Public Works: Let's Build Some Pyramids on King Street
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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.