful, interesting city we want to live in.


  • Anonymous

    I think the condo-clone-towers (clonedo towers?) are the worst thing possible: boring. Sure, some people will love and some will hate, but at least there will be passion about our city’s appearance.

  • justin ┬──┬ ¯_(ツ)

    We need enough condos in Toronto that it feels like living in Kowloon Walled City.

  • chastity fudge

    HOW do you propose getting ALL these people to and from the area? When’s the last time you’ve been on the king streetcar in the middle of the day…or ANY TIME of day?

    • Anne

      I was on the streetcar this morning, as I do 5 days a week. It was congested as usual. Just as it was for people commuting on the roads from Hamilton or Brampton, or by transit from the East end or the North end. It doesn’t mean we should stop progress. Should we stop building the city, because the subway is inferior? Or should the citizens keep lobbying the city for better infrastructure? Maybe the city should be forced to grow with it’s population. Are there really a lot of people who will live in these condos that have to commute by the streetcar to their jobs? Seems to me most of those will be walking distance. King and John is definitely walking distance to the St. Patrick subway, so why would the streetcar be busier?

  • Drew

    Right on. It’s a Gehry building. This is on World class level that we want for Toronto. The Princess of Wales Theatre is not a cultural institution. It had big scale money making musicals such as those by Disney. Not exactly the ‘theatah’. This will have an art gallery of David Mirvish’s modern art that is currently only seen in Europe, and it will free. I also think it’s time to stop hating condos. Would we rather have more urban sprawl? Take a look at cities like Houston if you don’t want to build up. Going the Manhattan way is better. Some people may not like all of this, but 2 years after this new building is built, they would have forgotten all about what used to be there and talk about what’s in it’s place.

    • chastity fudge

      Manhatten has A PROPER SUBWAY SYSTEM.

  • Anonymous

    Spectacle shmectacle. I’m disappointed by the design of this development for two reasons. First would be the ridiculous podium. The second would be the lack of cohesion between the three towers. Why pretend that they aren’t a single complex? Why not give each tower a unique but related design (perhaps setting the tone for future developments in the area – dare I even dream of a definitive Toronto architectural style?) and create a distinct monolithic monument instead of three squabbling demi-monuments?

    • Michael Kolberg

      I think I’m gonna leave the design to Frank Gehry

  • Anonymous

    What happens when the giant pieces of trash fall off?

    • Anonymous

      The wind will blow them to another cluster of buildings. Mobile monument!

    • John Duncan

      I more worry about what will happen when pieces of ice fall off the giant pieces of trash. Gehry’s known for making buildings with crazy angles and decorations based on sketches and sculptures, not for putting any thought into how they will interact with the public realm or into addressing potential maintenance problems.