On Contrast

As a resident of Toronto, I have come to expect that the skyline will be in a constant state of transformation; that the new towers we build might soften the existing collection of grey and joyless ones. The vertical construction of office space or lifestyle is omnipresent. But our latest building legacy is one largely devoid of feeling, foresight, or inspiration. At high cost to the possibilities, a formula is easily and enthusiastically repeated.

It was thus with a strange sense of pride that I approached the Torre Mayor in Mexico City. At 225 metres, the tallest tower in Latin America is Canadian-conceived, designed by Toronto’s Zeidler Partnership Architects for developers Reichmann International.

I had just witnessed a mass congregation of families and individuals in shady Chapultepec Park that Sunday afternoon, and the solitary presence of the tower in its weekend slumber was arresting. At the northeastern mouth of the park, and across the city’s largest avenue–the Paseo de la Reforma, the Torre Mayor stands at a most prominent address, like a gatekeeper of the areas along the park’s edges. There is nothing here this tall or transparent. Large American companies and other multinationals constitute the majority of the building’s tenants, and their values are thus expressed. As an icon, the Torre Mayor exudes their confidence, and invites Mexico to join in the splendours of the global market economy. Adding to its otherworldly quality, the Torre Mayor is one of the very few 100% foreign-owned real estate ventures in Mexico.1

Yet in this vibrant city, full of emotion and struggle, the sight of this tower is numbing.

Such a construction might go relatively unnoticed in Toronto’s financial district, but here inequality runs deeper, and contrasts are more revealing. By replacing a historic cinema house, the Cine Chapultepec, the tower declares its intentions from the start–to offer what is new, and what is detached from its surroundings. Under the strong Mexican sun, its great shield of glass stands in opposition to the elements. With sweeping verticality it defies gravity and the shifting tectonic plates of the earth.

On the street, the city is animated by a buzz of activity around the many thousands of self-sustained street vendors and shop owners; a seemingly endless horizontal network that carpets much of its surface. But if Mexico City is enriched by this negation of franchised business, then it is impoverished by the exclusivity of the vertical market, by the belief that the higher you go up, the more will trickle down.

Where there could have been some kind of cultural exchange, we have only widened the gulf, and imposed a culture that may not even be our own.

Taymoore Balbaa is a graduate of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture and the 2005 recipient of the Prix de Rome in Architecture for Emerging Practitioners.

1 Towering Ambitions in Mexico City by Larry Luxner (Latin CEO March/April 2002).