Ladies and gentlemen, your humble critic is a little verklempt. Quite touched, were we, by the outpouring of support for our endeavour, and the flood of new Facebook friends we’ve open-armedly received since our maiden voyage on Torontoist last week. We have, it seems, touched a nerve; we’re grateful to Torontoist for helping us, er, touch it.
But on with the show. All the wishes Bad Buildings received were not sunshine and roses. Oh, no. And that, frankly, is as it should be. Building is not just a physical act, but a political one as well, freighted with layers a’plenty—class, usually, pre-eminent among them.
Bad Buildings does not shy away from this talk, as motivation and use are as much a part of architecture as design. One of our commentors suggested the city—and every city—should do away with the official plan. The official plan, apparently, is why we have housing projects and slums. Okay. That’s wrong. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Today, we’re going to look more at one of our most common built forms which, sadly and paradoxically, is probably the one in all urbanity that is rarely done right. We’re talking about the tower, that high-density albatross that seems to sprout up behind out backs every time we turn around.
Photo by hyfen.
This is good: For this city—or any other—anticipating explosive population growth, building up, not out, is key to sustainability, in the most pragmatic sense; it’s also crucial to an iteration of urbanity that most of us embrace in our best hearts: A city brimming with pedestrians and street life, a city on intimate terms with itself.
So, towers: We need em. And baby, we’re gettin’ ’em, from the dulcet shores of Lake Ontario up to the yuppie-in-waiting playground of Yonge and Eg, and beyond. To repeat: Towers are a good thing. But these towers? Not so much. There are a few simple reasons why. Here’s a primer.
Towers are hard. They are, in essence, stacking shelves—identical floorplates, typically with identical function, piled high on top one another. Architecturally, that’s a toughie. Doesn’t leave a whole lot of space, really, for actual design.
Or so most architects think. They try goofy balconies, tacked on to the exterior, or they mix it up a little partway up, so a single building looks like two, piled on top of each other. (Montage, Cityplace, at left, we’re looking at you). They add irrelevant forms, dangling off their towers like Christmas trees (hi there, Pinnacle Centre). They take a crack at different shapes, like the cartoonish ellipse down at Panorama, or pointy spires on top, like at the forthcoming Trump Tower, Toronto edition. In the end, though, it’s still a stack—just a stack junked up with all sorts of silliness meant to distract from the fact of that very matter.
It all puts Bad Buildings in the mind of Robert Venturi’s still wonderfully relevant book, Learning from Las Vegas (speaking of junked up towers—hoo boy). Among Venturi’s arguments—the context of which being that “vernacular” architecture (ie. tacky cheesy) was to be celebrated—was the difference between Modernism and Post-modernism, rendered thusly: A building is either a duck, or a decorated shed. Modernism was the duck—a shop selling duck decoys, shaped like a duck: simple, clear, to the point. The decorated shed pretty much sums up Post-modern architecture: Build it however you want, and gussy it up with whatever this month’s flavour might be.
That’s Toronto. Which is sad and strange, really, given our most famous duck, and the lesson it teaches. We’re talking about the TD Centre, Mies’s last crack. It’s probably not a coincidence that the age of the Moderns coincided with the (first) age of the skyscraper. Back to Venturi: when you’re stuck with a stack, you need to go duck. More specifically, necessarily utilitarian, generic forms shouldn’t be tarted up so we can pretend they’re something they’re not.
Basics, people: Proportion. Material. Form. You know, the stuff of good architecture. Look at the TD Centre. Cool. Elegant. Austere. It takes the inside, and turns it out. You can see the building, in its entirety, and not by coincidence, feel it, too. As a cluster, the four buildings of the TD Centre are a symphony of perfect proportion and spatial relations: Not too tall, not too squat, standing with casual elegance together in a gang of spare refinement.
There was a lovely, albeit brief period in this city when the TD Centre needed some cool buddies to hang out with, and the other banks complied. Commerce Court, by I.M. Pei? Hi, pal! First Canadian Place? Hey, buddy—nice cladding, but you gotta tighten it up a tad. Scotia Centre? Well, okay, dude, you can hang too, but what’s up with that crazy cut out and weirdo colour?
Bad Buildings can only wonder what the senior towers in town think as they glance across the skyline at the forest of green glass swoops hanging loose by the water like a bunch of delinquent teenagers, tarted up in cheap clothes, trying to out pimp one another with flash.
It’s no coincidence, maybe, that these affronts are developer projects. Remember the basics? Proportion: Developers don’t care much for this. They care for max height and max profit. Material: Most of their towers are glass. Glass is, relatively speaking, cheap. Max profit. Form: See “decorated shed.” Whatever baubles sell, baby.
Truth to tell, they don’t all stink. Bad Buildings digs Lumiere (but not the name—good God—or the irritating website), at right. With its recessed balconies and extruded concrete structural spine, it’s a tight little exercise in perfect proportion and respect for form. Alas, it’s an anomaly. And that, friends, does stink.
Bad Buildings hopes we’ve helped you see right from wrong. More of us need to. Towers are the future, and more power to ’em. But if we don’t demand more than what we’ve been getting, we’re in trouble. When the decorations tumble from the sheds and shatter on our streets, we all lose, don’t we?